Sunday, 23 July 2006

Flying too close to the sun on Costa del Crime

By Liam Collins

Sunday July 23 2006
TANNED girls in scanty bikinis strolled by in the intense early afternoon sunshine with an air of unconcern as reporters and photographers jostled outside the Palacio de Justicia in the teeming Spanish resort of Torrevieja.

The media was gathered to cover the latest episode in what was recently described by the broadcaster Trevor McDonald as the "Costa del Crime".

The latest story involves the grisly fate of two vicious Dublin crime bosses Shane Coates and Stephen Sugg, once members of "The Westies" crime gang, whose bodies had just been dug from underneath six tons of quick-setting concrete in an industrial estate about ten miles outside the town.

When Irish detectives pinpointed the location of their bodies with deadly accuracy the second last piece of the murder mystery fell into place.

Now we were waiting for Anthony 'Tony' Armstrong, a burly, tanned Dubliner who once rented the warehouse beside which the bodies were found to be brought before the court. Armstrong, known as 'Big Tony', comes from Finglas in Dublin and, while known to police at home and in Spain, was not considered a major player in the latest Costa crime drama until he was arrested by Spanish police.

As we waited for him to arrive we chatted, as the tourists walked in the sweltering heat between the bright blue Med and the huge sprawling market which goes on every Friday in the streets at the back of the town.

"I like it here," says Aoife Doyle, who is originally from Dublin and is now news editor of a freesheet called The Coast Rider which covers the activities of the ex-pats in the sprawling 'urbanisations' spreading out along the coasts from Torrevieja.

"The Irish are normally very quiet," she says, "crime is not as bad as it is often portrayed."

You would be inclined to agree with her when you sit outside The Judge's Chambers, an Irish bar on the outskirts of Torrevieja which is owned by John Gilligan's wife, Geraldine. The patrons having an evening beer are mostly Irish and English holiday-makers who rarely come into the town. As they play with their children in the little playground beside the pub it is hard to square their lives with the final fate of Shane Coates, 27, and Stephen Sugg, 31.

The pair of Dublin gangsters were last seen in January 2004 when they told their girlfriends one night that they were "going out for an hour". They never came back and were eventually reported missing two weeks later.

There were reports that they had "faked their own deaths" to escape the retribution of another drugs lord - possibly the one who had killed Stephen Sugg's brother Bernard the year before.

But last week that theory was blown to bits.

Now rumours of Russian and Irish Mafias running prostitution and drugs rackets along this once-beautiful coast are rife.

The flight from Dublin to Alicante airport is just over two hours. A normal holiday destination, you might think. Most people would know somebody else on the flight. Then into a hired car and down the highway to Torrevieja, a favoured destination with British and Irish tourists in search of the sun and an inexpensive way of life. The chaotic town has a frontier-like appearance. The old houses have been demolished and replaced with high-rise apartments and resturants lining the promenade. But it has a lively late-night feel and along Bar Street nobody intends going to sleep much before 8am when the town closes down and recovers for a few hours in the early morning before starting all over again.

But the old town of Torrevieja remains Spanish. It is outside in the 'urbanisations' that you find the new arrivals - the ex-pat Irish and British who are said to total about 100,000 in number.

You can see that fortunes are being made from residential development. Cranes stretch along the skyline, like a mirror image of Celtic Tiger Dublin.

This is a boom town and this is where Coates and Sugg came in search of easy money in their buiness, the drugs business.

Once upon a time there were a bunch of criminals who headed off to the Costa del Sol to avoid the authorities and the prying eyes of the media.

These rich businessmen were chased down the Golden Mile in Marbella by an intrepid RTE reporter for failing to pay their taxes or buying cattle in the West of Ireland and then reneging on their debts to the local farmers.

Now the heartland of the Irish criminal fraternity has moved up the coast to the province of Alicante. You just know when you look at the profiles of Shane Coates and Stephen Suggs that they were destined to die young. In their hard eyes you can see the ruthless hardness that comes from the mean streets of Corduff in the wilderness of west Dublin where they grew up to be bad boys who adopted the gangland moniker of 'The Westies'.

