WITH sun-soaked beaches, swanky bars and a stream of glamorous celebrities, the Costa del Sol looks every bit the holiday dream at first glance – but under that sunny exterior lies a dark underbelly of violence and bloody gang wars.
From brutal shootings, to planned-out executions and "Medieval" torture methods, gangs from across the world are carving up the popular holiday destination by 'settling scores' in a constant battle to the top.
Just days ago, a British man was treated in A&E in Marbella after being shot four times in the legs, with well-placed sources saying it was a possible settling of scores between gangs.
And that came days after six Brits were held after a bar stabbing in Mijas Costa in which a man was left with his “guts hanging out”.
It's sparked fears that the brutal turf wars that have plagued the area for years could be on the rise again, as Spain begins to lift lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Past attacks, most of which are sparked over drugs, have seen people gunned down in their own garages, 'kneecapped' and even given a 'Glasgow smile' – also known as a Chelsea smile – which sees victims cut from the corners of their mouth up to the ears.
And Radio DJ and freelance journalist Giles Brown, 52, who has lived just outside of Marbella for 30 years, says the latest attacks are a worrying echo of many before them.
“It’s the sign to me that things are getting back to normal in Marbella, in a bad way," he tells Sun Online.
"With the guy being shot the other day, and a stabbing on the coast on the day that people were allowed to go out for the first time, there was a bit more movement and so people start taking their revenge on each other.
“The shooting was a warning – if it wasn’t, he’d be dead."
According to statistics from Spain's Ministry of the Interior, there were 25 murders last year in the province of Malaga – along with 24 attempted murders – with the total number of crimes hitting 80,174, up from 79,225 the year before.
Brown adds: “There’s so much going on in Spain at the moment, and the police are trying their hardest, but they need to be able to throw more bodies at it."
'They shot my friend in his own garage'
Brown says the gang wars have been getting steadily worse in recent years – a worrying observation that's supported by Dutch author and journalist Ivo Teulings, 52, who lives in Malaga and has researched some of the most shocking crimes first-hand, for his book Costa del Coke.
"There are so many now involved in the gang wars – Russians, Albanians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Moroccans, English, Irish, everyone wants a piece of the cake," Teulings says.
“There’s a lot of money to be made. The drugs economy in the Costa del Sol is worth more than the tourism, unofficially."
Brown says while turf wars have been going on for years, there has been more "settling of scores" recently.
The drugs economy in the Costa del Sol is worth more than the tourism, unofficially
And one such incident was the murder of his friend Marco Yaqout last year, who was gunned down in his own garage.
Yaqout, a millionaire nightclub owner who was close to a few of the TOWIE stars, was shot several times by a waiting assassin after he drove his distinctive Bentley into the garage of his two-storey villa in the early hours of January 21 last year.
Several suspected hitmen were arrested over his death in March this year – four in Spain and two in the Netherlands.
Brown says his death shocked the entire community at the time.
“It was a real shock for everyone," he says. "He was a larger than life figure… It’s been quite a violent year and Spanish police seem to be overwhelmed.”
Gruesome 'Glasgow smiles' and 'medieval' torture
While there have been a wave of shocking and swift executions, like in Yaqout's case, some gangs prefer to send a message to their rivals – through grim torture methods.
“Warnings usually include being shot in the legs, kneecapping, hamstringing them, or the Glasgow smile," says Brown.
Kneecapping is where a gunman will cripple a victim by shooting him in the kneecap, while hamstringing involves incapacitating them by cutting their hamstrings.
Brit Craig Moran was given a 'Glasgow smile' in a sickening attack by a group of unidentified criminals in September 2018 – which also saw him have the tendons cut in his right hand and shot in both legs.
Moran was an ex-con who had been released from jail the year before following a jewellery heist that left an innocent mum dead.
"People do awful things to each other," says Teulings. "There’s the Chelsea [Glasgow] smile, where they cut you, or force you to suck on the corner of a table and give you a kick in the back. It cuts your mouth open.
"Then people may shoot them in the knees as a warning, or in the legs… They get medieval on each other. It’s awful."
What's caused the ever-growing bloodbath?
While there are a number of theories over why the Costa del Sol has become such a hotbed for criminals, both Brown and Teulings agree that geography has a lot to do with it.
Police previously revealed that cocaine from South America and hashish from northern Africa are two major driving forces behind the violence.
“80 per cent of the Moroccan hashish comes to Europe through Spain," Teulings says. "It would come to the beaches of La Línea de la Concepción, which is bordering Gibraltar.
“Every day or night until last year, approximately 10 or 12 inflatable boats would arrive carrying three tonnes of hashish each.
“There weren’t enough police to do anything about it."
However, he says that method was halted last year when police finally clamped down – forcing smugglers to go elsewhere, focusing instead on places north of the Costa del Sol and working with local gangs.
Meanwhile, police have previously pointed to the ease with which criminals can hide out in the large, anonymous residential estates which are so common in the area.
