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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.
Then, somebody yells: "Cut it! Cut it!"
As fast as they came, 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. "Trafficking can't be stopped with the human resources and material means that we have in place."
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.
"Trafficking has always existed, and it always will. If not here, it will move elsewhere along the coast," said one of the area's most notorious "narcos,"who like others spoke on condition that they not be named because they feared prosecution.
Half a dozen trafficking ring members and their leaders said that shipping drugs is a way of life in this forgotten corner. In a province with a 30 percent jobless rate, the highest in the country, they see their criminal activity as a "necessary bad" feeding 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.
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.
On land and at sea, traffickers use shuttle vehicles — SUVs or inflatable boats without cargo whose function is to mislead authorities and, increasingly, ram patrol cars and boats.
"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 a top aide and nephew to Los Castanitas, two brothers who run the town's most influential drug clans.
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 promised crime squads and additional security measures for the county over coming months.
The smugglers take umbrage at their reputation as a violent, fractured community.
"Police are looking for a war by pitting us against each other, but this is not Medellin or Sinaloa," said a prominent drug lord.
Despite its struggles with trafficking, Spain is the European Union member seizing the largest volumes of both cocaine and cannabis. 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 2016.
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.
Activists, local politicians and police unions want more resources to investigate money laundering that could lead to gang leaders; a regional court specialized in drug trafficking and harsher sentences. Some even ask for regulating the consumption and sale of cannabis.
Mena welcomes recent steps toward a bill aiming to restrict the use of large speedboats. He says the European Union should also 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.
In late March, agents in a poor neighborhood fired gunshots into the air to dispel a crowd protecting a trafficker who was on the run from police. Their quarry 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, the mayor, 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.