The housing estates of west Dublin is just like a poor man's version of the urbanisations of Torrevieja where they came to try to muscle in on the drugs trade they had once plied at home but which had become a bit too hot to handle as their gang was torn apart by feuds and death. They took the brutal name from a violent gang of Irish emigrants in New York who mostly ended up dead. And in their heart of darkness and in the poker-faced profiles of these young men, Coates and Sugg, you can see the same destiny written over their hard, unforgiving features. But there is always someone with a more vicious streak waiting in the shade to catch those who sail too close to the sun.

They met their fate in an industrial complex in Catral, a small picturesque village about 10 miles from Torrevieja. They were shot in the head, their bodies unceremoniously stuffed into plastic bags and dumped in a hole seven-foot deep just to the side of the warehouse. A layer of earth was quickly shovelled into the grave and then it was filled in with six foot of quick-setting concrete.

A small corrugated iron shed now occupies the site beside the warehouse, nobody knows whether it was built before or after the burial.

But Grade One Garda intelligence last week led to the finding of their bodies.

The story is that the 'boys' met their fate after a drug deal "that went wrong". Some say they stole a kilo of heroin from a more powerful drug lord, others that they were trying to muscle in on a drugs operation controlled from Dublin and prison by the jailed thug John Gilligan.

They are just two more stastics in the litany of criminals who have been bumped off in vicious feuds over turf, money and women in the last couple of years. The only difference is that they met their fate in the sunshine of the 'Costa del Crime' and that gives the story a new twist, a touch of glamour.

There is glamour to be found out here on the gold coast.

Between the teeming appallingly-planned town of Torrevieja and the bright-blue sea are million-pound villas where the rich Spanish from Madrid come down this time of year.

Further out in the 'urbanisations' you find the home of Tony Armstrong, the man who has been held in connection with the double murder of Coates and Sugg. In the end, he didn't arrive at the Palacio de Justicia in Torrevieja. Instead he was taken to a small town about 50 kilometres away where he was brought before a magistrate. He was remanded and is now facing up to two years in jail as he awaits trial. He is due before a magistrate to make a declaration on his guilt or innocence tomorrow.

Armstrong, 35, comes originally from Finglas in Dublin but has been living out here for five or six years with his girlfriend.

His parents joined him in recent times at his €550,000 villa in Los Balcones, about 20 minutes drive from the centre of Torrevieja.

Nobody answers the door when you push the intercom at Armstrong's villa. But after the second ring a big dog bounds through the yard and slams against the ornate wooden door. Casual callers are not wanted this evening.

Little enough is known here in Torrevieja about 'Tony' Armstrong, except that he comes from Dublin. According to police sources he rented the warehouse in Catral. He is said to have kept expensive cars and boats there.

According to local Spanish reports he was questioned by Spanish police investigating a stolen car ring but wasn't charged with anything. Big, with black barbwire tatoos around his well-muscled arms he doesn't look like a man to mess with.

As it happens we had waited in vain for him to come before the court in Torrevieja. On Friday evening we learned that he had been brought to court in the small village of Orihuela, about 50 kilometres distant and the administrative capital of Los Balcones, where he has his villa.

Although we dash out there to try to find him that court is closed up. He's been gone 20 minutes we're told.

Back in the holiday resort town of Torrevieja the fate of Coates and Sugg is not exciting that much interest. They're more concerned with the price of a beer in the Irish bars, which is always more expensive than in the local establishments. Most of the holiday-makers who come for the nightlife are not even aware of their short and, in many ways, tragic lives.

But that's life and death on the 'Costa del Crime' the same way as it's life and death in the sprawling suburbs of Dublin.

In many ways the similarities to Dublin is what seems to make Torrevieja so attractive to the criminals. They live in villas rather than cramped Corpo houses, but the urban sprawl has the same feel. There's concrete under your feet everywhere you look. It appears to be always half finished, just like the estates where these boys grew up to be men. But it also has the sun and the sea and all the evidence points to the fact that Torrevieja is the centre of the 'Costa del Crime'.

It is here with the milling tourists that the drug deals are done and it is on the flights in and out of Alicante that the gangs who control them pass with ease.

What happened last week when the last resting place of the once powerful Dublin drugs gang members was uncovered was macabre, but according to one resident crime along this coast is no worse than at home and if you're careful you'll hardly ever encounter it.

But Shane Coates and Stephen Sugg couldn't avoid trouble and eventually trouble caught up with them.

- Liam Collins

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