BRITAIN'S most-wanted drug baron has finally been caught after eight years of giving authorities the slip on the Costa del Sol.
Robert Dawes, 44, is said to have lived the high life in Coín (Málaga province) with his own fishing supply which he bred from €500 fish shipped down from Alicante, an ornamental lake at his luxury country villa, and a BlackBerry fitted with an encrypted PGP card ordered from The Netherlands at a cost of €2,000.
He only ever answered analogue phone numbers, which he ensured all his contacts in his drug-related activities had, warning them 'not to waste their time' ringing him from any other number.
Known to the British National Crime Agency (NCA) as the most 'powerful and dangerous' outlaw in his country, the Nottingham-born drug lord was wanted by Europol over mass dealing, money-laundering and several murders.
Given his ability to keep the law at bay through lack of evidence against him, Dawes – known as 'The 1' or just 'Him' to his closest associates – earnt the nickname Teflon Don because the police 'could not make anything stick to him'.
But an uncharacteristic slip-up involving a huge haul of cocaine intercepted at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport in 2013 meant the next two-and-a-half years were merely a countdown to his arrest.
He was caught earlier this month, Spanish police have now revealed, after a raid on his villa in Benalmádena (Málaga province).
Currently in custody in the French capital, Dawes could be sent down for up to 15 years.
Slippery customer – and ubiquitous shopkeeper
Guardia Civil officers have been on his trail since 2007 when they were warned he was likely to be in Spain after having been extradited from the United Arab Emirates, where he had sought refuge from the long arm of the law after several of his partners in crime were arrested.
But the evidence supplied by the UK was not sufficient to convict him under Spanish law, meaning he remained a free man and all his personal effects – including his computers – confiscated by authorities in Dubai were returned to him.
Dawes then returned to the Costa del Sol where he gained a circle of friends and 'business associates' among the British community, whose presence in the province runs into tens of thousands.
Opening a furniture shop – Victoria Design – as a front for his drug-related activities, Dawes travelled to and from China importing household items.
Numerous other apparently legal businesses, including fruit shops and window fitters, were found to be linked to the drug baron and used to launder his proceeds.
The funds were largely invested in offshore accounts and in banks in Malta, Dubai and Luxembourg.
Expensive cargoes of rotting fruit to cover his tracks
Inquiries relaunched in 2012 after the NCA heard about a cargo of a tonne of cocaine Dawes and his comrades intended to import from Venezuela – a country where the UK has a specialist and very well-paid task force on the ground dealing with Intelligence matters.
To put authorities off the scent, the transport firms contracted to carry the illicit cargoes often ended up spending huge amounts of money on shipping what would turn out to be tonnes of rotting fruit, or poor-quality fruit and vegetables sold below cost price on the Spanish market.
This was so Dawes' racket became 'regulars', meaning they would not be inspected by customs as their loads were always apparently they same and the carriers would trust them as long-term clients.
The move kept them off the 'red list', of deliveries coming from so-called 'risky' destinations or in the name of recently-created companies, and ensured their loads became lost in the huge number of containers which pass daily through Spanish ports.
Police say this is a clear sign of the massive financial weight of the organisation, given that they were able to pour so much money down the drain on loss-making cargoes to hide their tracks.
But on this occasion, the NCA found out Dawes and some of his cronies were about to fly from Venezuela to Paris-CDG (pictured below left), involving a connecting flight in Madrid.
The aircraft never took off, because the NCA's tip-off to the task force in the South American country meant officers were on stand-by in Caracas, and all suitcases checked in were inspected.
Only one case for each of the gang had been checked in, but the remaining bags were sent in the names of other people who were due to fly and handed over to the special cargo desk to be unloaded separately upon arrival in Paris.
A total of 32 cases were found to be stuffed full of cocaine, the aggregate weight of which was over 1.3 tonnes.
Whilst 27 people were arrested in Caracas, another three were detained in Paris and three more who belonged to the Ndrangheta Calabresa mafia – the end recipients of the cocaine.
The latter suspects later came under scrutiny in another massive drug bust in July 2014 which led to 32 arrests in Spain and four in Italy, plus €1.3 million in cash seized and 40 business premises and residential homes in Spain raided in an operation which revealed the gang had defrauded the Spanish tax office of over €8m.
Dawes' arrest was made possible through close cooperation by crime squads in the UK, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Germany, and led to a network of other criminal gangs throughout Europe being found to be connected with the Nottingham man's activities.
These included the Dutch biker group Satudarah, a Nottingham-based racket known as Enamoured, and at least 13 others.
Police quest for evidence fails at every turn
Pinning something on Dawes was more difficult thank breaking up these entire international criminal organisations, however – the only way police could get their hands on any evidence would be to decipher his encrypted PGP phone card, which was virtually impossible.
Even Dawes' car could not be cordoned off and investigated without a sound legal reason, and was always within sight of its owner – the one day he left it parked long enough for the police to seize it, a veteran officer suspected a trap had been laid and found out CCTV cameras had been fitted to the vehicle to record evidence and denounce the Guardia Civil if they attempted to tamper with it.
Last year, a series of violent deaths – two of which were in Spain – were thought to be linked to Dawes' operations, but the Guardia Civil was again unable to obtain evidence.
One of these was US citizen Alexander Tobon in May 2015, a man who was under orders by Dawes to guard the house where the drugs and money were kept – but Spanish police believed the men who shot him belonged to another criminal gang and had done so in an attempt to steal the cash and illicit goods.
Another pretext used to catch Dawes was based upon money-laundering – he was known by police to be carrying a large amount of cash, but when he was searched, this was exactly €100,000 – the maximum allowed by law.
However, an inspection of his wallet found he had €128 of his personal money, putting him over the limit – but all police could do was to confiscate it until he could prove it came from legal sources.
Even a huge haul of cocaine shipped into Portugal, weighing 167 kilos, in July 2014 did not put Dawes behind bars when it was uncovered as no connection between him and it could be proven, although five other people including a British national thought to be known to him were arrested.
Caught on microphone
Police efforts began to bear fruit in the autumn of 2014 when it was found Dawes held regular meetings in certain hotels in Madrid with a group of Colombians who had a criminal record for drug-trafficking.
Experienced anti-terrorism police officers bugged a hotel room and recorded conversations between the Colombian ringleader of an international drug gang and Dawes, through a third man, also Colombian, acting as interpreter.
Dawes was heard to be offering his 'facilities' to the Colombian drug lord for smuggling cocaine into Europe in containers through the ports of Valencia and Algeciras (Cádiz province) on boats from Venezuela, Santos (Brazil), Morocco and Amberes (Belgium), on cargo planes to The Netherlands or in suitcases on commercial airlines to Brussels.
The final nail in the Briton's coffin, however, was when he bragged to the Colombians about the tonne of cocaine sent to Paris.
Armed Spanish and French judicial police concluded their eight-year quest when they smashed down the door of the suspect's house in Benalmádena, after negotiating with the two security guards at the door.
Dawes, who believed he was once again safe through his watertight processes in place, responded to officers who had kicked the door in with: “You could have knocked, and I'd have opened up.”
Photographs 1, 2 and 4 taken by the Guardia Civil ; photograph 3 - Wikimedia Commons