“People want to muscle in or want to come and hide out and hang out," Brown adds.
Here's a look at some of the more well-known international gangs plaguing the Costa del Sol…
The Brits and Irish – 'Glasgow smiles & doorstep shootings'
Sadly Craig Moran wasn't the only Brit to fall foul of British gangs in the Costa del Sol – and while many are thought to have moved out in recent years in search of new stomping grounds, some remain.
Irish gangs were also once huge players in the turf wars in the Costa del Sol, but Teulings says many of them have now moved off too.
“The Irish and British have backed off and gone to Dubai. It’s not fun for them now," he says.
While there are many small-time crooks plying their trade locally, other more established gangs have been suspected of importing cocaine in bulk then moving it on into the UK.
A few years ago this was dominated by the Kinahan clan – a family of Irish gangsters who established themselves as a leading criminal force on the Spanish coast in 2003.
Swedish, Danish, Dutch – 'bombs & public killings'
In one of the most shocking incidents in recent years, Dutch national Hamza Ziani died in hospital after being shot repeatedly in the head and abdomen by a masked gunman at sushi restaurant Tiki in Torremolinos, in October 2018.
Ziani was known to have links to the gangs currently engaged in a cocaine war in Utrecht, and had been arrested on suspicion of making a bomb in Marbella just a month prior, suggesting his death was a settling of scores.
There were also two bombings that same month – in Marbella and Benahavis – that luckily killed no one. Police later arrested three Swedish men over them.
Elsewhere, Heaven nightclub was burned down in April 2018 and just a month later, the owner of the club was gunned down in his car in front of his wife and daughter, on their way home from communion, because he allegedly failed to pay back a drug debt.
Cops later revealed the killers waited until after the communion had finished – so the execution would have maximum effect and send a warning to others.
A notorious crime gang named 'The Swedes' – a group of hitmen of North African origin from Sweden – were linked to the murder previously, according to multiple reports.
Moroccans & North Africans -'Ruthless killers & teen kickboxers'
There have been a spate of drugs-related crimes linked to Moroccan criminals in the past – no doubt largely due to how close it is to the Costa del Sol.
“Moroccan gangs are ruthless, they shoot everyone they don’t like," Teulings says.
"They may send a couple of kids and say, ‘shoot that guy’, and they don’t know how to handle the gun – so they may shoot the guy and five more with him."
And while they're nowhere near as prolific as many international gangs, a teen kickboxing gang was arrested in the area last year over a spate of brutal violent attacks on innocent holidaymakers.
The Colombians – 'Drugs masterminds'
The Colombians have held considerable influence among local gangsters for years.
Not only do they form the link between European drug distributors and the producers in South America, but they are also feared for their brutal executioners.
Teulings says Colombian cartels often work with Moroccans by sending drugs across to Africa, where they bribe people to get it shipped into Morocco.
"Then the Moroccans take care of bringing it to Spain," he claims.
The Italian Mafia – 'Invisible top dogs'
Both Brown and Teulings say Italian Mafia-style syndicates have a lot of control in the area too.
The Naples-based mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra – first infiltrated Spain decades ago.
The Camorra is known to invest dirty drugs money into local restaurants and legitimate businesses, but are also said to operate as specialist assassins.
Teulings explains of the Mafia as a whole: “Drug money has to be laundered, and a large percentage of the bars, restaurants, discos, brothels are in the hands of Mafia.
“Now with this virus, I reckon there will be lots of restaurants, bars and discos that will go bankrupt and they will be bought by the mob. It will get much, much worse.”
Meanwhile, Teulings says the Ndrangheta, an Italian Mafia-type organised crime syndicate based in the region of Calabria, also has a tight grip in the area.
“You don’t see them, they’re the big guys," he claims.
The Russians – 'Organised criminals'
Spanish police claim to have stopped the local branches of Solntsevskaya and Izmailovskaya from operating in recent years.
The two groups are among the most feared of all Russian organised criminal groups.
Russian gangs are thought to be currently operating in the Costa del Sol and southern Spain, but are not thought to be at the centre of any recent violence.
Albanians, Bulgarians & Romanians – 'Sex trafficking & prostitution'
There first began to be reports of a rise in Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian gangs in the area in 2017-18, and they're still believed to be there now.
“Most of the Romanian gangs are into sex trafficking," Teulings says.
In 2017, 13 women were saved by cops after they smashed a Bulgarian prostitution ring and arrested 34 suspected members.
A similar operation targeting Romanian women was busted in February 2018 and saw the two brothers who masterminded it jailed for more than 100 years.
Albanian-Kosovar gangsters, many of them ex-military, have also been arrested in recent years for running professional burglary teams across the coastline.
Meanwhile, according to the Olive Press, a Bulgarian man was found dead in a ditch in October last year. Another Bulgarian was later arrested in January over the killing.
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