LA LINEA DE LA CONCEPCION, Spain – Faces hidden by masks and hoods, a group of 40 men emerge from the darkness of beach-front houses and step into the sand as a state-of-the-art speedboat approaches the shore. They frantically unload dozens of plastic-wrapped burlap bundles, each containing 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of Moroccan hashish.
In little over two minutes, most of the cargo has filled two full-size SUVs. All seats but the drivers' have been removed. The lights are off and the windows have been darkened with black spray.
Then, somebody yells: "Cut it! Cut it!"
As fast as they came, the SUVs speed away and the smugglers find shelter in the narrow streets of the La Atunara fishing neighborhood. The boat vanishes into the night, still holding half of its cargo. When a patrol car arrives seconds later, all that remains is the sound of the waves.
Another night, another chapter in the battle between Spanish authorities and the crime gangs who have turned this neglected town in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar into a key European entry point for Moroccan cannabis resin.
"Right now, we are losing this battle," said Francisco Mena, leader of Nexos, a federation of local community action groups that offer rehab for drug addicts. "Trafficking can't be stopped with the human resources and material means that we have in place at the moment."
He insisted the war could still be won. But such optimism flies in the face of the brazen drug operations witnessed by Associated Press journalists, and of the very words of drug chieftains who agreed to rare interviews.
One of the area's most notorious "narcos" insisted that the illicit trade is here to stay.
"Trafficking has always existed, and it always will. If not here, it will move elsewhere along the coast," said the gang leader, who like others spoke on condition that they not be named because they feared prosecution. "If drug trafficking didn't end in Colombia with death penalties and extraditions to the United States, nobody will end it here."
Half a dozen trafficking ring members and their leaders pointed to the 30 percent provincial jobless rate in the Cadiz province, the highest in the country, as a fuel for their criminal activity. They claimed that shipping drugs is a way of life in this forgotten corner, justifying it as a "necessary bad" that feeds hundreds of families directly, and thousands more indirectly.
"Many of us are fathers. We need to take food home," said another gangster who asked to be identified as Pepe. "If we couldn't provide for our children this way, another kind of violence would come."
Three dozen clans are believed to be working in Campo de Gibraltar, a county of 268,000 that cradles the Bay of Algeciras. On a clear day, the contours of the coast of Morocco, the world's top producer of hashish, are visible across a busy shipping waterway at the mouth of the Mediterranean, just 30 kilometers (less than 19 miles) away.
A new generation of bolder gangsters is challenging underfunded law enforcement agencies, as local families watch their teenagers lured into a life of easy money.
"The national government needs to do more, and not only when the media's attention is here," said Mena. "When the state disappears, what appears is impunity."
Criminals that in the past dropped their few hundred kilograms of cargo in the sea as soon as they came across a customs surveillance boat are now ready to defend their bigger, bulkier shipments.
The RIBs, or rigid-hulled inflatable boats known as "rubbers," are partially to blame. With three, four and even five 350-horsepower engines, they can ship an average cargo of 1 to 3 tons of hashish in over one hour from northern Moroccan shores. A trafficker told the AP he held the local record: 178 stashes, or 5.3 tons, in a single shipment.
Car chases at high-speeds and personal threats to judges, prosecutors and underpaid, short-handed officers have now become common.
On land and at sea, traffickers use shuttle vehicles — SUVs or rubbers without cargo whose function is to mislead authorities and, increasingly, ram patrol cars and boats.
So far, casualties have been higher on the traffickers' side. Two years ago, four traffickers died when a patrol vessel sailed over their rubber, prompting angry protests against the authorities.
According to police investigators and drug traffickers themselves, the uptick in violence is also related to inter-gang burglaries of drug cargo from beaches or from hundreds of "kindergartens" — storage spaces, often in local homes. These "vuelcos" are often the work of outsiders, the sources said, frequently gangs from Eastern Europe.
"The earlier generation had a respect for police uniform but there is now a new generation that has an absolute contempt for authority," says Juan Franco, the mayor of La Linea, "My worry is that these guys are armed and so far, they are not using them against civil guard or police agents, but that's the next step."
Fears that civilians could also be caught in the crossfire reached a height last month when a group of drug traffickers stormed the emergency ward in La Linea's public hospital. The assailants freed Samuel Crespo, a top aide and nephew to Los Castanitas, two brothers who run the town's most influential drug clans.
Police say there were at least 20 attackers, armed with sticks and knives. Witnesses have disputed the official account, saying a handful of unarmed youngsters took Crespo away with little resistance from their two custodians. The attacked policemen said using their guns inside the busy emergency ward would have escalated things.
The events hit a nerve in La Linea, a town of 63,000. "How can a handful of young criminals be so bold to act with such impunity in broad daylight?" asks Mena, the activist. "Why were there only two policemen guarding a prominent gangster? And why didn't they have any other means to stop the attackers?"
Outrage increased when news emerged that the fugitive was taken in a jet ski across the Strait of Gibraltar for treatment in a private clinic in northern Morocco. A police investigation led to the arrests of two of those involved in the attack, in addition to one person that was detained on the spot at the hospital.
Crespo himself is now back in Spain according to his aides' account. He remains at large.
A week after the attack, the country's Interior Minister descended on the town with an entourage of bodyguards and special police forces. Juan Ignacio Zoido's visit was timed to announce a police operation that led to the arrest of 16 people, members of a sophisticated gang that had installed radar to monitor patrol boats. Police found it under rooftop solar panels in a waterfront house. They also snatched 4 tons of hashish, 17 vehicles and four firearms.
