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Ibiza Drug-Mule Arrests Offer a Glimpse Into the White Isle’s Seedy Side

Michaella McCollum Connolly, dressed for work in Ibiza

A tale of guns, drugs, and go-go dancers currently playing out across the British tabloids is so bizarre, it might be a joint screenplay between Spring Breakers‘ Harmony Korine and Trainspotting‘s Irvine Welsh.

In late July, a 20-year-old Irish dancer named Michaella McCollum Connolly went missing in Ibiza, where she was spending the summer working in bars in the seedy San Antonio district. After her family contacted Interpol and launched an international appeal for information regarding the young woman’s whereabouts, she turned up, all right — in Lima, Peru, where she and another Ibiza summer worker, 19-year-old Melissa Reid, from Scotland, were arrested after attempting to board a flight to Madrid with 11 kilos of cocaine hidden in their luggage. McCollum Connolly and Reid told authorities that they were kidnapped at gunpoint in Ibiza, flown to Morocco and then to Lima, where gang members gave them $2.3 million worth of cocaine hidden in Quaker Oats packets to carry back to Europe. Last week, the story took an even stranger turn when Peru’s El Comercio suggested that the two women might have been recruited by a Lima-based gang run by Philip Austin Collins, the 39-year-old nephew of Phil Collins. (Collins, accused of a 2012 attempt to smuggle 50 kilos of cocaine across the Atlantic on a private yacht, is currently being held in Peru’s maximum-security prison Piedras Gordas.)

Michaela McCollum Connolly in Ibiza

The unfolding news has rapidly metastasized into a tabloid shitstorm complete with dominatrix photos, one-eyed bodybuilders, a gangster named Goldfinger, a prisoner found hanged in his cell, and “7am ketamine-fuelled raves.” The latest salacious twists in the tale offer a teasing glimpse of a tawdry subculture where young people working as bartenders, dancers, and flyer-distributing “PR girls” rack up enormous debts on the island and are strongarmed into serving as small-time dealers or smugglers for local criminal organizations. (“From Ibiza to Peru: How gangs turn innocent young girls into drug mules,” crowed the Mirror.) Sensationalist headlines aside, however, the story underscores the grim reality that lies beneath Ibiza’s hedonistic façade: Some seriously sordid stuff goes on there. As it happens, that debauched behavior is the topic of a new book by the British academic Daniel Briggs. His study, Deviance and Risk on Holiday: An Ethnography of British Tourists in Ibiza, follows young, working-class British tourists as they run amok in San Antonio’s bars and the island’s superclubs.

The publisher’s promotional copy explains, “This book represents the first attempt to step inside the holiday experience of young British tourists. Using ethnographic methods such as observation, open-ended interviewing and focus groups in San Antonio, Ibiza, this book reveals the ugly truth about ‘how’ and ‘why’ young Brits get involved in deviance and risk-taking when they go abroad, exploring vivid accounts of drug use, drug dealing, violence, prostitution, and injury.” Along the way, Briggs encounters charmers like the Southside Crew, a group of four 20-something Brits, all with previous arrest records (one served time for dealing cocaine, another for battery) who spend their holiday on a booze-, drug- and rage-fueled quest to get laid.

Briggs’ book shifts the blame for such “pathological” behaviors from individuals to a complicated nexus of socio-economic forces: The low-cost airlines that ferry tourists to the island in droves; the nightclubs that profit from clubbers’ extreme inebriation; and, ultimately, a “neoliberal, free market society based around consumption,” in which week-long Balearic benders serve as a kind of opiate of the masses — the classic bread-and-circuses scenario, but played out with body shots and foam parties. Citing Zlavoj Žižek’s concept of “unfreedom,” Briggs writes, “[T]he behaviours these young working-class Brits exhibit abroad, to some degree, have been already structurally conditioned, socially constructed, packaged, repackaged and marketed to them – and it is this commercial pressure which is aggressively foisted on them during their holiday in the resort.”

SPIN spoke to Briggs about the White Isle’s dark side, from binge drinking to criminal gangs. Diddy might want to hurry up and release his long-promised film tribute to Ibiza: “The island is in a dead-end situation,” Briggs said. “The whole situation gets worse; it’s like a cancer.”

Given your research in Ibiza’s nightlife community, what has been your reaction to the way this case has unfolded?
There’s a lot of silliness in the media. They love to take a very extreme case and blow it out of proportion, try to suggest that it’s a general pattern. The question that they’ve been trying to ask me is, are Mr. Big and his evil bastard cartel ready to pounce on vulnerable, young British tourists in Ibiza? No. That’s not what’s happening at all. What this looks like, really, is that the party has got out of hand. The extent to which it’s got out of hand is quite alarming. How do two young girls, 19 years old, go to Ibiza as casual workers and end up shipping kilos and kilos of cocaine from South America? Something fishy is going on, but I don’t think it’s Mr. Big or his bastard cartels.

