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Barcelona-Banjul: Spanish police eye huge sums of cash being taken to The Gambia by immigrants from across Europe | International

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A Gambian citizen filling out a currency declaration form at El Prat airport in Barcelona.
A Gambian citizen filling out a currency declaration form at El Prat airport in Barcelona.Sonsoles Maena

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.

Statistics show that The Gambia is the top destination for all currency taken out of Spain

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.

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

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.

The Gambian community in Spain is made up of around 25,000 people, making it Gambia’s largest diaspora group. They are mostly living in the regions of Catalonia and Aragón, where they work mainly in agriculture, construction and the slaughterhouses of Lleida and Zaragoza.

An intercepted suitcase containing €200,000.
An intercepted suitcase containing €200,000.

Yundum is the only airport serving The Gambia. It is located halfway between the capital, Banjul, and the beach of Serrekunda, a key destination for international tourism in West Africa. There were 619,000 visitors in 2019, according to the World Bank. The airport terminal was renovated three years ago and it looks impeccable. The first post-pandemic tourism season is underway and there are rigorous Covid controls in place. The airport chief of police, Pamodou Manka, sits in a simple office with a computer on his desk and a portable stove on the floor where he is preparing attaya, a green tea from Gambia. In the office next door, his colleagues are questioning two passengers from the Barcelona flight of August 28. Both men are carrying a €152,000 between them.

“Those two people had Spanish documents showing that they are the owners of that money. What can we do?” asks Manka. “They say that the money is from friends and acquaintances in Spain, to be delivered to relatives. We have to believe them because they are not doing anything illegal here. Ideally Spanish authorities would investigate the origin of the money before handing them a certificate proving possession. They should reinforce control measures on the money that is taken to Africa.”

In late July the police stopped a Gambian passenger carrying €200,000 on a flight from Casablanca in Morocco. The man was unable to justify ownership of this amount, and it was confiscated. Gambian secret services have an eye on Jihadist terrorism even though there have been no attacks in this country.

“The money that comes through the airport could go towards radicalizing people, but it could also be part of drug trafficking and organized crime. Right now we have no more information on the matter, but we’ve started to be on top of them,” says Manka.

The police say that crime is under control, but they admit that there is a Gambian organized crime group that is spread across several European countries

The Gambia is a small country in West Africa with a population of 2.3 million. It is something of an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Senegal everywhere else. The police there are proud of the low crime rate. The typically dangerous business of buying and selling gold in Africa is a good example: middlemen and buyers have found a safe haven for their deals in The Gambia. Luis M., 50, has spent years visiting the artisan mines in northern Ghana to buy gold, but now he has settled down in The Gambia. “In gold-producing countries of West Africa, such as Mali, Burkina Faso or Ghana, it is very dangerous to do business because you run the risk of having it stolen from you before you reach the airport. That is why many intermediaries like myself have come to The Gambia. You are safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to steal from you here.”

The police say that crime is under control, but they admit that there is a Gambian organized crime group that is spread across several European countries. “Early this year we accepted the extradition of 24 Gambian criminals who were serving sentences in Germany,” says Inspector Manka.

But this apparent peace has a weak spot: Banjul airport, the country’s engine of economic growth, is a smuggling hub. An informal city has sprung up around it made up of traveling market stands, currency exchange booths run by Mauritanian citizens, and tenebrous lodgings, a place rife with prostitution and hucksters and truck drivers waiting around to load their vehicles and be on their way.

Colombian cartels

Groups of smugglers have set up shop at the seaport. Containers come in with everything from cocaine shipments to stolen cars. Interpol has an office on the fourth floor of the central headquarters. The office of Inspector Sulayman Gaye offers views of the ships as they are unloaded. What Gaye is losing sleep over is the smuggling of luxury vehicles from Europe. “Right now we are in the middle of an operation against this kind of traffic,” he says. “We have seized more than 20 cars that were stolen in France and that must be sent back. We have already returned a few this summer. Earlier, those cars were coming in through Dakar in Senegal,” says Inspector Gaye. “But this problem will be tackled because I’m going to be allowed to bring five of my men into the port and this is going to end.”

Colombian cocaine cartels have also infiltrated the port. The police have discovered several containers filled with drugs. And what comes in must go out, notes an entrepreneur who sends containers of fish to Spain and who declined to give his name. He says that mafia groups have offered him money to take drugs into Spain. “At the first meeting they told me they wanted to buy octopus and send it to Galicia [in northwestern Spain]. At the second and last meeting, they offered to include a little gift, between 500 and 1,000 kilos of cocaine. I dropped the business right there,” he says.

English version by Susana Urra.

