Spanish police unions have sounded the alarm over the rise of drug cartels in the Bay of Gibraltar after nine officers came under attack from a group of 40 people attending a communion at the weekend.

The elite unit of Guardia Civil, who were off duty, were leaving a restaurant in Algeciras on Saturday afternoon when they were assaulted by the crowd, armed with baseball bats, stones and broken bottles. The police were forced to fire warning shots in the air to escape their assailants, who had been celebrating a communion at a nearby bar. 

A spokesperson for the Guardia Civil said the attack was believed to be a “reprisal” for the fight against drug trafficking in the area, which saw cocaine seizures rise by 300 percent last year. 

Alberto Moya, secretary general of the Unified Association of Guardia Civil (AUGC), an umbrella union, said there was a “grave risk” of drug cartels implanting themselves in the region. The criminal groups that had traditionally smuggled cannabis and tobacco in the Bay of Gibraltar were now “organizing themselves hierarchically to structure the business” and had “legions of youth in their pay” in the impoverished area, he told Spanish radio station Cope on Monday.

Spain is the largest gateway for drugs entering Europe and the Bay of Gibraltar accounts for much of that traffic. The port of Algeciras was the site of last month’s seizure of 8.7 tonnes of cocaine from a boat transporting bananas from Colombia, the largest haul of the drug ever made by Spanish forces.

The Spanish authorities have dispatched reinforcements, but police unions said these amounted to little in the face of the area’s well armed and professional drug gangs, who are becoming increasingly emboldened and confrontational. In February, 20 gang members mounted a brazen daylight assault on a hospital in La Linea, which lies on the border with Gibraltar, breaking out a senior trafficker from the custody of police.

Another leading union, the Spanish Association of Guardia Civil (AEGC), accused the government of “looking the other way while the narcos continue marking their territory with impunity”. 

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In a statement, the AEGC said that reinforcements were in urgent need “as we are talking about the point of entry of drugs into Europe” and with “such scarce personnel it is impossible to contain the drug traffickers who, as we are seeing daily, consider themselves the owners of the whole region”.

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