Although a legal process will determine what’s happened here, my research would suggest that these young women fall in the category of the kind of people who have let the lifestyle lead them into some very odd situations. Young people with these very patchy attachments to work and education get commercially duped into this lifestyle to the extent that they feel that, “Right, OK, let’s have a bit of this permanent fun, get on the plane to Ibiza and live as casual workers.” In the articles that you’ve probably seen, it was suggested they lived with other casual workers. There’s a real hub of these hotels, almost complexes, dedicated to these casual workers. It’s very incestuous. The parties that go on—lots of sex, booze, lots of drugs. You’re talking about people that see themselves a cut above the tourists. “We’re living the dream. You people come here and have the good life for a finite period of time, but we’re the casual workers. We live here, we work here, and you haven’t got the balls to do what we’re doing.” Once they get into this situation where they’re living it, it is a 24/7 party, seven days a week, for two or three months on end. How do you fund spending, I’d say, a grand or two a week on going out? It’s certainly not going to be through a meager wage of selling tickets. If you’re lucky selling tickets, you can get maybe 10 or 15 euros a day. If you’re good, maybe 40. But it’s very easy to have a little top-up and be selling Es and earn yourself an extra hundred euros a day. And you have some Es left over for yourself.

In your research, did you hear stories, either first hand or anecdotal, about bar employees or PR girls who were dealing drugs or working as mules?
Dealers yes, mules no. The young woman don’t really fit the typology. There are experts that will tell you about the type of people that end up being drug mules. A lot of these people that do this are quite entrepreneurial about it. Bit stupid, bit naïve, but there isn’t really such a sense that they’ve been forced at gunpoint to do it. A lot of them do it out of necessity, to improve their own circumstances or those of their families. So it does seem kind of odd that these young girls are suggesting that these cartels have deliberately kidnapped them — these are heavy words that are being used. My research doesn’t even touch on this. It would be a real revelation if there did exist this level of organization.

Did you hear about seasonal workers becoming indebted to local loansharks?
There is some validity in suggesting that they may get loans from dealers, or perhaps an advance. What I will say that may be accurate in this case, certainly my research shows that when young people like this did get into debt, threats were made, and in some cases, a few passports were withdrawn [by dealers or loan sharks], and they weren’t given back until the debt had been repaid. What I can’t say is the level of threat — are we talking about a verbal thing, or the other side of the spectrum, guns at heads? I doubt it’s guns at heads, to be honest. It’s difficult to then start to fill the gaps in. I can tell you quite accurately how people like those girls end up in potential situations where they’re in debt; what I can’t tell you is how the hell they got to Peru.

What got you interested in conducting an ethnographical study of British youth running wild on holiday?
It’s a combination of reading a lot of literature around this area and looking at a lot of survey data talking about how many people were taking drugs. I asked myself, how can you really determine how accurate such a picture of reality is, when you’re asking people in hindsight how much they’ve drunk? Or how many drugs they’ve taken? These days just blur into one whole experience. It’s a 24/7 or even 36- or 40-hour party. There’s no real stop for some people. Some people go there for three days and they just have a passport in the back of their pocket and a handful of Euros, and they just throw money at it.

But also there’s a lot of dumbing down of popular culture in the U.K.; probably you have the same in America. A lot of youth experience is projected as something which should be seized upon. A lot of programs, radio discussions, and internet forums talk about going away and taking advantage of the moment, having new experiences, and a lot of that is depicted in these programs you see. Young people on these programs are not doing a great deal apart from meeting each other in bars and talking about sex and drinking a lot. There’s no essence of work life, there’s no substance to it. This is what people take in, it’s what they’re socialized to, and accompanying that, I just became interested in trying to document the subjective experience of these holidays, because it hadn’t really been done before.

What kind of behaviors are we talking about?
Having sex with prostitutes, basically asking lapdancers to piss and shit on them, shitting off balconies, shitting into bottles and mixing it with water and throwing it at each other, jumping off balconies. Basically, very extreme drug-taking to the point where… I’ll give you an example. I spent a day with guys drinking 15 pints of beer, and then they went on to cocaine, then they took three Es overnight, then they came back and were taking ketamine, drinking spirits — that’s in less than 24 hours! They were doing that for two weeks, pretty much solid. You’re talking about a level of consumption which is off the scale. And there’s a consequence of that consumption; it’s the extreme behaviors which result. It’s not necessarily that young people are doing these things, it’s how they’re coerced into it. The resort context pretty much is endorsing these things. The strip clubs are everywhere; the bars have got all these sort of crazy deals. It’s a marrying process: you’ve got your blowout attitude married with this resort that is happy to capitalize on these attitudes.

They claim to distance themselves from these behaviors — the image of drugs and crime and drug-dealing — but to be honest, it’s so incestuously embedded in the island’s economy, without that kind of expenditure, the island would go down. It wouldn’t survive. It would go bankrupt. The superclubs need people to be doing in there and spending money willy-nilly.