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Marlon Botas: Montserrat Bendimes: Why the young Mexican student’s murder has gone unpunished | International

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Montserrat Bendimes in a social media photograph.
Montserrat Bendimes in a social media photograph.RR.SS.

Her family says that during the time that Montserrat Bendimes was hospitalized with severe trauma, the 20-year-old engineering student uttered the following sentence before she died: “It was Marlon.” The young woman had been admitted in April of last year after her partner allegedly gave her a brutal beating that kept her on life support until her body gave out. By then, the main suspect was already unaccounted for.

With his parents’ help, according to the State Prosecutor’s Office, Marlon Botas managed to flee while his girlfriend lay dying in a hospital. More than a year after what happened, only his parents are serving a sentence for aiding their son, but Botas is still a fugitive and Bendimes’ crime remains unpunished. This Monday, her former partner sent a message from an undisclosed alleging that he and his parents are innocent.

Bendimes’ murder triggered a wave of indignation in Veracruz, where the feminist groups that have provided support for her family organized marches and actions to seek justice. The capture of Botas’ parents in Mexico City in November of last year set a precedent for aiding and abetting murderers, according to these organizations. And the state of Veracruz was papered with the face of Marlon Botas: graffiti on walls, wanted posters, videos and images on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had asked Interpol to issue a red notice (issued for fugitives who are wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence) in almost 100 countries and offered a reward of 250,000 pesos (about $12,500) for any clue about his whereabouts.

The Bendimes case has since made no more progress, as often happens with most crimes in Mexico, where 95% of them are never solved. This is especially true in cases of sexist violence, compounded by a national security crisis that no government has managed to control and which claims the lives of 11 women a day. Despite the imprisonment of his parents, who had fled to the nation’s capital, Botas has so far gotten away with it.

This Monday, the television network Imagen showed a video that the show’s hosts said reached them anonymously, in which Botas can be seen against a white background. Botas says that what happened was an “unfortunate accident” and that his family had nothing to do with it. He also claimed there was a “hunt” against him and his family, and asked that his parents, Diana Fuentes and Jorge Botas, be released. Reaction on social media was intense. The women of Mexico are accustomed to hearing so many times and in so many cases that dead women committed suicide, fell, got themselves killed.

The Veracruz Prosecutor’s Office, as well as Governor Cuitláhuac García, responded in a statement that the “procurement of justice is not negotiated.” “In this case, as in all those in which a woman is attacked, there will be no impunity,” said the message signed by the State Attorney General, Verónica Hernández. However, more than a year after the death, the main suspect is still at large and the fact he had the audacity to send a message to the authorities reveals the confidence he has that impunity will play in his favor.

Shouting “It was not an accident”, hundreds of social media users have once again shown their outrage at a case that builds on a series of other unsolved murders. The most recent victims are María Fernanda Contreras, 27, Debanhi Escobar, 18 and Yolanda Martínez, 26, about whom the authorities still point to a suicide without having revealed details of how she died.

The Mexican feminist movement has been gaining traction in recent years. Each case of a murdered woman or a victim of sexist violence has triggered protests that were unthinkable just a decade ago.

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Twenty-five ethnic Pamiris killed by security forces in Tajikistan protests | Global development

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At least 25 people were killed on Wednesday by security forces in Tajikistan during a protest in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), where the Tajik regime has targeted the Pamiri ethnic minority.

The deaths mark an escalation of violence in the region. Conflict between the central government and the Pamiri has continued for decades, with the cultural and linguistic minority ethnic group suffering human rights abuses, as well as discrimination over jobs and housing.

The Pamir region has been the only place in Tajikstan where anti-government protesters still take to the streets, despite the authoritarian pro-Kremlin regime.

According to witnesses, several hundred residents of Khorog, the capital of GBAO, gathered at the weekend to call for the dismissal of the governor and the release of demonstrators arrested for participation in a protest in November, when three men were killed and 17 wounded by security forces.

Protests continued until Wednesday when, as people marched to the main square in Khorog, security forces blocked the road and allegedly started firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas at the protesters, killing at least 25 people.

Map of Tajikistan showing region

The Tajik government claimed “members of an organised criminal group” had blocked the highway “in order to destabilise the social and political situation”.

In a statement on the state news agency, Khovar, the interior ministry said: “Law enforcement agencies have begun an anti-terror operation … in a restive region that borders Afghanistan and China and has long been a flashpoint of tensions.”

The Tajik authorities claimed that arms and support from foreign “terrorist organisations” were coming in to the Pamiri region.

“The organised criminal groups did not comply with the lawful demands of law-enforcement officers to hand over their weapons and ammunition, and put up armed resistance,” the interior ministry said.

