Spanish police see the recent drug gang shootings as a worrying sign of change in the expat community
Giles Tremlett in Marbella
The Guardian, Monday 7 August 2006
It was a busy Friday evening at The Point, a bar in the southern Spanish resort of Marbella, as the mainly British clientele enjoyed the warm night air on a terrace overlooking a palm tree lined golf course.
Among the drinkers was a regular known as Gerry, a popular 43-year-old Londoner who had been living around the British-dominated neighbourhood of Nueva Andalucía for some years.
In the few seconds it takes to pump half a dozen bullets into someone from point-blank range, the calm of an idyllic Mediterranean evening was shattered. "There were several shots and everybody just hit the ground," said one person who was in The Point that night.
By the time people had picked themselves up off the floor or begun to run, a blood-spattered, bullet-ridden Gerry was either dead or close to dead. An ambulance crew certified his death at the scene.
Speculation immediately started that the increasingly deadly battles being fought by British drug gangs in Spain had erupted among the bougainvillea-clad villas and white-painted, low-rise apartment blocks of Nueva Andalucía.
"They say it was a gangland execution," said Romualdo Velasco, a local shop-owner whose apartment overlooks The Point. "The British keep themselves to themselves, so it is hard to know."
There was no doubt that the gunman, or gunmen, wanted Gerry dead. He had taken at least five bullets.
A rumour doing the rounds of the Costa del Sol's British pubs in the wake of the shooting was that Gerry's wife and children may have witnessed the killing. Other reports spoke of three men who were either drinking with him or who appeared at his table.
Gerry's popularity can be measured by the two dozen floral tributes wilting in the sunshine outside The Point. Cards on them describe him as "a great mate", "a dear friend" and someone "who will never be forgotten" or is "constanly [sic] in our thoughts". They are signed by people like "Little John", "Biff and Family" and numerous British couples or families.
Spanish police, who carted the corpses of four executed British and Irish crooks off to morgues in July alone, are keeping tight-lipped. But they obviously fear the worst. Gerry's real name, it has turned out, was William Moy. "He was already known to us," Commissar Valentín Bahut, head of the police's organised crime unit in nearby Málaga, told the Guardian. "We had arrested him in 2000."
With a local judge ordering that the investigation be kept secret, Commissar Bahut could not talk in detail about the case. But he confirmed there was growing concern about British and Irish bodies piling up in Spanish morgues.
For the police, used to the presence of British crooks in a place that gained its Costa del Crime nickname decades ago, the deaths are a worrying sign of change. "It used to be that the British fought in other ways," he explained. "It was the French or Italians who killed one another. But as of a few years ago we have noticed the British are getting violent in a way that they were not before," he added. "Now they have - and use - firearms."
That concern has only increased following the shooting of a suspected drug dealer in Ibiza last week after a shoot-out between British gangs. Police suspect the victim, who was driving a 4x4 black BMW X5, was the target of an attempted hit by a rival gang supplying clubbers with ecstasy and other drugs. He is recovering in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.
Among those to have died in the apparent spate of gangland shootings were the Dublin gangsters Shane Coates, 31, and Stephen Sugg, 27, as well as the colourful British playboy and drug runner, Colin Nobes, 47. The bodies of Coates and Sugg were found last month at the bottom of a two-metre pit covered with cement. Nobes's corpse was discovered under a motorway bridge.
Arrests in all three cases have been of other British and Irish people settled in Spain or in the nearby Algarve region of southern Portugal, which is becoming increasingly popular for traffickers beginning to feel the heat in Spain.
Police, meanwhile, are seeking the corpse of a third Irish gangster, Sean Dunne, whose body may have been cemented into a Spanish villa's foundations.
Last year's haul of deaths included those of timeshare operators Billy and Flo Robinson in Tenerife and the startling discovery of a corpse being kept in a Portuguese freezer by Irish gangsters. Mrs Robinson, 55, was found in a pool of blood beside her Mercedes near the family's £1m luxury villa. Mr Robinson, 58, was on the back seat of his Porsche Cayenne a few kilometres away.
British crooks are mainly drug traffickers, involved in the hashish trade from Morocco, or timeshare operators, Commissar Bahut said. British bars, estate agencies and restaurants are being used to launder profits, he added.
Among the reasons for increased violence, he said, was the arrival of Northern Irish gangsters who had previously been involved in sectarian violence.
Britain's decision to concentrate policing on Class A drugs had helped as it allowed gangs to flourish. "Drug gangs always generate other types of crimes among themselves, especially robbery, kidnapping and murder," Commissar Bahut said. "The British have now realised that you have to keep watching them."
Several British police officers are based in this area semi-permanently. But it is not an easy community to police. The registered, permanent population of Britons in Spain grew to 274,00 last year. Authorities think up to three times as many spend part of the year in Spain. Some estimates talk of 300,000 Britons living for parts of the year on the Costa del Sol alone. Millions of tourists add further cover.
"It is very difficult for us to investigate because they stick together in their bars and places where Spanish police officers stand out," said Commissar Bahut.
The Point is not, however, one of those joints that are known haunts for British crooks, and it was clear yesterday that, whatever the motives for William Moy's killing, he was going to be missed. Nowhere was this more apparent than on one card on a bunch of flowers outside the bar. "I will always love you my Baby, forever and ever," it read. "And I will be with you one day my SON. Love MUMMY."
Spain gained its Costa del Crime reputation after an extradition treaty with Britain collapsed in 1978. A new treaty was not drawn up until 1985. Celebrity crooks like Ronnie Knight and others involved in robberies like the £26m Brinks Mat gold bullion heist fled to Spain. They were careful never to upset local police.
Even after the treaty was sorted out, the growing expat population continued to provide camouflage. Well-known crooks such as Clifford Saxe set up business in Spain, trading hashish from Morocco. Others, like fraudster John Palmer, exploited the timeshare trade. Kenneth Noye, who helped launder the Brinks Mat gold, came in 1996 after murdering Simon Cameron.
He was arrested two years later near Cádiz. Violence among British crooks emerged in 1990 when Great Train robber Charlie Wilson was shot dead in his Marbella villa. Two killings in 2002, of Irish gangster Michael McGuinness and Briton Scott Bradfield, showed the escalation in gang violence. McGuinness was found in the boot of a car in Málaga. Bradfield's body appeared in two trunks near Torremolinos.