Contract killings increase in Spain
Foreign killers are increasingly drawn to Spain where 10 percent of all homicides are contract killings.
Madrid -- Recently, a man with his face partly covered by a cap and scarf entered room 537 at a hospital in the Spanish capital Madrid.
"Are you Leonidas Vargas?" he asked one of the two patients in the room with a South American accent. The patient pointed to the man sleeping in the other bed.
"Turn your back and keep quiet," the visitor instructed, turned towards the other patient, and shot him four times with a gun equipped with a silencer.
By the time doctors and nurses had rushed into the room, the killer and his suspected accomplice, who had kept guard behind the door, were gone.
They had done such an impeccable job that nothing could be done to revive Vargas, formerly one of Colombia's most powerful cocaine lords, who had been hospitalised for lung and heart problems.
"There is no doubt that the killer was a professional," a hospital source said.
While the movie-like slaying of Vargas in what is believed to have been a settlement of accounts between drug traffickers shocked Spain, hired assassins -- sicarios in Spanish -- are no newcomers to the country.
Police estimate that 10 per cent of homicides in Spain are contract killings.
Professional thugs also do smaller "jobs" such as violently intimidating people into paying their debts.
Shortly before Vargas was targeted, a lawyer specialized in drug trafficking cases was gunned down in his Madrid garage.
A few days after Vargas' death, a Romanian thug whom criminals paid to beat up their rivals was shot dead in the capital.
Contract killings are the most difficult to resolve, because the hit men have no personal motives to target their victims, police sources told the daily El Pais.
Foreign killers also often come to Spain for just one job and return to their countries, though increasing numbers of hit men are also believed to live in Spain.
Spain is the main gateway of Latin American cocaine into Europe, and some of the professional killers available there are former members of Colombian paramilitary groups, according to police sources.
Former Eastern European police officers and Spanish criminals can also be hired to kill for prices ranging from 12,000 to 24,000 euros (16,000 to 32,000 dollars).
Certain doormen of discotheques, security guards, martial arts practitioners and other specialists reportedly do smaller jobs for prices ranging from 1,000 to 1,200 euros.
Hiring such people "is no longer something that only drug traffickers and crime rings do," a Madrid police superintendent said.
Most contract killings are settlements of accounts between criminals but ordinary people have also been charged with resorting to such methods to get rid of their spouses or siblings in divorce or inheritance disputes.
"If you have a problem with someone, don't hesitate to contact us -- it is easy and fast," an advertisement reads on the Internet.
The arrival of foreign hit men contributes to extending the tentacles of international crime into Spain, confronting police with the ruthless tactics of powerful drug cartels.
Colombian cartels send killers without criminal records and carrying valid passports, who return as soon as they have completed their mission, sometimes to be killed themselves to erase all traces of the crime, the Spanish daily El Mundo reported from Bogota.
Others flee Colombian police or rival gangs, entering Spain with false passports.
Many of the hit men are uneducated young men who see a criminal career as the only way out of poverty, Jorge Hernan Hoyos says.
The Colombian author living in Madrid included the lives of hired assassins among the many subjects of his novel Bajo el Embrujo de los Tiempos (Under the Spell of the Times).
"They are often sons of single mothers who had no father present in their lives," Hoyos said. "They are very close to their mothers and devoted to the Virgin Mary."
"Hit men know they will be killed at a young age by the likes of them," the writer added. "But before they die, they have a chance of raising their families out of poverty with their earnings."
Leonidas Vargas, for instance, had only attended school for three years and worked as a butcher before entering the drug trade.
He survived many of his fellow drug lords, and mistakenly believed himself to be safe in Spain. Two days after he met his fate, his brother was also shot dead in Colombia.