Galicia! From Tobacco Smuggling to Europe’s Cocaine Getaway

Liz Morán
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Eurocopter EC-135-P2 (EC-KOB) “Ángel 25” de la Policía Nacional española. Vigo (Galicia, España). Source: Flickr.

In 2021 Europol and news outlets reported that Belgium (Antwerp) and the Netherlands (Rotterdam) had become the main hubs for cocaine trafficking in Europe, supplanting Spain as the main route of entry to the continent. From these port cities, drugs are transported throughout Europe, a tendency that denotes the northward shift of the cocaine market in Europe experts note. Moreover, they have also informed of an increasing supply of cocaine, a consequence that many had attributed to the peace deal between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and the Colombian government and the subsequent emergence of groups that sought to fill the vacuum of power. 

Distribution of cocaine seizure quantities in Europe, by country of the seizure (2000-2019). Source: UNODC and Europol (2021), Cocaine insights 1

Indeed, the drug trafficking scene in Europe has undergone a plethora of changes in the last decade. Mexican groups have established themselves in Europe  — and concretely, in Spain — to exploit the cultivation of marijuana, providing raw materials for CBD products. Cooperation between European and Latin American gangs permitted cocaine processing to take root on European soil with the continent potentially producing higher quality cocaine than Colombia. Drug traffickers have used submarines and underwater drones as new methods of smuggling drugs into Europe. Moreover, Europe’s artisanal methamphetamines kitchens have become super-labs, a result, again, of transatlantic cooperation and the introduction of Mexican cooks into European drug kitchens. 

This landscape, needless to say, has alerted authorities. In 2021 Europol informed that the threat of organized crime reached unprecedented levels. The agency noted that close to 40% of European criminal gangs are engaged in drug trafficking. Regarding the future, it painted a rather bleak picture — the pandemic has likely fuelled gang activity on the continent for years to come, in large part due to an unprecedented influx of cocaine.

However, in this article, we are going to dive into Galicia’s long relationship with cocaine trafficking as some argue that the autonomous community reflects the constant evolution of increasingly influential organized crime gangs that take advantage of globalization to better manage local markets. This infamous relationship, in fact, first introduced cocaine trafficking in Europe.

To the North and South of Galicia

“It was always clear to me that my land, Galicia, had a calling — perhaps was even condemned — to be the natural platform for the European landing of Colombian cocaine and African hashish. The Galician rias constitute a truly suitable geography to accommodate the maritime routes, hiding places, and infrastructures that drug trafficking was looking to extend to Europe in a huge illegal market for his lucrative businesses.

Perfecto Conde, La conexión gallega: del tabaco a la cocaína

Galician journalist and writer, Conde recounts the story of a Galicia that smuggled for decades tobacco, coffee, penicillin, and other products from Portugal to Spain. By the 1980s, however, the autonomous community moved from smuggling tobacco to smuggling cocaine. This shift took place at a time characterized by the saturation of the United States’ cocaine market, scholars argue. This saturation, they note, pushed traffickers to explore the largely unexploited European market, which explains the increased volume of cocaine seized in the 1980s and 1990s in Europe. Galicia, thus, became the cradle and the main getaway for Colombian cocaine into Europe, establishing Galician smugglers ties with Colombian cartels. These cartels would exploit the advantages of the Galician landscape and these former tobacco smugglers’ networks — originally family clans — developed smuggling techniques and the sailing tradition of a centenary fishing community.

The golden years of Galician drug trafficking and powerful drug lords, however, lasted until 2003 when Spanish authorities hunted down the historic figures of the Galician drug trafficking scene — like Sito Miñanco or “La Padrina” (the Godmother) from the “Charlines” clan. As a result of these arrests, trafficking changed and large clans with ostentatious bosses disappeared. For the next few years, it almost seemed that authorities had won the “war against drugs,” as the familiar sound of the speedboats delivering a shipment at night had virtually disappeared and drug boats were no longer seen being chased by the police or caught up in skirmishes between rival gangs.

Nevertheless, the war was far from being over. Like Hercules’ Lernaean Hydra, just when you cut a head, another grows in its place. Therefore, in the past two decades, we have seen the opposite dynamic of the European drug scene, that is, a shift of drug trafficking operations from the North (Galicia) to the South (Andalusia). In 2017, news outlets reported that Spain was losing the war against drugs in the South. Likewise, authorities expressed fears of southern organized crime groups evolving “Galicia-style” gangs and cartels. Miguel Gil, the operations chief at the Customs Surveillance Service, stated that the Campo de Gibraltar “is undergoing the same evolution as the coast of Galicia in the 1980s and 1990s: from tobacco smuggling, they moved on to hashish, and now we shouldn’t rule out the presence of cocaine on the boats.”    

