[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK
Galicia drug runners test Spain
Spain's Socialist government says the war on drugs is working - with 80% more cocaine seized at the beginning of this year than in the same period last year.

Galician coast
Smugglers exploit Galicia's myriad quiet coves
Despite these measures, the north-western Galicia region remains the top entry point for cocaine into Europe, the BBC's Katya Adler reports.

A maze of coves, caves and inlets dot the rugged Galician coastline, making this a picturesque tourist's haven by day and a smuggler's paradise by night.

The coastline is hardly developed here - nothing like the massive hotel complexes you see in southern Spain. If there is no moonlight, the water's edge here is pitch black at night.

At least five tonnes of cocaine are said to land along this mass of tiny deserted beaches every month.

Crippled by high unemployment as a result of its collapsing fishing industry, Galicia is one of Spain's poorest regions.

Thanks to organised crime though, it has more than its fair share of multi-millionaires. That is why Galicia is often described as the "Sicily of Spain".

Mention the Galician town of Villagarcia to almost any Spaniard and they start reeling off the names of the famous drug barons who lived there.

Fishing infrastructure

Susana Luana is a journalist for the regional daily Voice of Galicia, based in Villagarcia. She took me on a tour of the town, pointing out a large number buildings and businesses believed to have been acquired with drugs money.

Carmen Avendano
My sons are still addicts and are still in prison and the truth is, drug-trafficking in Galicia is as powerful as ever
Carmen Avendano

"The complex, tangled layout of the Arousa fjords lends itself perfectly to smuggling," she said.

"It's a historic tradition here that really took off in the late 1960s, early 1970s, with American tobacco. A number of local fishermen used their fishing infrastructure, including boats, to transport the goods and used their knowledge of the thousands of tiny coves and beaches here to bring them safely ashore.

"Later they increased their earnings considerably by smuggling drugs instead of tobacco. These former fishermen established a name for themselves as professional smugglers and so were able to make lucrative deals with the Colombian cocaine mafia."

Family networks

Most of Galicia's major drug barons are now in jail. They got a bit too big for their boots in the 1980s and 1990s. They flashed their cash and courted the media - and then, inevitably, police attention. But Susana says their drug cartels are healthier than ever.

"They keep working from jail, you can be sure of that," she said emphatically.

"Their lieutenants - their sons and grandsons - have taken over the business on the outside. They're not as well known and there are more of them - which means their profits are perhaps smaller but that all works to their advantage because they don't come so easily to the attention of the authorities."

Whereas the illegal tobacco trade was regarded by most Galicians as harmless, drug-trafficking has ended up splitting Galician society, between those who earn well from it and those who have watched family members sink into addiction.

Mothers' opposition

In the 1980s, a group of vocal Galician mothers became famous for taking their protests to the drug barons' front doors - literally.

Heroine, a recently-released film based on their struggle, has received critical acclaim in Spain.

The film's director Gerardo Herrero told me he was inspired by the very first "Mother Courage," as they're known here.

"The title of my film plays on the double meaning of the word heroina in Spanish. It means the drug, heroin, and a female hero, which is what Carmen Avendano is. She created the association of women from nothing.

"She had no preparation, no real education; just two sons who turned in to drug addicts. Yet she took on politicians and professional drug rings. She's marvellous."


These days Carmen runs Erguete, a rehabilitation centre in the Galician town of Vigo where drug addicts receive counselling, legal advice and vocational training schemes.

Mothers' protests
The role of the mothers' protests has now been made into a film
Now in her 60s and suffering from cancer, Carmen says she regards her achievements of the last 20 years as bitter-sweet.

"Getting this centre up and running cost a lot of tears and a lot of trouble - including death-threats from the Galician drug mafia. Some parents in our association were desperate at times, saying that we weren't getting anywhere. I want to be positive.

"We've achieved a lot here. Our shining example is the President of Erguete - a former drug addict who we helped get back on track. But there is still a long way to go. My sons are still addicts and are still in prison and the truth is, drug trafficking in Galicia is as powerful as ever."

Albaro, one of the carpentry students at Erguete told me he started taking drugs because they were so easily available. The area of Vigo he lived in was awash with drugs, he said.

And although most of the cocaine smuggled into Galicia is for distribution elsewhere in Spain and Europe, he said quality cocaine was cheaper in Galicia than on most of the rest of the continent.

Coastal patrols

The maritime Civil Guard in Spain patrol Galician waters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Coastal patrol boat
We need more equipment, more people and better technology to keep up
Humberto Iglesias Iglesias
Guardia Civil

More cocaine is seized here in Spain than in any other country except Colombia and the US - about 44 tonnes last year alone. But that is a drop in the ocean if you think how much lands on Galician soil.

The authorities say they probably track down only about a quarter of the cocaine that passes through here.

On board a patrol boat speeding thorough the Arousa fjords, I asked Humberto Iglesias Iglesias - a member of the Civil Guard for 15 years - why the drug smugglers seemed always to be able to stay that one step ahead.

"They have so much money," he told me, with a shrug of the shoulders. "We need more equipment, more people and better technology to keep up. Like in southern Spain - they have special cameras to watch the coast to detect strange movements.

"In Galicia, the future is to use that technology to detect the boats, especially when they're unloading. That's the best time to catch smugglers. That being said, I think we are improving very much in this field."

On the whole though, Galicians show little sense of urgency. In the run-up to the recent regional election, the drug-trafficking issue was virtually ignored.

According to Xaquin Fernandez, a Socialist Party MP, Galicians have "other priorities" - especially jobs.

Businesses and industries have been closing faster in Galicia than in any other part of Spain, he says.

"By combating unemployment we think we'll deal a blow to drug-trafficking too. If young people in Galicia have a good job with money for life, they'll think twice before getting involved in the drugs business."

New regional investment initiatives will help the situation, but a far harder task facing Galicia's regional authority and Spain's central government in Madrid will be securing the coastline and stopping the influx of drugs into Europe.

In Pictures: Spanish drugs swoop
07 Jun 05 |  In Pictures
Colombia reports $300m drugs haul
13 May 05 |  Americas
Policing Spain's southern coast
18 May 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Spain
03 Jul 05 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific