Marbella isn't the place it used to be. The criminal caliphate of the 1980s has receded in public memory, overshadowed by a kind of carnal Hunger Games where primped teenagers buzzed on jello shots wrestle one another for pole position in the mamading line.
But the Costa del Crime was once the inspiration for Sexy Beast—a place where drug kingpins shimmering with tan oil gleamed like ingots by the pool, living a life of money and blow. The community was effectively created by the absence of an extradition treaty between the UK and Spain between 1978 to 1985, which made fugitives tougher to bring to justice. Today, however, 76 of the UK's 86 most wanted in Spain have been caught, according to the National Crime Agency.
Jason Coghlan, 45, is one legendary ex-con who's been in Marbella since the 1990s. Originally from Brinnington in Stockport, he became a career criminal when he was thrown out of the Marines at 20 after skipping bail on a pub assault. Since 2012, however, he's run JaCogLaw, a firm that offers legal assistance to non-nationals at the mercy of Spain's justice system.
Coghlan—the star of the new VICE documentary, Walking Heavy: Britain's Most Notorious Reformed Criminal—has found a niche as a legal fixer for the Brits abroad who have no clue how to navigate Spain's legal system, and with a criminal pedigree that includes eight prison stays for crimes ranging from assault to armed robbery, he's a trusted advisor to many. We spoke to Coghlan about Marbella and his business.
VICE: Obviously JaCogLaw is doing very well at the moment. Is it as profitable as a life of crime, would you say?
Jason Coghlan: It's infinitely more profitable, insofar as I can never be arrested for this. And in not having to look over my shoulder, and insofar as the joy that I feel—and I do feel joy. In the film, when I saw Bradley—young Brad—running up to meet his missus and his little baby boy [after Jason had helped him get acquitted], a tear sprung to my eye. And I'm not ashamed of that, because I looked at it and I thought, I did that… I did that.
I've done very well, and I continue to go from strength to strength. The thing is, I love a bit of cocaine, I love loose women, and, you can quote me on this, I have loved all those things. I've enjoyed my life. I've been a member of every single casino.
Is Marbella the place to enjoy those things?
Of course it is. If you wanna live the life of Larry like that, you've come to the right place.
Why Marbella, though? How did it become a notorious hotspot for criminals and ex-cons?
Well, there was a small period in the 80s or the 90s—perhaps the 80s—where there was no extradition with the UK. But the fact is you had [1983 Shoreditch Security Express robber] Ronnie Knight here. You had all the ex-armed robbers here from the 80s, and then it became synonymous with gangsters and villainy. The sun shining, the birds on the beach with their tits out—it was fuckin' fantastic. Where else are you gonna be? And that's only ever blossomed—it's grown massively. This place is synonymous with British gangsters—and Russian gangsters as well now.
When did you get there? And what else is it about the place that made it so attractive to Britain's criminal elite?
I was first in there in the 1990s, when I started making substantial amounts of money, and my elders and betters were telling me that it's safer and more enjoyable to go and spend money on the Costa del Sol. Don't forget I'd never been on a foreign holiday as a child—I'd never been any farther than Scotland, even up to being twenty years old. The first time I ever went abroad I was twenty-three years old.
I'd just finished my first prison sentence, and I wasn't a fuckin' long away from having a second one, but I went and had a beautiful week in Fuengirola—wasn't even Marbella. All I could dream when I was next in, serving two and a half years for battering that kid's brother, all I could think about was, Fuck me, I cannot fucking wait. Soon as I get out this fucking gate, I am off.
Since then, the police have cracked down on fugitives in Spain. European arrest warrants introduced in 2004 have expedited the process even further. Are Marbella's glory days as a criminal getaway behind it?
It's not the place to be on the run. Do not come here on the run. I've said this many times in the national press: Do not come here on the run. But if you're a person who wants to enjoy the good life, and maybe associate with ex-criminal compatriots… why not come to Marbella! This is the number one spot in the world.
Do you think that's going to change any time soon? Or will Marbella remain the place where the UK and Ireland's gangsters retire?
Oh, they don't even necessarily retire, but you've got to remember that there's an opportunity for people here, if they're on the run. The reason a lot of people here are on the run is because drugs are trafficked up from Africa through Portugal.
If you're on the run, you can't go and get a nine to five job, even if you wanted one. If you're gonna be connected as a criminal, which you'll usually be if you've got to a stage where you're on the run, you have then got criminal links. Those criminal links, through one direction or another, will be operating here: trafficking narcotics up through Spain or Portugal, into France and then into Europe.