The war had thus displaced to the southern coastal communities where illegal immigration, money laundering, tobacco smuggling, and arms and drug trafficking have carved a space for themselves. Consequently, Málaga has turned into the “narcos” logistic hub and Algeciras into a major entry point for South American cocaine. Meanwhile the apparent calmness of the Galician Sea was a chimera that hid the storm to come. 

Civil Guard seizes drug traffickers’ abandoned boat after a chase in Andalusia. Source: El País.

The Revival 

Galicia continues to be one of Spain’s major drug strongholds with most cocaine entering the region via speedboats. Galician traffickers had opted for small groups that are dedicated to offering only maritime transport services, leaving aside ownership and distribution of drugs. When interviewed, an anonymous drug trafficker revealed that few drugs came to Galicia via ship containers. “We continue to use speedboats,” — he stated — “we’re sea people. And the Colombians want us to do it this way. They send a fishing boat or a freight ship with the merchandise, we cross half the ocean on speedboats and bring the packages back to land.”

Weight of drug hauls (kg) in Galicia. Source: El País

Nowadays, the notoriety of the traditional drug lords has been replaced by discretion, anonymity, and low profiles. Gone are the clans and charismatic bosses who controlled the drugs smuggled into Spain 40 years ago, as well as the pyramid schemes of past mafia groups. In their place, small and resilient groups that act as service companies, offering their maritime infrastructure and their knowledge of the environment for transporting goods, have emerged.

Despite this presumed anonymity the author of Farinha, a book of the tale of cocaine in Galicia, pointed out that nowadays four gangs govern the Galician drug scenex — the empire Patoco, Os Lulús, los Pasteleros (the bakers) and la banda de (the band of) ‘O mulo‘. These drug lords decide how much cocaine enters Spain with their Colombian partners — illustrating that although the drugs belong to the Colombians, it is still Galician drug lords who introduce them to Spain. From Spain, the merchandise is handed to Dutch drug traffickers based in Andalusia. These individuals are considered to be the most dangerous and powerful by local authorities as they moved away from hashish and now discreetly focus on cocaine. The Dutch buyers then collaborate with Kosovar-Albanian gangs based in Valencia and Serbian mafias in Barcelona to distribute the cocaine across Europe.

Number of organized crime gangs involved in drug trafficking in Spain (2015-2019). Source: El País

Other accounts assert that Balkan groups and Eastern European mafias have filled the vacuum left by the local drug lords, some of whom are still in jail. According to Europol, these emerging mafias are the pinnacle of organized crime. They are multifaceted and, although they lack specialization in transporting drugs, they rely on Galician seamen to get their merchandise into Spain and have their own representatives in South America to negotiate the direct purchase of cocaine. In the face of these changes, Judge Juan Carlos Carballal highlighted that “we are looking at a new dimension of crime; in Galicia, nothing works as it used to.” What we have been observing for the past decades was not the end of drug trafficking, but simply a change of scenarios.

Slowly but surely, Galicia has partially restored its former years of glory. Old Galician lords have returned, like Manuel from “Los Charlines,” and data from the Interior Ministry of Spain demonstrate how Galicia has become once again the main entry point for cocaine into Spain. At present, the number of drug hauls in Galicia has fallen compared with the past decade. However, the shipments currently intercepted are bigger and the purity of the cocaine is higher due to a surplus of cocaine production in Colombia.

Cocaine seized at seaports by customs authorities of countries in Western and Central Europe, quantities seized in 2020 and trend in comparison with 2019Source: UNODC and Europol (2021), Cocaine insights 1
  • What other causes, apart from Spain’s strategic location, fosters the settlement of organized crime groups in the country?
  • How do changes in Colombia’s drug scene affect Europe?
  • Would the strengthening of cooperation between European members help to increase the seizure of cocaine?

Suggested Reading

Den Held, D. (2021). “Spain: The European Base for Latin American Organized Crime.” Insight Crime.

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and Insight Crime (2021). “The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe.” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Carretero, N. (2015). Fariña: historias e indiscreciones del narcotráfico en Galicia. Libros del K.O.


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Galicia! From Tobacco Smu…

by Liz Morán time to read: 7 min