NewsCrime Desk

Spanish cops cracking down on Irish Costa criminal's 'black money'

Crime DeskBy Eamon Dillon
Cash: Ill-gotten gains are getting stuck in Spain
Cash: Ill-gotten gains are getting stuck in Spain

For years it has been the currency of the Costa, as criminals simply can’t do business without a bag of ‘black money’.

Judges, solicitors and local councils have been prone to their cut on every transaction and complex property transfer for decades.

However, now the Spanish are finally cracking down on the proceeds of crime and those hoping to offload their assets are facing the difficult question of where they got the money to buy them.

Hundreds of Irish criminals are finding their ill-gotten gains trapped in Spain as they are increasingly handing over business premises and residences to authorities, rather than pay hefty taxes and explain exactly how they attained them.

To make matters worse, a special fugitive unit has also been established and giant billboards of wanted criminals are being placed all over the Southern Coast. There is no welcome any more for on-the-run crooks, killers and rapists and in the past few years more than 70 have been sent back to the U.K. alone.

What seem like small moves to some are giant leaps for the Spanish police, who have for decades been accused of taking bribes and turning a blind eye to a massive black economy that has kept the Costa afloat.

Now it seems like the heyday of the Costa is finally coming to an end and criminals are scrambling to get out and take what they can. 

The recent Sunday World sting on the Gilligans proved just that. During our investigation into their assets on the Costa Blanca they desperately tried to sell our team The Judges Chamber Pub for its legal value and a suitcase of ‘black money’.

The Costa del Crime has long been a home for criminals. Jutting out into the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the British enclave of Gibraltar has long attracted expats who want the Spanish sun without the local culture.

Drug dealers with money to hide were also attracted by the economy, based on shipping, tourism and banking. 

Gibraltar’s tax haven status and a land border with Spain made a perfect match for gangsters who wanted to both hide and enjoy their money at the same time. 

Like the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, the British protectorate offered offshore banking services which proved very handy for people who wanted to keep their money secret.

When Christy Kinahan and his sons were arrested as part of multi-national police operation in 2010, a senior policeman in Malaga explained why the area had become the Costa del Crime.

He pointed out that it was not by accident that U.K. and Northern Irish gangsters first established themselves on the Costa del Sol in the late 1960s.

“Gibraltar is the bank,” he told the Sunday World.

The British outpost, just 40 minutes drive from the upmarket resort of Marbella, is a tax haven with tight banking secrecy laws – perfect for money laundering.

“First to come were the British and the Northern Irish. Then in the late ’70s the Dublin Irish came here,” the policeman said.

For years Spanish police didn’t care what foreign gangsters got up to so long as they kept it to themselves

“If they shoot each other it is not a problem for Spain, it is a problem for the country where them come from,” added the officer.

Traditionally the Costa del Sol was on the drug-smuggling route from north Africa and the Middle East. 

The Turks and Moroccans offer cannabis and heroin to the major European dealers with shipments being dropped on the Spanish coast after the short trip across the Mediterranean.

“They used to come straight across from Morocco, but now they have to go further east or west because the coast is more closely guarded,” the Spanish police officer told the Sunday World at the time.

For decades no extradition treaty existed between Spain and the U.K. and Ireland, which meant on-the-run gangsters could live openly.

When Larry Dunne skipped his trial in Dublin in the early 1980s he relocated to Fuengirola. For a while Dunne was buddies with Ronnie Knight – the British criminal who carried out a st£5.6 million armed robbery – and they were treated like celebrities.

Eventually, with his money running out, he was arrested and sent back to Ireland, where he was jailed for 14 years in 1985.

Irish-born Brian Brendan Wright had been on the run for years from the British authorities after his cocaine-smuggling ring had been exposed.

Since the early 1970s he claimed he made his money as a professional gambler. Known as ‘the Milkman’ because he always delivered, he named one of his properties as El Lechero, the Spanish term for his nickname

He had been hiding out in Cyprus, but when the International Arrest Warrant was finally executed it was in Malaga in 2000.

Wright had been living there without any official papers, no property or vehicles were registered in his name and there was no bank account the police could find.

Since then both the drugs business and the money laundering industry have become worth billions. The United Nations estimated that $352bn of drug dealers’ cash went into the world’s banking system in the wake of the 2008 credit crunch.

Desperate to shore up their operations, fewer questions were asked about the source of cash that just about kept the system liquid.

All that could change, though, as the Spanish cops close in.