Thursday, December 9

The dirty money airlift from Spain to the Gambia | Spain

Flight VY7574 Barcelona-Banjul has two passenger queues. One for boarding and the other before the Customs office. Hours before takeoff, dozens of travelers bound for the Gambian capital patiently wait their turn to declare the money they carry. They take out of the fanny pack an envelope full of bills; the official counts the money in the machine; they fill out the E1 currency exit document and then go to boarding.

Gambian immigrants settled throughout Europe mostly use the plane to get money to their country from Spain. “Before the pandemic, there were times when we had so many travelers in the office that the plane had to delay their departure to wait for them. We are talking about 30 or 40 people in one morning, ”says David Sánchez, head of El Prat customs. The Barcelona flight is the only one scheduled from continental Europe to Banjul. That explains why Gambians from other European countries land in El Prat to make the transfer in Barcelona and take money to their country on the direct Vueling flight.

On the July 31 flight, fifteen passengers declared currency amounting to 255,885 euros. Muhamadou Darboe, 50, is one of them. He works in a metal shop in Santa Coloma (Barcelona). He has an envelope with 11,500 euros on him. He says that most of the money has been given to him by his Gambian friends in Catalonia, to give to their relatives in the Gambia. “When I get to my town, Dembacunda, I will call people and they will stop by my house to pick it up.” Other passengers offered different reasons to justify the funds they were carrying, from financing a relative’s pilgrimage to Mecca to building a house in their home village.

If a traveler has more than ten thousand euros in cash, he has to declare it at Customs. It is a mandatory procedure, which is not penalized or taxed. The Gambia is the first destination country for foreign currency that leaves Spain. The year 2019 beat a statistic that has not stopped growing during the past decade: 2,179 Gambian travelers took 73.4 million euros from our country, according to customs sources. That amount does not correspond to the poor commercial relationship between the two countries. We export to the Gambia worth 23.5 million euros and imports do not reach four million, according to sources from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The second destination for outgoing money from Spain is Germany.

International organizations in the fight against money laundering consider the Gambia to be a high risk country in terms of drug and medicine smuggling, arms trafficking and illegal immigration. The data that the investigators handle on the outflow of foreign currency from Spain to the Gambia reveal the existence of an organized criminal structure, in charge of exporting money of allegedly criminal origin, a senior official from the Tax Agency assures EL PAÍS.

Interpol affects the same thesis. A 2018 report on organized crime in West Africa concludes that “the physical movement of money across the internal borders of that region or with other areas could be related to organized crime activities.”

Two hundred thousand euros in a suitcase.  Photo: Sonsoles Meana
Two hundred thousand euros in a suitcase. Photo: Sonsoles Meana

Since 2017, Customs has carried out a series of random traces on the Barcelona flight. Investigators suspect that an organization uses these people as money couriers. The currencies not only originate in Spain, but come from all over Europe. In the middle of the last decade, Europol launched an alert on this problem, at the request of the Spanish authorities. The first to respond were Germany, France, Switzerland and Finland. In those countries, a striking outflow of money was also detected by Gambian travelers.

Yundum is the only airport the Gambia has. It is halfway between the capital, Banjul, and Serrekunda beach, the flagship of international tourism in West Africa. In 2019 it received 619,000 visitors, according to the World Bank.

The air terminal, renovated three years ago, has a pristine appearance. The first tourist season after the pandemic is at the doors and the controls for covid are rigorous. The office of the airport police chief, Pamodou Manka is straightforward. Computer on the table and stove on the floor preparing carving, Gambian tea. In the office next door, his colleagues question two passengers on the Barcelona flight on August 28. Between them they carry 152,000 euros on top. “These two people had Spanish documentation proving that they are the owners of the money. What can we do? ” Manka wonders. “They allege that the money is from friends and acquaintances in Spain to give to their relatives. We have no choice but to believe them because they are not doing anything illegal here. Hopefully the Spanish authorities would investigate the origin of the money before giving them a certificate endorsing their ownership. They would have to tighten the control measures for the money that goes to Africa ”.

