On July 21, a local summer festival was held in the Teruel municipality of Mas de las Matas. It was still early for the dance, around eleven at night, when the routine of this town of 600 inhabitants was shaken by the arrival of a black minivan with French registration. The vehicle with five occupants crossed the town at full speed. The man behind the wheel stopped to ask a couple of people where the health center was in rudimentary Spanish. When told to do so, he sped up and stopped dead in front of the ambulatory. The driver opened one of the rear doors, pulled out two badly injured men, lowered them to the ground, and stepped on the accelerator. Several neighbors who were nearby quickly came to help them. They were covered in blood, one had several stab wounds to the chest and the other to the neck. The first would end up dying shortly after.
The health center was closed and the doctor on duty, a few kilometers from there, in the nearby municipality of Castellote, with just 700 inhabitants. Almost at the same time as their neighbors in Mas de las Matas, in this other town they had just experienced a similar scene. A vehicle had broken into the town, had parked in the Plaza Mayor. Also a minivan, dark and with a French license plate. And also with an injured person inside asking for help. The doctor from Mas de las Matas was there when the other vehicle had arrived at his health center. Two scenarios, a handful of kilometers away, three foreign wounded, a car that had fled… Confusion took over the two towns.
In the photo, the car with which one of the injured arrived in Castellote to ask for help. Antonio Garcia (EFE)
Then the telephone of Captain Cebrián, from the Alañiz Company, rang. They gave him the basic information about what happened and in that first call they told him that the subjects involved spoke Romanian, according to the testimonies. From the beginning, the captain suspected that he was not a Romanian, but an Albanian. And that those seven men did not come from very far. His suspicions were directed to the edge of a nearby swamp, Santolea, surrounded by slopes and vegetation.
That night the phone of the mayoress of Mas de las Matas, María Ariño, who was at home, also rang. “It was still early when all this happened, people were in the bars finishing dinner. The orchestra hadn’t even started playing. I thought: ‘But could it have been a fight between someone from the village?’ But they immediately told me no. I called the Civil Guard to make myself available for whatever they needed. It was like a movie”, sums up the councilor.
The Civil Guard quickly deployed in the area and intercepted the vehicle that had left the two injured in front of the Mas de las Matas health center. Its three occupants were arrested on the road, as was the driver of the vehicle that had stopped in Castellote. One of the injured was treated on the spot, another had to be transferred to the Miguel Servet hospital in Zaragoza and the one in the most serious condition died without anything being able to be done to save him.
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“We had been working on this operation for months, the idea was to finish it in August, but this brawl blew everything up,” Captain Cebrián pointed out. All those involved had arrived in Teruel in the first quarter of the year from Albania with the mission of starting up several marijuana plantations. The Civil Guard investigators had them in their crosshairs and were waiting for the right moment to arrest the largest number of members of the organization. Two of them were bosses and the rest were laborers. “The collectors are farmers in their country of origin. They offer them to come to Spain for a few months to do something illegal but charging triple what they would get in their country in a year. It compensates them and they accept it”, explains Captain Cebrián.
According to the reconstruction of the events that they have carried out, the day that everything happened, Friday, July 21, the bosses had brought the laborers to Mas de las Matas so that they could buy some food, charge their cell phones, and They will have a drink in the bars in the area. It was a weekly routine, but they didn’t always go to the same town, they divided into several in the area. On the return trip to one of the plantations, after the two cars had parked on a small esplanade near the illegal crops, an argument broke out. “Apparently, the bosses and the peons started fighting over some money. And one of them says that in a matter of 20 seconds everything exploded and they stabbed each other,” says Captain Cebrián. The two bosses were injured, while the one who ended up dying was one of the farm workers.
Those involved got into the two cars divided into two groups. In one of the vehicles one of the wounded got on, and in the other, five, with the two who were worse off. The first was the one that headed towards Castellote and the second undertook the route to Mas de las Matas. Another person from the organization, another peon, remained hidden in the plantation, hidden in the shadows of the mountain. A patron was also left in the area, oblivious to what happened, who was in a tent at the time.
Two Civil Guard agents in one of the marijuana plantations in Castellote.
The next day, the Civil Guard accessed the crops and found three farms with more than 5,000 plants camouflaged among the vegetation and completely isolated from any building or hiking route. Away from the eyes of others. “The first to arrive look for the place with the best conditions: good terrain, close to the water and isolated. Then comes the bulk of the workers who cut trees, flatten the land and proceed to sow. And cultivate”, says the captain. Teruel has all these characteristics and a high level of depopulation, which is why it represents an ideal setting to carry out illegal businesses. “The last three summers we have dismantled plantations like this, always Albanians, the bosses with prior records and the laborers normally not. But they are not deceived, they know that they will grow marijuana here and earn a lot in a short time”, adds Cebrián.
The area in which these plantations were located appears to be particularly prized by Albanian drug traffickers. In August 2022, another organization was arrested for growing 11,500 plants in the same municipality of Castellote. Its members lived in tents near their illicit business. Anti-drug operations have been replicated over the years in different parts of the province. In April 2021, the agents seized three tons of marijuana in some warehouses located in Villel, a municipality of 327 inhabitants, although in that case the drug traffickers were Spanish. In 2016, what was at that time one of the largest plantations in Spain was dismantled, with 8,000 specimens that occupied 12,000 square meters in the municipality of Villarluengo, a town with fewer than 200 residents.
Car parking area where the brawl that ended in murder originated.
In this case, the discreet life of the drug traffickers and their day laborers was blown up by a knife fight that advanced the plans of the Civil Guard. The five occupants of the two vehicles, between the ages of 30 and 50, were arrested, including the wounded, as were the two members of the organization who stayed on the plantation. One of them tried to flee and was intercepted in another nearby town. Operation concluded. Until the arrival of the next marijuana collectors in the heart of Teruel.
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