Carmen: How Celta Vigo’s Wonder Woman took on Galicia’s drug cartels – and won

Carmen Avendaño at the presentation of Néstor Araujo EFE/Salvador Sas

A woman hurries her youngest son through Vigo’s Casco Vello on their way to the city’s main market. As she looks up, she notices a man staring at her as he smokes in the doorway of the bar he owns and the pair lock eyes.

The woman feels her legs begin to tremble as her mind races with a thousand urgent thoughts before one imperative emerges: she must not be the one to look away.

She steels herself as she draws closer. Then, just as she approaches the bar’s terrace, the man drops his gaze to the ground and stubs out his cigarette.

A wave of relief washes over her, followed by a powerful realisation: it is their turn to be scared of us now. She has picked the biggest fight of her life, but she is certain she will win. 

Just the day before, the man’s name had been one of 38 that she had read out in front of a room packed full of press and local politicians — bars and their owners that were brazenly peddling hard drugs to the city’s youth. The women that had called the meeting had had enough. They were fed up with seeing lives all around them destroyed while others prospered from the tonnes of narcotics that flowed in unhindered along the region’s coastline.

Carmen Avendaño’s intervention would spark a profound shift, piling pressure upon those in authority that had been complacent or complicit with Europe’s biggest drug cartels to finally take meaningful action. It would take her years of unrelenting campaigning — surviving intimidation and attempts on her life. But it was she that would emerge victorious as Galicia’s clans were eventually dismantled.  

Years later, Avendaño would become a fixture on the board at Celta de Vigo. A football club once run by the region’s smugglers now represented by the woman who had defeated them.

It was 1986, and Vigo was awash with drugs. Over 1,000 miles of coastline made up of tiny islands and the famous, rugged inlets known as rías, combined with a proud seafaring tradition, made Galicia the perfect gateway for cartels seeking access to the old continent. Local knowledge and Latin American supply made for a powerful alliance, and it was estimated that during the 1980s, up to 80% of Europe’s cocaine supply was arriving via Spain’s northwest corner.

Smuggling was nothing new to the region. In the decades after Spain’s Civil War, alcohol, fuel and even medicine arrived secretly along Galician shores until contraband tobacco emerged as the staple. Fishing crews began supplementing their income by bootlegging cheap cigarettes from Cuba and Portugal during the 1950s, before more organised operations started to involve themselves in a practice that was lucrative, socially accepted and weakly legislated against.

An eccentric former Republican military pilot named Celso Lorenzo Villa was one such operator, becoming wealthy and popular enough to become the president of Celta Vigo in 1959. Celso Lorenzo was known for flying over Balaidos in his propeller plane during games, as the crowd below puffed away on cut-price cigarettes courtesy of their president.

His vice-president was Vicente Otero — nicknamed ‘Terito’ — the man that would become the lynchpin of smuggling operations in Galicia. That brief period became known as el Celta de Marlboro. But while the club’s dire finances were quickly fixed, on-field success proved more elusive. Despite travelling to away games in a luxurious state-of-the-art Dodge team bus — a gift from the president’s connections in Havana — the team narrowly missed out on a return to Primera with successive play-off defeats.

Tobacco continued to be a golden goose for decades. The local clans that controlled the rías ticked along discreetly, with those in authority bought off or unconcerned by what most considered a relatively harmless pursuit. But the arrival of the 1980s saw a new generation of trafficker on the scene: younger, more ambitious and with contacts in Colombia. The foremost of these was Sito Miñanco, a son and grandson of sailors, whose budding bootlegging career was interrupted by a six-month term in Madrid’s notorious Carabanchel prison. By chance, his spell there coincided with two of Colombia’s most powerful drug barons in Jorge Luis Ochoa Vázquez of the Medellín Cartel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela of the Cali Cartel.

Miñanco’s return to Galicia supercharged smuggling in the rías. Cocaine now flowed in, with clans old and new getting in on the act. Miñanco’s audacity and innovative use of technology to coordinate shipments saw him rapidly accumulating power and wealth. Inevitable comparisons were drawn between Miñanco and Pablo Escobar, with similarities evident in both style of dress and a philanthropic streak that naturally extended to football. 

Miñanco took control of the humble Club Juventud Cambados from his native village. His patronage powered the side from Spain’s fifth tier to the verge of Segunda, where at their peak, they were involved in a promotion race against the likes of Getafe and Leganés. Tales of lavish cash bonuses, off-season tours of Central and South America and promotion parties attended by Manuel Noriega (Miñanco was in a long-term relationship with the Panamanian dictator’s niece) were fabled throughout the glory years. Eventually, Miñanco’s attentions were drawn elsewhere, and the club slid back down the regional leagues.

But while some were enjoying the spoils of the flourishing joint venture with Colombia, many lives in Galicia’s towns and cities were being destroyed by drugs. A parallel boom in heroin was causing alarming levels of addiction. It was a drug that very rarely arrived via Galicia’s shores — usually routed to Spain through Rotterdam — but rising overall drug use and common distribution networks meant that its devastating consequences were something that families all over the region were rapidly confronted with.

Meetings of the residents’ association in the working-class barrio of Lavadores in Vigo usually centred around matters like noisy neighbours, parking issues and refuse collection. But topics on the agenda had taken a graver tone, with heroin use on the rise and families desperately trying to cope with the damage of a drug they knew little about. Even the associations’ committee — mainly comprised of the neighbourhood’s most conscientious parents — were not immune as many of their own children tumbled like dominoes into addiction.