That is the opportunity that exists here, so people are always gonna be here. Because Africa is the weak link; Africa's where drugs are coming to from all over the world, including South America. They come up through Africa, and then you've got Morocco, which cultivates hashish—that's where all the weed's gonna be. It's no good sat in Africa; it's got to get up into Europe where people are gonna spend the money on it, and that's not gonna change any time soon.
So JaCogLaw is gonna be here to ensure that people accused of offenses—apart from sex offenses; we don't touch that… apart from sex offenses. We will defend anyone accused of an offense, in whatever countries we operate in.
What does a typical JaCogLaw client look like?
A typical JaCogLaw client is two types. There's the holidaymaker, who's gonna be up for something like an assault in a bar, or drunk driving, or showing his ass on the beach, or any [of the] other colorful activities that people get up to on the Costa del Sol. Then there's gonna be the kind of case that I get involved in, as what I prefer to call a "case manager"—people who are trying to traffic narcotics up the coast, from Africa up into Europe. The route for that is through Spain and Portugal. We operate very strongly in those areas. I would almost invariably be involved, at least at the outset of that case, no matter where I am in the world. If I'm in Thailand, if I'm in the UK, if a decent size case comes up or people are prepared to pay the premium for Jason Coghlan, to have the benefit of my knowledge and expertise involved, well then I'm there for that person, and I'll manage that case personally.
I've heard you have a very strong record. How many cases have you won?
I don't advise a client to defend a case unless it's winnable. I make sure it's winnable, and I'll dip my toe in the water, or one of my top lawyers will dip his toe in the water with the prosecutor and ask them: "In these circumstances are you prepared to drop the higher charge or drop the case altogether?"
So basically I've done the deal—I don't go into it blind; I go into it knowing what the outcome's gonna be. That's why we've got one hundred and twenty-six cases that are waiting to go to Strasbourg, and one hundred and eighty-three cases that we've defended that we've won. That's one hundred and eighty-three to nil.
You're setting up in Pakistan. You said that Marbella is not the place for people on the run—is Pakistan the place now?
No, it's just the demographic. I've always had strong connections with the Asian community, full stop. And my Pakistani brothers—my British-Pakistani brothers—who I'm very close to back in the UK have been asking me for the past twelve months if there was gonna be an opportunity for them to invest in JaCogLaw Pakistan, and we're at that stage now. It's the right time, and we're going to go there.
Critics will say that your firm is just helping the bad guys evade justice. What do you say to that?
I resent that implication completely. I say to those types of individuals that every single man and woman is entitled an inalienable right to justice through a fair trial. If you take away a man's right to access to justice—a man's right to a fair trial—then it's a police state, and we all know where that takes us. We don't live in police states; we live in strongly developed countries: Spain, the UK—we're protected under the European convention.
But even in places like Thailand and Pakistan—OK, these places aren't as developed, but they're trying to develop. I'm there to try and help that development. I'm not here to help people evade justice; that's not what it's about. But I am here to guarantee that if JaCogLaw is instructed, we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that man has a right to a fair trial and gets the best representation they can afford.
In the film you say you've only got one ball after a kicking from a prison guard. Is that true?
No, that's not true. In fact, why don't you clarify that—I was drunk that night. It was meant as a quip. A prison officer got his two front teeth knocked out, and seven screws were holding me down, one on each arm, someone choking me with his boot on my throat, two others pulling my legs apart while one other kicked me full blast in the balls. It was a very unpleasant experience. But it's the nature of the beast—a segregation unit in a maximum security prison—if you chin a screw and knock his teeth out.
In some of the most moving scenes in the film, you also talk about your tough upbringing and the beating you used to get from your mom. Reflecting on that now, how do you think it shaped your future?
To put that in context, how many other kids used to get battered if they were misbehaving? We were very misbehaved young men. It was the 1970s. It ain't the same as it is now. There wasn't the same level of education as there is now. And it's bullshit to say that people don't get a beating now. In more deprived areas, you'll find that the perceived correct way to chastise the kid is to give them a beating. Different levels of beating, fair enough. We got a fucking good hiding [beating] when we stepped out of line. My mom's a big horse of a woman. A big, strong woman who can fight. I've seen my mom beat up several people, including a man, when we were growing up, and I was always proud of her. And rightly so. It instilled in me a value of knowing and learning how to fight. My mom, to me, is my hero to this day.
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