But activists said their protests had been peaceful. “The government is branding and naming the peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’, which is a complete fake, and then using that as an excuse to shoot at them,” said one Pamiri activist who cannot be named for security reasons.

During the Tajikistan civil war from 1992 to 1997, thousands of Pamiris were killed in what some human rights activists have described as “ethnic cleansing”.

In 2012, during clashes seen by many in GBAO as an attempt by the Tajik government to bring the autonomous region under its full control, at least 40 civilians were killed.

In February, parents of men killed by Tajik forces during a protest in November called on the international community to step in and protect ethnic minority groups.

Families have demanded that the soldiers responsible for killing their sons be brought to justice and urged the United Nations to intervene.

Guards in old-fashioned shako hats salute two men as they walk through huge golden doors
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, right, at Monday’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Photograph: Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/EPA

Tajikistan’s president of 28 years, Emomali Rahmon, who met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Monday, is seen by the Pamiri as wanting to take control of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Neil Clarke, head of the legal programme at Minority Rights Group International, told the Guardian: “The deteriorating human rights situation in the region is leaving the population, who are mainly Indigenous peoples and ethnic and linguistic minorities, at serious risk of harm.

“We now believe that without urgent measures, the situation could escalate towards increasing conflict,” he said. “The widespread harassment of the population of GBAO by authorities including the police, security and military personnel appears increasingly systematic. These include wide-ranging forms of surveillance and invasions of privacy, arbitrary detention and the use of coercion to obtain signatures and/or public statements against the will of the individual.”

Since November security checkpoints have been reinforced, and hundreds of people who took part in the demonstrations have been arrested or banned from leaving the region. Clarke said the latest deaths marked renewed efforts to suppress the Pamiri.

“Authorities have reinstated a blockade on internet connection in the region and have again begun to arrest and detain prominent civil society leaders and independent individuals under the alleged pretext of an ‘anti-terror operation’,” he said.

“Pamiri people are not the terrorists. We are calling for urgent measures by Tajikistan authorities to de-escalate the developing conflict, by restoring and ensuring the respect for human rights in GBAO and most urgently call on authorities to release the activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and others who have been detained and interrogated by security forces, without due process, as part of efforts to silence the voice of Pamiri activists.”

Since crackdowns on opposition groups in 2014 in Tajikistan, it is thought that 15 activists who left the country have disappeared in Russia or Turkey.

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Anne Frank: who gave her up to the Nazis? | International

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A book published in the Netherlands in January has caused a stir with it’s claim that a local Jewish notary was the one who revealed the annex in which Anne Frank and her family were hiding to the Nazis, whosubsequently deported the young girl, her sister, and their parents, to a concentration camp.

The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation, is authored by Canadian biographer and poet Rosemary Sullivan. The Betrayal recounts the work of a team made led by Dutch journalist Pieter van Twisk and including American Vince Pankoke, a former FBI agent It has been released throughout the world and encountered no problems, except for in the Netherlands where the publisher Ambo Anthos, withdrew it in February, apologizing “to anyone who was offended.”

The group set out to address the fate of Anne Frank as a cold case — an unsolved crime — and have used artificial intelligence and data processing as well as consulting a behavioral psychologist. They considered why a respected Jewish notary might have informed the Nazis of the Frank family’s hideout at 263 Prinsengracht in the Dutch capital. Over six years the team has ruled out about 30 suspects and scores of possibilities, attempting to fill gaps in information as time has elapsed.

Of the Frank family that had been hidden in the annex, only the father, Otto Frank, returned from the death camps. His daughter is a global icon, with her diary and her fate a symbol of innocence in tragedy.

Sullivan’s book says it is “almost certain” that the Dutch Jewish Council had a list of locations where people were in hiding, on which the Frank family’s may have been included.

The book notes that Arnold van den Bergh, a member of the Council, had contacts in high Nazi circles. So, “he could have given that list up at any time.”

To approach a cold case, one begins by reviewing all previous investigations for new clues. Speaking to EL PAÍS by phone, Vince Pankoke says that in this process one might speculate on what happened, and analyze the personality and biography of the suspects.

Pankoke says that, “we are not 100% sure,” the team found that van den Bergh was the most likely person to have triggered the raid in which Nazi police found the Franks.

“Although we cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” continues Pankoke, the team felt compelled to share their conclusions, because “it could have been a time bomb if discovered by anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi groups,” adding that the notary would have done so to save himself and his own family.

The speculation in the book has troubled several Dutch historians who specialize in the Holocaust and in the Dutch Jewish Council itself.

Bart van der Boom, a professor at the University of Leiden, says there is no evidence that the Council had the addresses of people in hiding.