One of those to fall was a young man named Jaime, the second son of committee member Carmen Avendaño. Along with other mothers, Avendaño began reading and seeking as much information as possible about the drug. An association emerged, named Érguete — Galician for ‘Rise Up’. And an ethos too: those who had fallen to addiction were victims who needed support. And that a spotlight should be shone on those profiting from the arrival of drugs to the region with impunity.

Local meetings soon became public declarations — beginning with that naming and shaming of Vigo’s bar owners in 1986. There were tours around the region, sparsely attended at first — particularly in the rías villages, with the audience mainly made up of connections of the local clans curious about what the group of mothers had to say. 

Within two years of their establishment, Érguete had 38 local branches and had more than captured the public’s imagination. Las madres contra la droga –– the mothers against drugs — led by Avendaño proved a compelling storyline for the media: a group of heartbroken mothers fearlessly taking the fight to the region’s drug traffickers. Quite literally, in the case of Érguete’s most famous demonstration — the 1994 storming of Pazo Baíon, the historic country mansion that was the home of clan leader Laureano Oubiña. Police were unable to control the crowds of women that shook the estate’s gates almost off their hinges while aiming cries of ‘murderer’ and’ thief’ at Oubiña.

It wasn’t just the baying crowds that Oubiña and his associates were now under siege from. The sea change in public opinion had finally moved the authorities into taking meaningful action. Érguete and Avendaño had played no small part in that shift. Indeed, so persuasive had they become that they now had a direct line to both the region and the country’s most powerful politicians.

Avendaño often recalls her first meeting with the President of Galicia, Manuel Fraga, a man more accustomed to characterising drug addicts as pariahs than victims. As she and other mothers recounted their experiences, Fraga sat motionless with his head bowed for so long that they presumed he had fallen asleep. It was only when they had all finished speaking that it became evident he had spent their entire talk in tears.

Avendaño’s role as the face of Érguete and her fearless public pronouncements inevitably placed her in danger. On three separate occasions, the brakes on her car were cut, and acts of intimidation were commonplace, but Avendaño remained unwavering. The only moment that came close to abandoning the fight was the harrowing discovery that another of her sons, Abel, had fallen into addiction. Those closest to Avendaño in Érguete quickly rallied around her, convincing her to continue campaigning.

Renewed political vigour brought about a 1990 investigation by Spain’s highest criminal court aimed at purging trafficking in Galicia and entrusted to a young judge named Baltasar Garzón. Operación Nécora — ‘Operation Crab’ proved to be spectacular if not emphatically successful. A 1994 trial at Madrid’s Casa de Campo saw 54 suspects brought to trial. Avendaño attended each day and testified against Oubiña, who was sentenced to 12 years for money laundering. 

The operation marked the beginning of the end for Galicia’s clans. Those who escaped Nécora were brought down in subsequent operations or captured while on the run. Sito Miñanco, who had successfully fled from Nécora, was eventually arrested in 1991 when police found him coordinating the arrival of two-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine to Galicia with nautical charts and a satellite phone from a chalet in suburban Madrid.

Avendaño and Érguete’s work continues some three decades on. In 2008 they returned to the scene of their most celebrated stand, the Pazo Baíon. The estate that was once an ostentatious success symbol of the drug cartels had been seized from the Oubiña clan by the state. Symbolically, the first chosen to burst through those gates that were once shaken with fury was Avendaño. She smiled broadly, taking the opportunity to highlight the progress made and thank those who had sacrificed so much to get there. Pazo Baíon now welcomes wine tourists to the area, with its reinstated vineyards producing a fine version of that more noble product of the rías — albariño wine.

Unsurprisingly, more than one screenwriter has been drawn to Avendaño’s extraordinary story. A 2005 film, Heroina, was based on her story. Avendaño gave up much of her time to consult on the script, but she admits finding it too painful to watch the final version. The Antena 3 series Fariña (since distributed by Netflix as Cocaine Coast) based on the journalist Nacho Carretero’s book of the same title extensively features Avendaño as it tells the story of the Galician smuggling scene of the 80s and 90s.

For over a decade, Avendaño has sat on the board of Celta Vigo for the most part as the only woman — “And the only from the left too,” she quipped in an interview with La Voz de Galicia, “They are quite a conservative bunch.” 

As a lifelong socialist, she admits that her beliefs have brought regular clashes with the board. Like the time she was the only director to oppose the club’s move to buy the Balaidos from the city: “A city should not be selling off its public assets.” 

But it seems that Celta’s famously stubborn board like having her around. “I once tried to resign, but they wouldn’t let me and I can say exactly how I feel about matters.”

Avendaño is a regular at player presentations — the new signings usually completely unaware of the incredible backstory of the kindly lady helping them hold up a shirt for the camera.

Many of the more established squad have a close relationship with Avendaño. Celta’s first team is based heavily on a nucleus of Gallegos from precisely the same neighbourhoods and villages as Avendaño and the fraternity of Érguete.

In February 2021, Celta Vigo took the field at Balaidos for their game against Elche in black armbands. They stood for a moment of solemn silence to remember the life of Abel, one of Avendaño’s sons that had struggled with addiction during the 1980s, who had died at the young age of 50. A poignant reminder of the dangers the youth of Galicia once faced. 

A Celta side featuring six local-born players provided a fitting tribute with a 3-1 win. The goals scored by young men from those same barrios of Vigo that Avendaño fought so valiantly to protect.


Nacho Carretero’s brilliant book, Fariña, provided information for this article.

It is available to buy in both Spanish and English.

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