Money Laundering?

Flight VY7574 from Barcelona to Banjul has two separate lines of passengers. One line is for boarding the plane, and the other one is for declaring items to customs officers.

Hours before the flight, dozens of people are waiting patiently in line to declare the money they are taking to the capital of The Gambia. They take cash-filled envelopes from their belt bags, the employee counts the money with a machine, the passengers fill out the E1 form and walk over to the boarding gate.

Gambian immigrants living across Europe routinely use these flights departing from Spain to take money back to their home country. “Before the pandemic, we occasionally had so many passengers waiting to declare that the flight had to be delayed. We’re talking about 30 to 40 people in just one morning,” says David Sánchez, head of the customs office at Barcelona’s El Prat airport.

The Barcelona flight, which is operated by Vueling, is the only direct link between continental Europe and The Gambia, which explains why Gambians from all parts of the continent come to the Catalan capital to catch it.

On July 31, 15 passengers declared currency worth a collective €255,885. Muhamadou Darboe, 50, who works in metal carpentry in Santa Coloma (Barcelona), was carrying an envelope with €11,500 and said most of it was given to him by Gambian friends in Catalonia so he could distribute it among relatives back home. “When I get to my village, Dembacunda, I will call people up and they will come to my house to collect it,” he said.

Other passengers gave other reasons to justify the cash they were carrying – from funding a relative’s trip to Mecca to building a house in their home village.

Any passenger taking more than €10,000 in cash has the obligation to declare the money to customs. The procedure does not involve paying taxes or fines of any kind. Statistics show that The Gambia is the top destination for all currency taken out of Spain. The year 2019 set a new record following a decade of growth: 2,179 Gambian passengers took €73.4 million out of Spain, according to customs sources.

This amount does not reflect the small volume of trade between both countries. Spain exports €23.5 million of goods to The Gambia a year, while imports are less than €4 million, according to the Foreign Ministry. The second top destination for money leaving Spain is Germany.

International organizations that fight money laundering believe that The Gambia is a high-risk country in terms of drug and medication smuggling, arms trafficking and illegal immigration. Investigators who have analyzed the currency traffic between Spain and The Gambia believe there is an organized criminal structure in place to export money presumably obtained through criminal means, according to a high-ranking official at the Tax Agency who spoke to EL PAÍS.

Interpol supports this theory. A 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) called Illicit Financial Flows found that the physical movement of money across internal borders in the region or with other regions could be linked to organized criminal activity.

Since 2017, customs officers have been conducting random searches on these Barcelona flights to Banjul. Investigators suspect there is an organization that is using people to carry the cash. The currency does not come from Spain alone, but from countries all over Europe. A few years ago Europol issued an alert following a request by Spanish authorities. The first countries to respond were Germany, France, Switzerland and Finland, which all detected large amounts of money being taken out by Gambian passengers.

The passengers on the Vueling flight said that the envelopes contained cash to help their families back home. Investigators offer a different story, and even have a name for these alleged couriers: pitufos (smurfs), whom they suspect of helping criminal organizations launder their money.

Credit: Xaquin López, El País