Inside the European City Overrun by Deadly Drug Cartels
The new Netflix docuseries “La Línea: Shadow of Narco” explores La Línea de la Concepción, a coastal city in Spain that’s the drug-smuggling capital of Europe.
A Spanish coastal city near the border of Gibraltar, La Línea de la Concepción is close to the top of the list of places not to visit—or, at least, that’s the impression imparted by La Línea: Shadow of Narco, Netflix’s new four-part docuseries (available now) about the area’s rampant crime and corruption courtesy of drug trafficking and tobacco smuggling. As more than one speaker remarks during the course of this two-hour non-fiction effort, it’s a locale so thoroughly dominated by narcos that it’s on the verge of becoming the next Medellín. Which, as you might imagine, hasn’t done wonders for its tourism or business climate.
Executive produced by Luis Velo and Guillermo Gómez, and directed by Pepe Mora, La Línea: Shadow of Narco is a snapshot of this beautiful locale, which residents praise for its warm weather, cheap bars, plentiful fishing, and fantastic beaches. Alas, while those wide stretches of pristine sand are an ideal destination to frequent during the day, they’re best avoided at the dead of night, when they become infested with high-speed smuggling boats that bring in 70 percent of Spain’s hash. Given its close proximity to Morocco, where said drugs (as well as cocaine) are harvested and packaged for distribution, La Línea has become the main gateway for Northern African narcotics into Spain and, by extension, Europe. The result for this small province is that the narcos rule the roost, both via violence and by providing locals with an easy and lucrative means of making money for themselves and their families.
The narcos’ ability to entice average men and women to work with them is made easier by the fact that, as Mayor Juan Franco explains, unemployment is rampant and education is scarce in La Línea. Thirty percent of those who are unemployed don’t have a secondary education, and half of that group doesn’t even have a primary education. “To put it plainly, they don’t know their ass from their elbow. They don’t know how to hold a tray,” says Franco, articulating his point—and his frustration—with surprising bluntness. In such an environment, Franco has found it immensely difficult to combat the burgeoning narco scourge by dissuading people from taking the easy and profitable way out. Making matters worse, a lack of financial resources and a general national disinterest in offering assistance—and reform—has hampered any attempts to implement systemic changes that might further allow authorities to get control of their problem.
Tasked with wrestling this narco beast into submission are the many police officers—from various local and federal divisions—who’ve been assigned to this perilous outpost. La Línea: Shadow of Narco paints a portrait of its milieu primarily through the prism of law enforcement’s efforts to take down their criminal adversaries, using interviews with male and female cops (along with Franco, prosecutors, and journalists) to give insight into this harrowing landscape. For the most part, they say what one might expect—namely, that it’s a gravely dangerous region where their lives are constantly at risk. From on-the-ground scenes presented by director Mora, it’s clear that watching one’s back is as important as carrying out one’s duty, especially considering that narco employees are homicidally uninhibited (since they gain street cred from taking on cops), and that residents are often in the drug clans’ corner, either out of fear or because they have relatives involved in, and they themselves are benefiting from, the illicit industry.
Central to La Línea: Shadow of Narco is its energized footage of raids on drug hideouts and narco stash houses, helicopter pursuits of smuggling boats (often seen through a night-vision lens), and car chases through busy streets. The effect is akin to watching a Spanish version of Cops in which the targets are potential killers. In light of the series’ access to law enforcement officials and videos, it’s no surprise that the material is pro-police. That slant doesn’t, unfortunately, mean that much effort is put into conveying a sense of who these brave individuals actually are, both at work and at home. While their faces become familiar over the course of the season’s four installments, the cops remain at a functional-talking-head remove throughout; to the proceedings’ detriment, we’re told almost nothing interesting or compelling about their lives or motivations, save for generic comments about wanting to stamp out drug trafficking (because it’s terrible for society), and the need—in some cases—to wear balaclavas to conceal their identity from enemies.
If there’s little personality to La Línea: Shadow of Narco, there’s even less rhythm. The series races forward at breakneck speed, segueing from one bust and news report to another, but there’s no overarching narrative structure, nor any clear-cut destination. Rather, it’s as if the creative team were afforded a finite window of access to their participants, and did the best they could with what they had at this particular moment in time. Sometimes that pays off, as when Castaña clan chief Antonio Tejón is nabbed (we see him handcuffed to a bed during his arrest), or when his brother Francisco—following a stupidly brazen appearance in a hip-hop music video—turns himself in. But for all its frantic you-are-there incidents, the show delivers little actual excitement, and even less coherence, doling out disconnected bite-sized vignettes that barely leave an impression.
Though it spends brief time with a Moroccan hashish farmer and a former ex-narco who stole from her bosses but is now tempted to rejoin the business for monetary reasons, La Línea: Shadow of Narco leans heavily on clips of cops bursting through doors, seizing command of boats, and entering nighttime buildings with their guns drawn. Yet with nothing substantial tethering these sights together, the series quickly loses steam. There’s a larger story to tell here about the way in which drug empires are built on the backs of impoverished communities that can be easily exploited through promises of wealth, security, and power (as well as through intimidation and murder), and how governments must oppose such forces through a variety of legal, legislative and law-enforcement measures. By and large, however, Netflix’s latest only skims the surface of this multifaceted and ugly situation, opting for superficial razzle-dazzle and tired (if true) clichés in favor of in-depth investigation.