Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction'

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Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Bianca de Vilar /Getty Images Europe
Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Bianca de Vilar /Getty Images Europe

A wildfire that raged on the Costa del Sol for six days and killed a firefighter may have been started by traffickers as cover for shipments of drugs from Africa, according to Spanish police.

Police sources close to the investigation said criminal gangs had used the distraction tactic to transport and unload shipments normally laden with mostly cannabis and some cocaine.

The fire destroyed close to 10,000 hectares of forest land in the Sierra Bermeja hills near the resort of Estepona in what is often referred to as the 'Costa del Crime'.

Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Alvaro Cabrera/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock
Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Alvaro Cabrera/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock

The source of the fire was located near the hilltop village of Genagacil, where investigators found the charred remains of two piles of leaves and pine cones that had been lit with a lighter.

They also believe that flammable liquid was used to accelerate the blaze, which spread quickly through the dry forest at the end of a hot summer and amid strong, swirling winds.

The blaze came towards the end of a deadly season of wildfires across the Mediterranean, hitting Italy and Turkey particularly hard.

The fire was described by firefighters from the area as the worst they had ever seen due to its intensity and unpredictable nature. Carlos Martínez, a 44-year-old from Almería, died when the group of firefighters he was working with was trapped by the flames after a sudden change of wind and he failed to escape down the hillside with his colleagues.

The army had to be called in to assist with distinguishing, with more than 900 emergency workers and 50 aircraft involved in the effort before rain helped to bring the fire under control on Tuesday. On Monday a helicopter crashed into trees after being caught up in a dust cloud that caused the pilot to lose visibility, but its 19 occupants survived.

Having paid tribute to Mr Martínez and the rest of the emergency workers, Andalusian President Juanma Moreno said on Thursday that those responsible were “experts out to cause the greatest possible harm”.

Mr Moreno has asked anyone with information about who may have started the blaze to talk to the authorities, promising anonymity in case of fear of reprisals.

Among the other hypotheses being investigated by Spanish police is a dispute over land use between locals or that a drug gang decided to torch a marijuana plantation to prevent its discovery by the authorities. No signs of cannabis plants have so far been found by investigators near the source of the fire, however.

Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Europa Press News /Europa Press
Spanish police suspect drug traffickers started massive Costa del Sol wildfire as 'distraction' - Europa Press News /Europa Press

In 2018 drug traffickers were also suspected of being behind a similar blaze in Manilva, near Gibraltar.

It is estimated that the 14 kilometres of sea that separate Spain from Morocco, sees more than 280 tons of drugs shipped to Europe per month. About 80 percent of the hash consumed in Europe passes through here, according to some estimates.

The Sierra Bermeja area, including a natural park, is considered an important haven of biodiversity near the extensively developed Costa del Sol coastal area, and environmentalists say the damage will take decades to repair. Ash from the blaze will also pollute waterways and could lead to die-offs of fish and molluscs in nearby stretches of the Mediterranean.

Apart from high winds and dry weather, the intensity of the fire also reflects the impact of climate change and changes in the management of forest land.

“We’re talking about an unprecedented power and strength compared with the fires we are used to seeing in this country,” said Alejandro García, technical director of Andalusia’s Infoca wildfire-fighting unit.

In 2018 Spain’s government launched a special plan against the drug trafficking gangs using the Andalusian coast in response to increasing lawlessness in the Bay of Gibraltar area, epitomised by the escape of a well-known suspect, busted out of a hospital by masked men shortly after his arrest in February of that year.

From July 2020 to May of this year, 4,745 police operations against trafficking in the provinces of Cádiz, Huelva and Malaga led to 3,769 arrests and the seizure of 458 tonnes of drugs, mostly hashish.

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