Another charming Galician sunset had come and gone. As the night was drawing itself slowly over the sky, the coastal town of Cambados was preparing to welcome visitors from abroad. A few hours had to pass until everything was set for the much-anticipated reception. The city lights would go on and off under the dark night sky as a sign that action was about to kick off soon.
A ship was skittishly approaching the seaside, yet with no intention to reach the estuary. The rendezvous between locals and foreigners was to take place in the Atlantic and both sides were fully aware that it shouldn’t last longer than a couple of minutes.
The mysterious ship stopped a few kilometres away from the shore, where not a movement could be noticed; not a sound would be heard apart from that of the tide rolling against the pebbles. A deafening silence was the only thing that greeted the visitors, who didn’t seem surprised.
Suddenly, speedboat engines coughed alive and headlights pierced the night. Ready, set, action. A group of locals approached the ship from where hundreds of boxes filled with cocaine would be thrown to the speedboats. The catch-and-count game would rapidly draw to a close and the two groups would part ways with an ‘hasta luego’ until the next rendezvous.
As the speedboats were gently approaching the shore, men would rush out from the dark and form a human chain to load the cocaine into vans before disappearing again in the shadows. Mission accomplished. Tonnes of coke had made their way into Galicia, from where they would be distributed across Spain and eventually the rest of Europe.
Cocaine trafficking flourished in the Iberian country in the 1980s. Various illicit cigarette smugglers saw a new, more lucrative opportunity in drug trafficking. Apart from speedboats and connections, they also had the know-how and expertise in the field.
A band of fishermen in north-west Spain would gradually become Europe’s leading drug lords. At the epicentre of it all was José Ramón Prado Bugallo, known as Sito Miñanco. In his early 30s, Miñanco became the biggest drug kingpin on the Old Continent. Hailing from a working-class background, he started smuggling illegal tobacco in his late-20s and moved to drug trafficking after making acquaintance with Colombian traffickers from the Medellín cartel in prison.
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Colombian cartels had already been making millions of dollars by smuggling cocaine into the United States and they were willing to expand their business to Europe. Galicia would become their passage into Spain, with Miñanco their vanguard and his speedboats turning into the Trojan Horse. Soon enough, the drug lords’ drawers would overflow with cash and money laundering would become a necessity.
The eyes of the police were on Miñanco, who needed the approval of the local community in order to cover up his business. At the age of 31, he took over Xuventude de Cambados – a team from his native town of Cambados, with a population of 13,000. “[Miñanco] was and is a great football fan,” Nacho Carretero, author of the book Snow on the Atlantic: How Cocaine Came to Europe, tells These Football Times. “He was very excited to be the president of his town’s football club. He also knew that, in this way, he earned his neighbours’ respect and an even better image.”
Miñanco invested heavily in the Galician club and made them the third-best team in the region after Déportivo and Celta. In his first season as owner, he acquired the services of several regional stars to form a team that would secure promotion from the amateur leagues to the fourth tier.
Miñanco’s house was right next to the stadium and he would never drive to the ground; he preferred to mingle with fans on their way to watch their beloved team. “You’d see him up there in the stands in his white suit, surrounded by people who loved him,” a police agent told El Español. “Then you would always see him go down to the locker room to greet his players. He did not lose any detail.”
Among those players was the team’s star striker Modesto Méndez ‘Pupi’, father of the current Celta attacking midfielder, Brais Méndez. “He had a First Division budget,” said Carmen Avendaño, president of the ‘Mothers Against Drugs’ movement which led the fight against Galician drug lords. “He built a team that was wonderful. For me, of all the drug traffickers I have had to face, he is the most dangerous and the most intelligent.”
Miñanco purchased a new team bus, brought in masseurs, provided the team with brand new balls and offered the players enormous salaries of up to three million pesetas, along with generous bonuses. “No player of that time will speak ill of Sito Miñanco,” adds Carretero, whose book inspired the Netflix series Fariña (Cocaine Coast). As president, he was good to them, offering them very good salaries and taking them to the third tier of Spanish football. Everyone knew what was happening behind [the scenes], but no one wants to admit it. Most of them just keep silent.”
Every transaction would be made in cash and players were used to walking away from the dressing room with black plastic bags full of money. “It was like facing Real Madrid,” noted an erstwhile Vista Alegre player. “There was no such team in the category. [They were] a great team. I remember going to play there, in Cambados. They had all the newest boots, they had signed players who played in the second division. They touched the ball so nicely. No one played like that. What we were witnessing in those years was to say: bloody hell, they are amazing players. It was another level, another league.”
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Following two campaigns in the fourth tier, they secured promotion to Segunda B after finishing first – 13 points clear off second place – and scoring 77 goals, more than any other team in the league.
In June 1989, they travelled to Panama as part of their pre-season tour of South America, which also included a trip to Venezuela where they would play friendly games against local clubs.
Meanwhile, Miñanco had financed the construction of a new stadium which was to be inaugurated in October 1989. Several politicians and local authorities attended the inauguration game against Racing de Ferrol. On his payroll, Miñanco is considered to have had policemen, politicians, handymen, doctors, priests, footballers – you name it.
It was the very same year when, 7,643km away from Cambados, Atlético Nacional, a Colombian side linked to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, lifted the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history. “Some investigators suggest that Sito Miñanco imitated [Escobar] in some facets [of his life], such as establishing himself as a benefactor of the community, being president of the local football team or even [having] an appearance similar to that of the Colombian boss,” notes Carretero.
In 1990, Cambados travelled to the Spanish capital to face Real Madrid Castilla at the Santiago Bernabéu. In the same year, however, Miñanco went on the run as police were after him for smuggling 2.5 tonnes of cocaine into Spain.
Xuventude de Cambados’ sudden rise was followed by an abrupt, yet wholly anticipated, fall. They challenged for promotion to the Spanish second tier until 1992, but without Miñanco’s financial backing they were soon relegated again to the amateur leagues. Miñanco was arrested in 1994 and he has been in an out of the prison system since then. In 2018, he was jailed for being the main figure in a distribution chain from Spain to the Netherlands, Italy and Albania.
Meanwhile, back in Galicia little has changed: sunsets remain as majestic as back in the 1980s, although speedboats are being gradually replaced by one-use narco-submarines. Miñanco is in prison but the baton has been handed over to other, more discreet, drug lords. In coming full circle, Celta and Deportivo remain the best teams in the region, while Xuventude de Cambados are back in the seventh tier of Spanish football.
By Panos Kostopoulos @Panos88K
Photo credit: El Español