At the end of July, the Police intercepted a Gambian traveler with 200,000 euros on a flight from Casablanca. Unable to justify their property, they were requisitioned. The Gambian secret services have an eye on jihadist terrorism, even though there have been no attacks in the country. “The money that comes in through the airport could be to radicalize people, but it can also come from drug trafficking and organized crime. Right now we have no more information on the matter, but we have started to be on top of them ”concludes Manka.

The Gambia is a small West African country with 2.3 million people. It is like an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Senegal in the rest of the cardinal points. Law enforcement authorities pride themselves on low crime rates. The always dangerous business of buying and selling gold in Africa is a good example. The intermediaries and buyers of this mineral have found a Gambia a safe haven for their businesses. Luis M., 50, has spent years roaming the artisanal mines of northern Ghana to buy gold. It has now settled in the Gambia. “In the gold-producing countries of West Africa, such as Mali, Burkina Faso or Ghana, it is very dangerous to do business because you run the risk of having it stolen before you get to the airport. That is why many intermediaries have come to the Gambia to carry out the transactions. Here you have the assurance that no one is going to steal it from you ”.

The Police claim that they have crime under control, but acknowledge that there is a Gambian organized crime network spread over several European countries. “At the beginning of the year we allowed the extradition of 24 Gambian criminals who were serving time in Germany,” says Inspector Manka.

The apparent Gambian pax has a hole in her back door. The port of Banjul, the country’s economic engine, is a hotbed of crime around smuggling. An informal city has grown around it: street stalls; exchange houses run by Mauritanian citizens; dingy hostels for one night; prostitution, hustlers and truckers waiting to load and go.

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Groups of smugglers have cast their nets in the port. Everything from caches of cocaine to stolen cars goes into the containers. Interpol has its offices on the fourth floor of the central police station. From the office of the chief, Sulayman Gaye, you can see the unloading of the freighters. What keeps him awake is the smuggling of high-end vehicles, stolen in Europe, which enter in containers through the port. “Right now we are in the middle of an operation against this traffic. We have seized more than twenty stolen cars in France and we have to return them to that country. This summer we have already sent a few. Before those cars entered through Dakar (Senegal) ”, says Inspector Gaye. “We are going to tackle the problem because they are going to authorize me to put five of my people in the port and this is going to end,” he says proudly.

Colombian cocaine cartels have also infiltrated the port. The Police have already discovered several containers full of drugs. What goes in has to go out. A businessman knows this well, who is dedicated to shipping containers of fish to Spain. He does not want to give his name. He assures that the mafias have offered to send him drugs to our country. “In the first meeting they told me that they wanted to buy octopus and send it to Galicia. In the second and last meeting, they offered to bring me a gift, five or a thousand kilos of coca. I left it there ”, he says resignedly.

The Gambian community in Spain, some 25,000 people, is the largest in the diaspora. It is concentrated in Catalonia and Aragon. They work mainly in agriculture, construction and slaughterhouses in Lleida and Zaragoza. The country’s economy is polarized between those who come and those who leave. Remittances from emigrants are the main source of income, between 15% and 20% of GDP. The second source is tourism, diminished by being controlled by international tour operators. The crumbs of the currency are left to the so-called bomsters, the local youths who offer paid sex to Western women in the luxury hotels of Serrekunda.

Most of the money transfer business in Spain is in the hands of three large companies: Ría, Western Union and Money Gram. The latter has seen a notable increase in shipments to The Gambia. In July they made 2,500 remittances, at an average of 168 euros each. “West Africa is very underbanked. You have to be competitive, that’s why we deliver the money to the recipient in the most unimaginable places: grocery stores, tobacconists, gas stations, hairdressers and now the boom is on the mobile itself ”, says Ernesto López, vice president of Money Gram Express.

Sending 3,000 euros to an isolated town upstream of the Gambié River, on the northern border with Senegal, costs less than 5 euros. The family of the Gambian immigrant has the money almost in real time. It is the maximum amount with which the remittance companies operate in Spain. To send more than 3,000 euros, you need the collaboration of conventional banks and they do not have branches in the jungle towns.

Vueling passengers say that the envelopes contain immigration money to help their families. The other version is given by the investigators, who have a proper name for the couriers, call them smurfs, and suspect that they also have a criminal trade: laundering the black money of criminal organizations.

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