Council members were respected people in the Jewish community, who “believed that opposing the Nazis would be much worse” than accepting the creation of the Council, a Nazi initiative.

“The idea that they would give a list to the Nazis is ridiculous,” says van der Boom.

“Jewish leaders did not decide who would be deported and they did not take charge of gathering people for it.” That suggestion, adds the professor, “is one of the numerous errors of the book.”

Van der Boom goes on to say that the Dutch Jewish Council “was criticized by everyone after the war for collaborating with the occupier, and there were Nazis who tried to blame it to save themselves.”

In the book, van der Boom says that the cold case team points to a German translator’s statement that they had heard the Council had the lists, and “that information is not credible.”

Indeed, in the historian’s expert opinion, the book is “an amateur work; all smoke and mirrors.”

Van der Boom has written to Rosemary Sullivan, in an appeal, he says, to her academic conscience. He tells EL PAÍS that Sullivan responded “that she trusts the research.”

Both van der Boom and his colleague, Bart Wallet, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Amsterdam, are particularly appalled at a sentence by the author in the English version.

After stating that van den Berg, who died in 1950, “saved his family by giving the Nazis addresses, including 263 Prinsengracht,” Sullivan writes: “Perhaps he also paid a price. He died of throat cancer. In a strange way, it was appropriate: he lost the ability to speak.”

Wallet states firmly that an academic peer review process would not have permitted the book to be published in its current form.

Pieter van Twisk, the Dutch journalist, admits that the team expected criticism, especially in the Netherlands.

“I was not prepared, however, for the toxic atmosphere [that has been] created,” says van Twisk.

“We were not [deliberately] looking for a Jewish traitor, as has been suggested, and we believe that Otto Frank knew or suspected who ratted them out, because he said he did not want his children to suffer for it.”

“There are specialists who agree with us and do not dare to speak in order to preserve their reputation. It’s ridiculous.”

It also seems to van Twisk that the Dutch publisher Ambo Anthos has dropped the book for fear of a lawsuit by members of the van den Bergh family: “I didn’t want to go to court with victims of the Holocaust.”

Pankoke, for his part, indicates that the book “is Rosemary Sullivan’s interpretation of the interviews she did with us and the reports of our work. There is a difference between what she interprets and the investigation itself.”

At any rate, Pankoke notes, “collaboration with the Nazis and the fate of Anne Frank” is a highly sensitive topic in the Netherlands.

The other main piece of evidence presented in the work is an anonymous note about the betrayal, sent after the war to Otto Frank. The original has not been found, but a copy of the writing, known to academics, was among the documents of a Dutch police investigator, Arend van Helden, who investigated the matter between 1963 and 1964. The note says that Van den Bergh revealed the Franks’ hideout to the Nazis, and that the department that received the tip-off “had a list of addresses (of Jewish people in hiding) also provided by him.”

Forensic examination by Pankoke’s team confirmed that the copy “had come off Otto Frank’s typewriter a couple of years before 1959.”

The team explored whether “the note was taken seriously in its day and if the lead was good.”

After discovering “that due diligence, an adequate review, had not been applied to confirm the allegations,” Pankoke’s team deemed it a legitimate piece of evidence.

For Bart Wallet, the person who wrote it “misquotes the Nazi institutions, showing a lack of inside knowledge to make such a statement about the notary.”

Such notes, Wallet continues, were frequently sent between people after the war “as gossip, or to settle scores.”

In Wallet’s opinion, if the list of hidden Jews had existed, “we would be facing one of the greatest traitors of the war and it would have been known, preventing his return to civilian life.”

To all of the above, there are added doubts about the whereabouts of the notary after the beginning of 1944. Anne Frank and her family were found by the Nazis in August of that year. Pankoke points out that van den Bergh “was trying to go unnoticed or else he hid, because details are missing here.”

However, another Dutch historian has just found a wartime diary with an entry that places the notary in the town of Laren, near Amsterdam. Van den Bergh obtained the necessary documentation to pass himself off as only partly Jewish, and thus had freedom of movement. But a Nazi colleague who wanted his office had gotten that declaration annulled.

Due to this, and with his three daughters hidden since the end of 1943, the two historians consulted believe that van den Bergh and his wife went into hiding at the beginning of 1944, according to reports from his descendants in the 1970s, as the family had survived.

Regarding the response of historians in the Netherlands to the book, Pankoke suspects a case of “academic arrogance.”

“When historians don’t like our findings, they reject them. That the notary went into hiding does not prove that he did not give the lists to the Nazis before, or later.”

“In addition, academics state that he was a good person,” but, “I know from experience that decent people can do terrible things,” the former FBI agent concludes.

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