Every week seems to bring a new report of brazen behaviour by traffickers in the southwestern province of Cadiz, the arrival point of 40 percent of all drugs that come to Spain and the largest gateway for narcotics entering Europe.
Gang members have stormed a hospital in La Linea de la Concepcion, which lies on the border with Gibraltar, to free a top trafficker from police custody, as well as disguising themselves as police officers to steal drugs from rival gangs.
“The surge in violence by drug traffickers is increasing. There are more and more attacks” against police, Juan Encinas, the provincial delegate in Cadiz of the Unified Association of Civil Guards (AUGC), told AFP.
Spain's central government has responded by sending police reinforcements to the region, but unions say it is not enough. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido has vowed not to allow the region to become “dominated by narcos” and points to a sharp rise in drug seizures as proof the government's strategy is working.
Record cocaine seizure
He said Spanish authorities had seized the same amount of cocaine in the Strait of Gibraltar by the end of April as in the whole of 2017, when 11.8 tonnes was confiscated.
Police announced their biggest-ever cocaine seizure in April, when they found 8.7 tonnes hidden in a container ship that arrived from Colombia in the port of Algeciras in Cadiz.
The situation in La Linea, which just a few months was one of the hardest hit areas, is now “under more control” thanks to the police reinforcements, La Linea mayor Juan Franco told AFP.
But for police unions, the rise in seizures merely reflects a jump in the amount of drugs entering the country. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of the drugs coming to Spain are detected.
The situation has locals worried. Hundreds gathered in Algeciras' main square on Thursday night to protest against the increasingly violent drugs trade. It came after nine officers were attacked with sticks and broken bottles as they left a restaurant on the weekend.
A nine-year-old boy also died on Monday after the boat he was in with his father was struck by another vessel linked to the drug trade.
Rise of a 'drug cartel'?
Police unions have said that 30 groups dedicated to drug trafficking operate in the region, with more than 3,000 direct collaborators.
Among the biggest groups are “Los Castanas”, thought to be the largest hashish smuggling ring in the Strait, and a clan headed by Abdellah el Haj, a Moroccan dubbed the “Messi of hashish”.
“These clans have always been rivals, but they are starting to carry out activities together and it's not unreasonable to think it could give rise to a real drug cartel,” warned Juan Fernandez, AUGC's national spokesman.
This possibility has been strongly rejected by Spain's interior minister, and experts contacted by AFP are dubious.
“The difference between a cartel and a criminal group is that a cartel has already colonised the area and it has the power to penetrate institutions,” said Ricardo Magaz, a criminologist at Spain's UNED university, adding however that the problem “is serious and getting worse”.
Colombian mafias are establishing themselves in the region, according to press reports in the South American country, the world's biggest cocaine producer. But Encinas said police unions have no evidence of this.
Drug traffickers are taking advantage of Spain's physical proximity to Morocco, a major hashish producer, and its close ties to its former colonies in South America, a major cocaine producer.
Cadiz's unemployment rate of 31.25 percent, one of the highest in Spain, makes it easy to find helping hands.
“A teenager who pretends to be fishing and alerts people when a helicopter or patrol boat departs can earn 1,500 euros ($1,750),” said Fernandez.
Unloading the drugs can fetch double that, while driving a car or boat loaded with drugs pays even more, he added.
“It is seen less and less as a crime and more as a way of life,” said Fernandez.
Police unions are demanding at least 300 extra agents be permanently deployed in the region, as well as a comprehensive strategy that includes tougher penalties and a youth employment plan.
By AFP's Diego Urdaneta