In the final part of our exclusive serialisation of Ghosts of Spain, Giles Tremlett explains how British buyers are closely tied to the sewer of corruption on the Costa del Sol
MARBELLA has two kinds of summers. There are the normal bonanza years, when the place fills up with minor Spanish celebrities and politicians, with Scandinavian yachtsmen, British golfers, Dutch tennis players, Russian and Italian mafiosi. Then there are the bonanza years when half a dozen Saudi Boeing 747 airliners touch down at Malaga airport. The monarch descends (the former King Fahd, in his wheelchair, used to be lowered on a mechanical goods ramp) and the deluge begins. Within days numerous other immensely wealthy gulf sheikhs and assorted billionaires with mansions here, are likely to follow suit, if they are not already here. All, suddenly, is excess. On Fahd’s final visit in 2002, a fleet of 500 brand-new Mercedes hire cars appeared on transporters from Germany just to cope with the needs of his household. Fahd stayed with a retinue of 3,000 people. Several hundred five- and four-star hotel rooms were block-booked for the period; half a dozen vast, multi-decked,
gleaming, presumably teetotal, gin palaces were moored in the port at Puerto Banús; an entire floor of the local hospital, of which he was a generous benefactor, was reportedly placed on standby for the sickly monarch.
His visit was said to have injected 70 million euros into the town. Unfortunately for Marbella, it was only the fourth time he had come here to the palace complex he named An-nada, The Dew. When he died in 2005, the town hall declared three days of mourning.
With its triumphal arches, boastful monuments and brash, ornamental opulence, Marbella is a monument to corruption and uncontrolled greed. Benidorm blights the landscape, Marbella simply rapes it. Much the same can be said for the rest of the Costa del Sol.
Spain is a tourism superpower. It attracts 53 million foreign visitors a year (16 million of them British). More than 11 per cent of Spain’s economy runs off tourism. The Costa del Sol has always attracted visitors.
Well before Britain’s criminal classes discovered, in the 1960s, the lack of an extradition treaty made this the perfect hideaway in the sun, adventurous travellers were making their way to the beaches near Malaga. They were attracted by its port and a climate that rarely sinks, even in winter, to below 13 degrees centigrade.
The first tourists, as tourists do, stuck out like sore thumbs. “The ladies are conspicuous for their hats, shopping-bags, shapeless coiffures, and resolute expressions, features that are all absent from the Spanish woman,” a British woman who had settled here a decade earlier, observed with obvious distaste.
In the late 1950s, Torremolinos – just down the coast from here, near Malaga – joined Benidorm, the Costa Brava and Majorca as one of the Meccas of the newly-invented package tourism. Before the Civil War it had been a hang-out for bohemian British and American artists.
An idea of what has been lost is given by two other British travellers. Writer Rose Macaulay swam out to sea at night in 1949 and looked back to see “here and there, a light.” Nowadays, she would see nothing but light.
A few years earlier, in Marbella, a German aristocrat and entrepreneur, Alfonso de Hohenlohe, made a bid to attract the Rolls-Royce-driving travellers who went to Cannes, Nice or Sardinia. He set up a beach club and hotel. Around it clustered new hotels, shops and restaurants catering for the very rich. Marbella grew, slowly and serenely to begin with, then frantically and uncontrollably.
The arrival of Fahd, and the building of his complex of palaces and mosques sealed Marbella’s status as a Mecca for wealth in the 1970s.
Uncontrolled greed, and growth, set in. It is still growing today, a fast-expanding sprawl of urbanizaciones, erasing everything in their path.
Even Hohenlohe would later flee the ensuing nightmare. “If I could destroy the horrors of Marbella, I would do. But I suspect I would need a lot of dynamite,” he said in one of his last interviews.
“Marbella enjoyed a simple sort of luxury, not at all pretentious, something appreciated by cosmopolitans – which does not mean those with most money. Today there are many rich catetos, oafs, who do not understand the meaning of sobriety.”
Sobriety is the last word one would associate with modern Marbella. Indeed, Marbella is often held up as an example of the perfection of a system of corruption that is a temptation to all Spanish town halls. Under this system land needs to be reclassified from ‘rural’ to ‘urban’ before it can be built on. The power to do that rests with the town hall, which raises a tax on the new buildings and sells licences. They are now so
dependent on income gained from construction that, if they stopped building, some would lose between 50 and 60 per cent of their income.
There may also be a second, underhand tax. This is the one that must be paid to the mayor, the councillor in charge of urban planning, their political party, their pet project, their wife, children, testaferro (front man) or whoever. Suspicious Spaniards assume it to be commonplace.
