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How Cocaine First Came to Europe

Once a prestige drug of the rich and famous, cocaine is now more affordable and plentiful in Europe than ever before. It all started with a band of fishermen in north-west Spain.

by Nacho Carretero
20 November 2018, 9:47am

Photo: Cultura Creative (RF) / Alamy Stock Photo

This August, a ship carrying 2.4 tons of cocaine was intercepted by police off the Azores in the Atlantic, bound for the Galician coast. One of the men arrested was 85-year-old Manuel Charlín Gama of the "Charlines" clan, a legendary trafficker who is portrayed in the Netflix series Cocaine Coast, which is based on my book of the same name.

Much of the fariña – the Galician variation on the Spanish word harina, or "flour" – that ends up on phone screens in the pubs of London and Birmingham has first made its way along the Galician estuaries and through its small "fishing villages". I say fishing villages, but many of them are now more reliant on cocaine than fish for their survival.

Galicia, the rainy seafaring region in the top lefthand corner of Spain, is not just renowned for its cooking; it's also known for its pivotal role in the smuggling of cocaine into Europe from South America. The true story of how South American cartels first flooded Europe with cocaine in the 1980s is also the story of Galicia.

There is a story – half legend, half based in fact – involving a man from Galicia who spent years going back and forth across the northern part of the Spanish-Portuguese border. Day after day, he came through the border control point – a hut on the road – on his bicycle with a sack of coal over his shoulder.

Each time, the customs officers would stop him, pat him down and give the sack a thorough inspection, but they never came up with any contraband; just a lot of black soot all over their uniforms. On it went for years, with the gentleman cycling up to the customs point, submitting to the checks and cycling away again. The officers knew he was up to something, but, inspection after inspection, never found anything but the lumps of coal. Not until a number of years later did they find out: he was a bicycle smuggler.

So much of Galicia is contained in this story. So much of the Galicians themselves – their audacity, but also their need to come up with solutions, to fend for themselves in an impoverished, outlying region traditionally overlooked by the central powers-that-be. Galicia is a place apart, with a deep sense of its own difference from the rest of Spain

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A still from Netflix's 'Cocaine Coast'

This certainly didn't come about by accident. During General Franco's rule (1939 to 1975), Galicia was an underdeveloped region, and life was hard. In the absence of any kind of provisions or support from the government in Madrid, the locals – particularly those who lived on the coast and along the border with Portugal – took it upon themselves to procure everything from medicines to petrol, cooking oil to car parts, soap to scrap metal.

Smugglers soon became leaders of the community, local heroes who before long were being elected as mayors and taking up high-ranking posts in regional politics. In the 1950s and 60s they went into tobacco smuggling in a big way, and, from modest beginnings, in no time at all the gangs of Galicia were sitting at the top table with the most powerful criminal organisations in Europe. More than gangs, these were clans, bound together by strong internal family ties.

The move to cocaine came in the 80s, and it was during this decade that the likes of Sito Miñanco, Laureano Oubiña and the Charlín family established themselves. The view among the average Galician remained the same: the clans generated wealth, they created much-needed employment. And they were influential in other ways: they not only took up political posts, but became lawyers and powerful impresarios with fingers in all kinds of legitimate ventures; they owned and financed local football teams, underwrote the town parties, would be the ones to cough up if there was a hole in the church roof that needed fixing. People looked up to them. It was not unusual to hear children in school announce their hope to one day go into smuggling – like Papá.

The move to cocaine was a surprisingly simple thing. In the early-80s, Colombia's Medellín and Cali cartels were looking for new ways to move their product into Europe. The cartels had long-standing ties with Panama, where they laundered money, and the likes of Galician smuggler Sito Miñanco had recently begun doing the same. They all spoke the same language, in more sense than one, and the scope for collaboration quickly became apparent. The Colombians were amazed, on visiting Galicia, to see how docile the authorities were, as well as at the levels of social acceptance enjoyed by the clans.

The alliance was consolidated in 1984 after the Medellín cartel took it upon itself to murder the Colombian Minister for Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. The Colombian government took this badly, and the capos had to flee the country. Pablo Escobar set up in Central America, but his right-hand men, the Ochoa brothers and Matta Ballesteros, went to Spain. The brothers made their way to Madrid, where they were soon arrested – and who should they meet in prison, but a number of the leading players in the Galician scene. It was like passing the ball to the opposition striker inside your own penalty area. The respective parties hit it off, and Matta Ballesteros went on to install himself in Coruña, Galicia's second major city. The collaboration was to the benefit of all, and is still in force, in renewed forms, to this day.

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Photo: Oramstock / Alamy Stock Photo

Galicia was a narco-playground in the 80s. Untouchable by the authorities, they lived in pazos (Galician castles, with attendant estates), they drove the flashiest cars, ate for free in the best seafood restaurants and were regularly seen at the offices and parties of top-level police and politicians. Narco-corruption became a fact of Galician life. The narcos, both those from the local area and from Latin America, felt impervious to justice; the locals could see precisely what was going on, and said nothing. The result? A specifically Galician omerta came into force. There was no choice but to go along with it.

A tidal wave of laundered money came tearing through all licit forms of industry and commerce in the region. Hundreds and hundreds of businesses have been, and continue to be, set up with cocaine profits – direct or indirect. You only need to go to a place like Vilagarcía de Arousa, a town of some 40,000 people, nestled at the midpoint of the Galician coastline, and see the exclusive fashion labels and car companies that have set up outlets and dealerships.

What sets the Galician drug-trafficking situation apart is that, here, the capos have never ceased being those uneducated village lords who just had an eye for making it as smugglers. Even as they became millionaires, and upgraded to the latest Ferraris, they were still to be seen walking around in tracksuits, or working the tractors on the farms that were once their families' main sources of income, or playing at running a beach hut – the giveaway being that the woman making the fried calamari sandwiches would have a Rolex on her wrist. Galician narcos have always had a decent helping of kitsch about them.

The story continues today. Certainly, the incredible ostentatiousness was dropped in the 90s. That was when the first properly coordinated series of raids were carried out – organised from outside Galicia by superstar prosecutor Baltasar Garzón (soon to be a household name for his part in the extradition of General Pinochet from Chile). "Our hope is to prevent Galicia from becoming another Sicily," were his words at the time. But drug trafficking has not disappeared altogether.

Spain's most powerful narcos remain the Galicians. Restrained, extremely cautious and discreet, they play the role of upstanding businessmen, and the last thing they have in mind is to draw attention to themselves. The Colombians still have the utmost faith in them. After all, they are still responsible for bringing ton after ton of cocaine to the European mainland.

Nacho Carretero is a Spanish investigative journalist and author of Snow on the Atlantic, the newly published English language version of Cocaine Coast.

@NachoCarretero

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