Police in Spain have arrested 107 people and raided 51 indoor cannabis farms during a crackdown on an “industrial-scale” drug operation run by an Albanian gang.
Europol has revealed it collaborated with detectives from Spain, Albania and Germany on the series of busts in July across 42 locations in four cities on Spain’s east coast – Tarragona, Barcelona, Girona and Castellón.
The “mainly Albanian-speaking” organised crime network, which included Albanian, Spanish, Greek and Slovak nationals, is suspected of cultivating and processing the weed in Spain before distributing it in lorries, concealed in legal cargo such as pistachios, vegetables and fruit, to countries around Europe.
The raids are part of a long running battle between police and pan-European cannabis production networks also involved in money laundering and trafficking in Spain. Between August 2019 and October 2020, the Spanish police’s Operation Verde uncovered almost half a million cannabis plants in 800 grow operations alongside £6.5 million (7.6 million euros) in cash.
Spain’s Catalonia region has been named “Europe’s marijuana nursery” by local drug cops, where it is estimated 70 percent of organised crime groups have their fingers in the ganja trade pie. Officials fear drug money is so endemic on the east coast it could turn the region into a narco-economy.
The trade has sparked a rise in the arrests of Albanian criminals in Spain and related gang violence. In December an Albanian suspected of being involved in drug trafficking was shot dead in a restaurant near Alicante on Spain’s south eastern Costa Blanca coast.
It appears that Albanian gangs, aided by corrupt officials from their home country, have successfully muscled in on Spain’s illegal weed industry, shifting cultivation of weed from Albania to Spain to enable easier access into lucrative markets such as the UK, Germany and France. As well as being key players in Europe’s cocaine industry, Albanian gangs have also become heavily embedded in the UK’s illegal cannabis cultivation scene.
Police estimate that the gang used around £1.4 million (1.6 million euros) in stolen electricity to run the farms, which were located in properties rented out by “cleanskin” Spanish citizens with no criminal records. A total of £60,000 (70,000 euros) in cash and two-high end vehicles were also taken by authorities. A Europol spokesperson confirmed to VICE World News that the raids caught the clan’s ring leaders and that there were no victims of human trafficking among those arrested.
The takeover of Catalonia’s weed industry by crime gangs looks to have ended any chance of the region’s network of legal cannabis clubs being allowed to continue. In July a Catalan regional court ruled that Barcelona’s 225 cannabis clubs, which have licenses to legally grow, distribute and sell weed, could be forced to close.