Zoido promised crime squads and additional security measures for the county over coming months.
That same morning, a 90-minute drive away, men in hoods entered a guarded compound and stole a speedboat that had been confiscated and held in evidence, along with a truck to pull it.
The Cadiz province, which at its southernmost tip only 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) away from North Africa, already amounts for 40 percent of the drugs entering Spain, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Hashish is arriving on these beaches at the pace of seven to 20 loaded rubbers per day, according to calculations by police and traffickers. A Civil Guard operation last year dismantled a network that used dangerous night helicopter journeys to fly drugs into hideouts further inland.
The county is also a main entry point for cocaine, Europe's second most popular drug according to the region's Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addictions. It makes its way concealed in containers and merchant ships docking in Algeciras, across the bay from La Linea.
Some of the smuggled drugs are consumed south of the Pyrenees, but most of it —up to 90 percent, by some police accounts— travels on land to France, Italy and the Netherlands, which plays a central role as a regional distribution hub, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
As in any other business, shipping a stash of hashish involves plenty of stakeholders. The clans operating in and beyond the Campo de Gibraltar are usually family-run and territorial, but only a handful of them are in control of all the phases of the trade.
Sooner or later, the job will be outsourced to gangs offering pilots, rubbers, stolen Land Cruisers —the most common SUV in their operations— or the army of people watching every corner for police presence. Known as "puntos," spotters, they are placed in strategic locations, often with a non-smartphone to alert others. These low-ranking gangsters can make from 600 to 1,000 euros ($700 to 1,200) in just one day, according to traffickers.
The "bushmen," as those unloading speedboats and loading Land Cruisers are called, can earn up to 2,000 to 3,000 euros a day. But the best paid in the chain are SUV drivers (10,000-15,000 euros for one job) and rubber pilots, starting from 30,000 euros and rising with the number of hashish bundles they deliver. The owner of a "kindergarten," which can be a family with a basement rented to the traffickers, can make up to 15,000 euros for each day hiding the stash.
The smugglers take umbrage at their reputation as a violent, fractured community.
"Police are looking for a war by pitting us against each other," said a prominent drug lord speaking in a modest safe house where the leaders of half a dozen local gangs, some of them on the run from the law, convened to discuss business. "But this is not Medellin or Sinaloa, and there is no such thing as a Pablo Escobar among us," he said. "There are no assassins here. There are only groups who are good at what they do and others who make mistakes, the same way as police make them."
"We, the veterans, are here to stop this from escalating to any kind of violence," he added, eliciting nods from others in the room.
A gang member with a walkie-talkie enters announcing that a rubber has arrived. The group moves quickly to the beach, only a few meters away; in an impressive feat of choreography, more than 100 bushmen and spotters unload the craft as reporters and passers-by look on. Only word that a police patrol car is streets way, driving toward the beach, brings an abrupt end to the operation.
"You see, this is like a game of cat and mouse, but you won't see the guns, at least not on our side," said a top associate of Los Castanitas. "I have never stolen or gotten myself involved in anything else that is not the smuggling. Yes, this is illegal, I'll give you that. But we are not hurting anyone."
Despite its struggles with trafficking, Spain is the European Union member seizing the largest volumes of both cocaine and cannabis. In 2015, cannabis seizures accounted for more than 70 percent the drug apprehended in the block, according to Eurostat figures. Of the 373 tons of drugs seized in Spain last year, according to the Interior Ministry, 145 tons were cannabis resin confiscated in the Campo de Gibraltar region, a 45 percent increase from the previous year.
Still, much more slips through the cracks. Investigators said seizures amount to only 4 to 5 percent of the hashish that could be entering the country.
More resources to investigate money laundering would target gang leaders, says Mena.
Police unions say that a regional court specialized in drug trafficking would speed up some of the cases, because drug-trafficking probes require large amounts of judicial red tape for wiretapping and other investigating methods.
Other proposed remedies range from harsher sentences —Spain punishes hashish-trafficking with up to six years if no other crimes involved, whereas sentences can double that in France and the United Kingdom— to regulating consumption and sales of cannabis.
Mena welcomes recent steps taken by the Spanish government on a bill to restrict the use of large speedboats. He says the European Union should aid Spain, and pressure Morocco for stronger action on its end.
But the biggest challenge is local collusion with the drug networks. Revenues feed the local economy, often laundered through beauty parlors, gyms, clothing stores or other small businesses, creating a "narco-economy" that Franco, the mayor of La Linea, describes as "bread for today and hunger for tomorrow."
Unemployment in La Linea, at 35 percent in 2016, reaches 80 percent among the youth in its poorest neighborhoods, the mayor's office said.
In late March, dozens of people in one of the La Linea's impoverished neighborhoods protected a trafficker who was being chased by a national police patrol. Police said agents had to fire gunshots into the air to dispel the crowd, but by then their quarry had vanished, leaving behind a car with half a ton of hashish.
Still, there are signs that some residents know that drugs are a dead end for their town. On Feb. 27, two weeks after the hospital incident, more than 2,000 people gathered to protest.
"No more drugs, we want jobs," they shouted.
But Franco does not believe that his city has truly turned a corner.
"Once in a while there is a specific event that creates a catharsis of some kind," he said, "but months on we go back to the same point."
AP photographer Emilio Morenatti contributed to this story.