If that is really so, then an unbreakable cycle is formed. The personal and political interests of both the developer and the politician meet, as do the spending habits (and funding) of the town hall. All they need to do is keep on building.
Stand on the busy beachfront in Marbella, or anywhere along the Costa del Sol, and this soon becomes apparent. The beachside development is moving rapidly up the hills, devouring everything in its path as the chain of cement joins up down the coast. Year after year I have watched the growth and seen the last few islands of green along the coast disappear. Towns have been joined together, like some giant dot-to-dot drawing, by lines of apartment blocks. Where the beach is already blocked, there has been a steady march inland.
Golf courses have become the latest drain on already scarce water resources. Some eighty-nine of these are projected along the costas over the next five years [It is actually more like 150 now – ED]. Each will consume the water equivalent of a town of 12,000 people, according to the environmentalists.
The result of the boom is a brand new Mediterranean megalopolis, a single stretch of building extending down the coast for a hundred miles, from Nerja in the east to Sotogrande in the west. Although 1.2 million people formally live on the Costa del Sol, there are actually believed to be some three million residents. Many are foreigners with few interests beyond their own house, the golf course and a handful of friends of the same nationality.
The building boom is fuelled, in part, by the proceeds of the drug trade with nearby Morocco and, further afield, with Colombia. A recent 250-million-euro police operation against money-laundering saw entire urbanizaciones confiscated by the courts.
Figures for the amount of black cash being laundered in the costas’ on-off construction booms are impossible to calculate. It includes not just ‘white’ cocaine and hashish money, but also the ‘grey’ money of small European businessmen who buy houses with cash never declared to their own tax authorities. It would be nice to think that all this money, wherever it came from, trickled down to the people of the Costa del Sol. But it
circulates, instead, in the upper spheres of developers, construction magnates and the comparatively rich, northern European buyers.
“One wonders how a province with the highest unemployment rates and one of the lowest incomes per capita in the country can have a growth of 1,800 per cent in the construction of new private housing in the last five years,” a recent university study asked.
The study, produced by a brave few individuals at Malaga University’s criminology institute, pointed out that the costas were on a ladder of corruption. If nothing was done, they warned, it could lead to the creation of an established mafia economy.
Chief Inspector Fernando Vives headed a team of just eight police officers whose job it was to tackle financial crime on the Costa del Sol. “It is like fighting an army of elephants with a few ants,” he admitted. Some major money-laundering busts since we met suggest either that his ants are working remarkably hard, or that their numbers have been boosted. The impression remains, however, that only the tip of the iceberg has been dealt with.
Vives was a sensitive cop. “All you can see along the coast are cranes and more cranes. A large part of that money comes from illegal earnings,” he says. “The Costa’s geography – its hills and woodlands – are being destroyed. Nobody imagined it would be like this.”
Vives said the hashish traffic from Morocco alone was at about 350 tonnes a year. The presence of Gibraltar, with twice as many offshore companies as its 29,000 residents, had helped create the opportunities for crime and corruption. The same routes, and the same international gangs, are increasingly turning to cocaine.
The problem is made worse by British and other expatriate residents. Most cannot be bothered to register as citizens of their new home towns, robbing the area of other funds awarded on the basis of how many people live there. Some 300,000 Britons are estimated to live here. That makes this Britain’s 14th-largest ‘city,’ larger than Cardiff or Southampton. However, fewer than one in ten British residents are registered. Costa corruption is as much the result of those who come here, enjoy the Spanish weather and hospitality but refuse to accept any responsibility for the place they live in, as it is of crooked politicians and construction companies.
Take the research in Karen O’Reilly’s book The British on the Costa Del Sol. It was depressing reading. The Brits came to Spain to get away from a country they saw as rotten with crime, immigration, broken communities and a failing health service. They fooled themselves that they were living a Spanish lifestyle, but spoke little or no Spanish and remained in their ghettoes. Some, after more than a decade, spoke fewer than twenty words of Spanish. “They . . . retain the Little Englandism, the isolationist
tendencies, the island mentality, the ‘natural’ racism or nationalism of Great Britain, while denying that they do,” she concluded.
Quite what will happen to the Majorcas and Marbellas, no one can tell. The package holiday is in crisis. Cheaper rivals are appearing in Tunisia, Turkey and elsewhere. Britons own 450,000 properties and are said to be buying upwards of 30,000 costa homes a year. One report said to be circulating amongst property developers suggests that 800,000 Germans wish to retire to Spain. The waiters of Europe look set to become Europe’s geriatric nurses.