What led you to write about this topic in the first place?
It was always clear to me that this was a story that needed to be told in a different way. I don’t mean that it had been previously underreported — like my entire generation, I grew up in Galicia surrounded by it, it was constantly in the news, both in the press and on TV. You would hear about stranded speedboats, drugs being unloaded, score-settling. When I was growing up and as a teenager, cocaine was everywhere — and it’s something that still goes on in Galicia. Because of the nature of the Galician coastline, smuggling is incredibly easy. I thought this was a unique situation, and a very interesting story from a journalistic point of view. I wanted to take the story out of the newspapers and give it a different shape — I wasn’t sure what shape, or even whether it should be me who did it, but I thought that a great documentary or a great book or a great film could be made about the specificities of drug trafficking in Galicia.
I wanted to tell a chapter of the history of Galicia. And also — and I think this is very interesting for non-Spanish readers — show what Galicia is like, its singularity. Galicia has its own, very characteristic culture, its own language, its own cultural codes. A lot has been written about Sicily, about Calabria, about regions that have very strong personalities and which are fascinating from a literary point of view. Galicia has all these ingredients, but they haven’t been exploited in cultural terms. For me, it’s a region of huge narrative interest. And I wanted to make this part of the book. The book is about drug trafficking, but it’s also about the local cultural codes and aesthetics in Galicia, a very peculiar society with a very peculiar history.
You describe very well the historical and social background in which drug trafficking emerged in Galicia — an Atlantic region with an extensive coastline in which smuggling and ship-wrecking had been traditional activities for centuries (as they had been in similar European regions, like Cornwall, Devon, and Ireland). However, while in other parts of the world smuggling decreased in the 20th century, not only did it not disappear in Galicia, but rather increased. What was different about Galicia? And what impact did smuggling have on Galician society?
If smuggling continued in Galicia, it was because local economic development was not enough to consider other options. It was a source of income that was very easy and profitable. Smuggling prospered in Galicia because many areas felt – and to a large extent had actually been — abandoned by the central State. So not only was smuggling an economically viable option, but people also thought: ‘Thank God at least we have this!’ They were grateful that someone would provide things that were not otherwise available — scrap metal, fuel, medicines. They were grateful that someone, from the sea or from across the Portuguese border, would hire the locals to unload boxes, paying them very well, paying the doctor’s fees, fixing their homes. This is the way this sort of thing has always worked, and it’s how it worked in Galicia throughout the entire 20th century.
When Galicia was no longer a subsistence economy, the smuggling of scrap metal and basic necessities was replaced by tobacco smuggling, which had become hugely profitable. So tobacco smugglers came to be seen as people who generated jobs and wealth. They were socially respected. And this view persisted when tobacco was replaced by cocaine and hashish.
Social acceptance gave drug lords vast political and business power, and they became hugely influential in Galicia. This enabled them to keep operating with impunity until the 1990s — and, as a matter of fact, they are still active. Both the Spanish State and local politicians and authorities turned a blind eye for a very long time.
Galicia became a hotspot for the trafficking of drugs into Europe through agreements between small-town Galician tobacco smugglers and Colombian drug lords with international networks. It seems an unlikely alliance — how did that happen?
It was an unlikely alliance, and yet it made sense — it was two worlds that were bound to meet, because their interests converged. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the main Colombian cartels, and in particular the Medellín cartel, saw that Europe was a great market for them, and they wanted to find a gateway. And they found in Galicia a corner of Europe with a schizophrenic coastline, controlled by smugglers’ clans who enjoyed social support and were not bothered by local politicians.
How did they actually meet? Galician tobacco smugglers and the Colombian cartels used the same channels to launder their money. Sito Miñanco, one of the main Galician tobacco smugglers, laundered his money in Panama, which was also where the Medellín cartel laundered theirs. Both Laureano Oubiña, who was also originally a tobacco smuggler, and Moroccan hashish traffickers and arms dealers laundered their money in Switzerland. So they were bound to come into contact.
It is also often said that drug smuggling in Galicia started in Carabanchel prison, in Madrid. At one point, when Medellín cartel drug lords were arrested in Spain, they were sent to Carabanchel. Which is where some of the main Galician smugglers were also imprisoned. They met and went, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ (laughs).
Even though the Spanish legal system finally hit back in the 1990s, drug trafficking, though diminished, continues to this day in Galicia. In what ways have things changed?
Drug trafficking has not decreased. It’s just less visible. In fact, drug trafficking has increased — more cocaine is now coming into Spain and into Europe than ever before, which is saying something. According to a recent UN report, never before has so much cocaine been trafficked in the world. Coca crops have tripled in Colombia, cocaine exports have boomed, and Galicia continues to be one of the main gateways in this new scenario.
However, Galician traffickers are much more discreet these days. What I describe in the book — drug lords who lorded it over their villages, lived in mansions, and drove luxury cars because they were untouchable — no longer exists. The most powerful drug lords in Galicia these days are practically unknown and have no criminal records. They keep a low profile, but they are still there and still specialise in high-volume drug smuggling.
Galicia is practically the only place in Europe where speedboats are still used – the cocaine is picked up offshore, unloaded, and the speedboats are then hidden again. Elsewhere in Spain – in the ports of Algeciras, Valencia, and Barcelona — drugs are smuggled in in ship containers. In Galicia, smuggling is still shaped by its seafaring culture.
Your book was at the centre of a major scandal in Spain when the former mayor of O Grove, a small town in Galicia, filed a lawsuit which led to a judge ordering the book to be seized and withdrawn from the market as a precautionary measure. Could you tell us about this?
I want to make it clear that this is something that just doesn’t happen in Spain. And that’s why it caused such an uproar. Books are not seized in Spain. It’s been an anomaly. It was an incomprehensible reaction from a judge, something practically unheard of. To this day, I, my publishers, and most of Spanish society are still wondering why that happened.
Basically, the former mayor of O Grove filed a claim because he felt his reputation had been damaged — something to which he was entitled, of course. From the start, when I checked what I said about this man in the book, which was just four sentences, I knew that there was no way his claim would prosper. It was about four statements taken from the proven facts in a court judgement. And this was proven in the trial, which ended in a very strongly-worded ruling in our favour.
However, there was a huge uproar, and it had huge impact in Spain. If anything, I hope this whole business will serve to make sure that it never happens again.
You book has been adapted into a TV series that was very successful in Spain and is now internationally available on Netflix as Cocaine Coast. You were involved as a consultant – what do you think about the result?
I think the TV series is a marvel. Not because it’s based on my book — or at least, not only! (laughs).
Seriously, not only is it a very high-quality production, but its makers really understood how the series needed to be made. It’s inspired by gritty, realistic TV series like [the Italian series about criminal networks in Naples and Rome] Gomorrah and Romanzo Criminale, and the result is very appealing, because it depicts a very specific place and time in a very accurate way. The cast are all Galician, and they speak the local dialect of Spanish, which is highly distinctive — I would recommend, even if you understand Spanish, watching it with the subtitles on! The social codes, the aesthetics … it’s all there.