ARTAJONA, Spain – Despite being accused of being Europe’s biggest weed baron, Juan Luís Yabar Jimeno seems very down-to-earth.
Within minutes of meeting him, VICE World News was invited on a tour of what Spanish police claim is a vast weed plantation.
He drives at breakneck speed down empty country roads, pointing out the 11 fields on his farm that once contained over 400,000 hemp plants that police valued at $108 million (£86.35m).
Cops said the 50 tonnes of hemp – a type of cannabis plant with a low psychoactive potency often used to make textiles – represented the biggest weed farm in Europe, and they destroyed it. Police claimed the farm was on a massive scale and was illegal just like illicit cannabis farms, which Mr Yabar refutes.
Police have accused him of planning to ship his crop abroad. He was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking, offences against public health and belonging to a criminal organisation, which he denies.
The country is in the grip of what has been called ‘hemp fever,’ where struggling farmers try to cash in on a multi-million dollar trade which is more lucrative than growing cucumbers, tomatoes or corn.
But this has prompted a war with police and gangsters because of confusion over the country’s complex cannabis laws. Police say some farmers invest in hemp without knowing the real legal situation, while thieves steal their crop believing it is regular cannabis.
Hemp farms are being raided by police across Spain because, police say, many break the law by selling flowers or buds from the plant.
This is illegal even if the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana plants, is below 0.2%, the maximum level fixed by the European Union.
While the sale and consumption of cannabidiol (CBD) – the non-psychoactive compound – is legal across Spain and most of Europe, Spanish law still prohibits the cultivation of cannabis plants for anything other than industrial uses, such as for textiles and seeds, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Mr Yabar’s farm, in Artajona, a tiny village of just 1,600 inhabitants in northern Spain, occupies 67 hectares (166 acres), enough land to hold Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium 59 times.
“I can make more money growing hemp than I could growing corn here and the climate here suits it because it can be quite rainy,” Mr Yabar told VICE World News. He said he re-mortgaged his house to invest $1.87m (£1.5m) in the farm. “I hoped to make $29.5m (£23.46m) from the sale of the plants,” he told VICE World News. “If I had farmed corn I would have made $211,102 (£169,000).
Andalusia is the capital of the hemp trade. Police seized 630,000 plants in the region last year, compared with 34,000 in 2020 - an 18 fold increase. Almeria, is a desert-like corner of this region famous for making ‘spaghetti westerns’, films about outlaws trying to outdo the long arm of the law, like the 1966 classic “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” starring Clint Eastwood. There were no hemp farms there in 2018 but now 230 hectares is dedicated to growing it.
In the past two years, since growing hemp became fashionable as farmers switched to what seemed a good money spinner, police raided farms in Valencia, Murcia, Catalonia and Castilla-La Mancha, in central Spain.
“This boom in hemp is something new which has only been going on for a couple of years,” Capitain Victor Obarrio, of the Civil Guard, who led the operation against Yabar’s farm in Artajona. “What is clear is that they are planting more and more and we should be aware of who is behind these plantations and what backgrounds they have.”
Police say gangs steal from hemp farms because they mistakenly think it is cannabis or want to trick customers into thinking it’s cannabis because it looks and smells the same. Sometimes, gangsters are even prepared to kill to steal it.
Javier Goméz, 45, a guard at a hemp farm in Zaragoza, eastern Spain, became the latest victim of the hemp wars when he was shot dead by thieves trying to steal plants in October. A cyclist found his body in a car in the Pleitas, a hamlet of 30 people. 11 people were arrested on suspicion of homicide.
Days later, the body of Pol Cugat, 20, who worked as a guard at an illegal cannabis farm in Les Borges Blanques, near Lleida in Catalonia, was found with a plastic bag tied around his head.
The boom has drawn immigrant workers and unemployed Spaniards to work in what is known as España Vaciada, meaning “Emptied Spain”. Small villages in the impoverished rural hinterland, like Artajona, are dying out as Spaniards leave for better opportunities in the cities. In remote rural areas, with few police around, the cannabis trade has thrived.
On Mr Yabar’s farm, he employs 30 workers, some of them migrants.
“If I was Europe’s biggest drug dealer, why would I put all my merchandise on public view like this in these fields?” he told VICE World News.
“I made no secret of what I did. In fact, the police are investigating nine cases of thieves who tried to steal the hemp from me and I am going to go to court as a witness in those cases. Yet, they accuse me of being a drug trafficker!”
The raid took place in November last year but police only made details of the operation public in April, after a judge authorised the destruction of 415,000 hemp plants.
Mr Yabar and two other men, Miguel Artujo Goicoechea and Erapel Arberas Ibarrola,were arrested on suspicion of offences against public health, drug trafficking and belonging to a criminal organisation.
All three deny wrongdoing and were released on bail. None have so far been charged as under Spanish law formal charges are usually only placed much later after a judicial investigation has concluded.
Two other men, who have not been named, are also under investigation. If convicted all could face fines or jail sentences.
Villagers insist Mr Yabar is no drug trafficker but said the heavy odour of hemp hung over Artajona, which nestles among pretty fields of bright yellow rapeseed.
“The village smelt like Jamaica and [the smell] went all the way to the police station to Tafalla (a town 11km away),” said Jorge Azemar Sola, a local resident.
Captain Obarrio, who led Operation Hanf – named after the German word for hemp – insists Mr Yabar was advised he was breaking the law. He said Mr Yabar and his associates lacked a certificate from the Spanish Medicines Agency.
“This was the biggest cannabis plantation in Europe as far as we are aware,” he told VICE World News.
“We observed that these men were organising the transport and sale of the plants abroad for uses for which it is not permitted. Cultivation for lucrative purposes is illegal.”
Mr Yabar denied he was breaking the law, and said he was planning to ship the plants to Italy and Switzerland, which he said he believed was legal. Captain Obarrio added: “There is much ignorance among farmers. For this reason we give advice to farmers about what they can cultivate and transport,” he said.
Mr Yabar’s lawyer, José Luís Martínez, of Associate Derecho lawyers in Madrid, said the hemp plants were going to be used to make biofuels and not produce drugs.
“My client is innocent because the cultivation of hemp for industrial uses is expressly excluded from the application of international conventions and it lacks the principal narcotic ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC),” he told Vice World News.
Mr Yabar is determined to clear his name.
He said he had informed the Navarran regional government and the police about the farm. He insisted he had permission from the European Union to start the farm, through the Spanish government.
Posing next to a sign saying “industrial hemp cultivation certified by the European Union,” he was defiant.
“They have ruined me but I will fight back,” he said.