Illustration by Benjamin Marra
Being relegated eight places on Forbes' World's Most Powerful People list has to sting your pride, not least when you’re Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s most wanted man and head of the bloodthirsty and lucrative Sinaloa Cartel. Although, I guess a crushing ego-knock like that might also be a good motivation to expand your business. Following the strain of ex-President Felipe Calderon’s war on the narcos in Mexico, El Chapo now has his sights set on Europe and, in particular, Spain.
“They’re getting settled, building relationships at the lowest level, negotiating prices, getting the infrastructure in place. They’ve done some test runs and now they’re sending small shipments by plane and in shipping containers,” a source close to Spain’s drug squad (UDYCO) tells me over coffee. Last August, El Chapo’s cousin was arrested in Madrid’s Palace hotel, along with three other high ranking cartel members. “They come in on separate flights, usually to Madrid, where they can blend in as businessmen or executives. And really that’s what they are.”
Two weeks prior to the arrest, 373 kilos of cocaine were intercepted at the port of Algeciras in the south of Spain. The Mexicans had flown in to oversee its distribution and, according to the police, this is the first time the Sinaloa cartel have been openly active in the country. Up until recently the importing and distribution of cocaine in Spain has been run exclusively by Colombian cartels.
In collaboration with the Galician drug barons in northwestern Spain, the Colombian Cali and Medellin cartels first opened routes into the country in the 1980s. However, in recent years those routes (across the Atlantic to Galicia and then to Madrid for distribution) have been neglected in favour of new passages through the Mediterranean Sea, usually depositing shipments in Valencia or Barcelona.
In 2010, Spanish police impounded a shipping container in Barcelona concealing 3.4 tonnes of cocaine, along with 5.5 million euros in cash. Although the shipment was attributed to the Colombians, the involvement of Hector Murillo – AKA "El Juli", a Colombian with Mexican nationality linked to Sinaloa – grabbed the suspicion of the police.
While it might seem antithetical to El Chapo’s modus operandi in the rest of the world, Alfredo Perdiguero – an inspector involved with the Spanish national police force's ongoing investigation into cartel activity – explains that, for the time being at least, the Mexicans and Colombians are working together. “For the Colombians, it means more money – they already have a working infrastructure and there’s enough business for everyone.” He also points to another reason why the Sinaloa Cartel are keen not to ruffle feathers unduly. “The economic crisis, with thousands of legitimate businesses facing bankruptcy, creates the perfect environment for money laundering,“ says Perdiguero.
A private detective working in Barcelona agrees. “Making money is the easy part,” he tells me. “Getting it out of the country is more difficult.” As well as using the Latin American community to send out small amounts regularly through Moneygram, the narcos use Spanish companies as fronts for their drug money. And thanks to the inefficacy of Spanish law in prosecuting businesses suspected of money laundering, Spain is currently an El Dorado for international criminals.
Confiscated cartel weapons.
The recent operation "Avispa" carried out by Spanish police against the Russian mafia is a case in point: “Despite our best efforts, in the majority of cases we couldn’t trace the money back to the bosses. It’s a detail that probably didn’t escape the Mexicans' attention,” concedes Perdiguero.
More evidence of cartel collaboration was discovered in February, when a raid of a Colombian-run hit-man "office" in Madrid turned up the existence of a shipment of arms destined for one of the Sinaloa’s men in Valencia. “The Mexicans had lost a shipment of cocaine, apparently to security guards at the port who knew when the container was due to arrive," according to Perdiguero. "The weapons were meant to even the score. And these were war weapons; rocket launchers, AK-47s – we’re not talking about handguns here.”
However, the peace between the Colombians and the Mexicans doesn’t look like it will last. “As soon as one group starts making more than the other, that’s when the problems will start,” a source close to UDYCO explains.
The Algeciras bust is significant both for being the first time the Sinaloa have brought in a shipment by themselves, and for the choice of location. By sidestepping the Colombian routes, the Mexicans appear to be setting up on their own, bringing their cocaine directly into Spain from their base in the West African country of Guinea Bissau, sometimes referred to as the world's first narco-state.
With this in mind, Perdiguero is not optimistic about the future, particularly concerning the type of violence that would accompany a full-scale drug war on Spanish soil. “These people don’t threaten, they kill,” he says. “And their intentions are crystal clear.”
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