The very first people you spoke to, the Southside Crew, sounded like a pretty rough lot. Were they extreme outliers? Did you just get really lucky on your first try?
It sounds a bit odd that I should suddenly stumble upon these characters. But we are talking about a class issue here. This resort is catering to working-class young people. There are other parts of the island where you find a bit more working-class and upper-class cohort. But this attracts the kind of people that have very precarious working conditions; they have temporary contracts, even zero-hour contracts. Some are students. They don’t have a great deal of life direction. For a lot of these people that have these broken work trajectories and broken work identities, they fill in a lot of their time in the nighttime economy, back home at weekends, drinking, taking drugs, drug dealing. For a lot of these people, drug experience in general is fairly normal. It’s quite common that a lot of them have been arrested for things like violence or assault or been in trouble for possession of drugs, these kinds of misdemeanors. It’s not really surprising. It may sound as if I hit the jackpot, as you say, but a lot of them are fairly dodgy. Some of them, as I go on to say in the book, deliberately go out there to deal drugs, and they have quite lucrative businesses.

Did you encounter any actual violence? In the introduction you note that the Southside Crew comes close to getting in fights several times.
Not with these guys, no, but as an observer in and around this kind of resort area, yes. Basically, when it gets to four or five o’clock in the morning, fights are fairly commonplace — ambulances steering up this small kind of lane which harbors all the bars, a lot of blood and cuts and bruises all over the place. Not every night, but most nights, something’s going on somewhere, really.

What are some of the difficulties in doing ethnographical research in situations like this?
It obviously raises all sorts of ethical issues about what kind of measures you should take as someone who is responsible for, perhaps yourself, but also the field work team. The kind of measures we had in place were that we were never more than 300 meters away from each other; we were always in pairs on these observation nights; that if there was trouble, within a 10-meter, 15-meter vicinity, we’d kind of back off and if it came our way, we’d just go back to the hotel. I suppose one of the key issues is that we drank with some of these people, which also blurs the line of responsibility. Are we coercing behavior? Because our participants are aware of what we’re doing, are they exaggerating the bravado of their behavior? But at no point did I get the sense that they were drinking more or taking more drugs just to say, “Oh, let’s show this British academic how we do!” It wasn’t really like that. Generally, if you’re quite frank with people about what’s going on, then it’s unproblematic. But a lot of it was fairly improvisational. There’s only so much you can predict, really.

Were there a lot of all-nighters in clubs? That must be a difficult way to conduct field research.
You can see from my hairline that I’m not so young myself any more, but I kind of just got away with it. The good thing about Ibiza is that it’s one of these places where age demarcations are fairly blurred. It’s not only where you find [young] people — and it comes back to how the island is marketed to these 15, 16 year olds who think it’s the be-all and end-all of life — but people who are trying to rekindle those moments in clubs and taking Es in the early ’90s. That’s what I was doing, and it’s what some people my age, in their mid 30s, are doing. It never really looked out of place, if that makes sense. It’s kind of permissible.

Did you speak to many locals about how the tourist economy affects them?
Part of this research was to document how the resort had developed economically and perhaps de-developed culturally. The hoteliers and local Spanish businessmen in the area who have seen this resort decline over the last 30 years — the rot really started when mass tourism came in in the ’60s, and we had charter flights that used to sort of bombard the resort with large groups of young British tourists. Even then, in the ’60s and ’70s, you had tourists from Italy, tourists from Scandinavia, from Spain, you had a real mix. But the real problem has been these behaviors, and the reputation the resort now has, it means a lot of these other countries have pulled out of the area. So all these local businesses have got to do in order to avoid going under is to join the bandwagon. They have to reinvent themselves as businesses which can cater for the British. So a café offering fried breakfasts, or a bar offering 3-for-1 deals or something crazy like that. The whole situation gets worse; it’s like a cancer.

You studied predominantly working-class tourists; how do the rich act out?
The flipside, I wish I had more of an insight. But I suspect you have a very similar sort of thing taking place in other resorts in Ibiza which cater to these other different class groups. Playa D’en Bossa, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it —

That’s where Ushuaia is.
Yeah. Ushuaia is an example of one of these private beach club hotels. The concept of it is exactly the same as Ibiza Rocks. Ibiza Rocks is marketed at the working class, but Ushuaia is price-bracketed for the middle and upper class. So essentially the two class groups are doing the same sort of thing, but they both think they’re better than each other. The point is, the more money you have, the more you can spend it willy-nilly, the more this ideological social status becomes part of you, because you want to talk about the money you spent, you want to talk about the 900 quid you spent on a bottle of vodka. There was talk — I speculate here — by some people who had been to Ibiza numerous times were saying the elite had these private villas where they’d have these mountains of cocaine all over the place, Russian strippers, and all this kind of thing. But I can’t qualify that too much.

Ushuaia is billed as a very upscale place, yet two years ago, a bouncer there beat another employee to death on the premises. The killer later claimed that his co-worker had been the club’s “official dealer,” something the dead man’s father denies.
The interesting thing is, the origin of Ushuaia is as a consequence of the clampdown on after-parties. There was a law that was passed five or six years ago which basically clamped down on these superclub after-parties. So as a result, you saw these private enterprises springing up — which of course the politicians and local government can’t do too much about, because they want money to be invested in the island — which pretty much enclosed the consumption and the behaviors off. With these enclosed areas, obviously you don’t want to damage your reputation, so you have to align the permissiveness with what the tourists want. That’s when the problems arise. I’ve no doubt that all sorts of drug dealing takes place at Ushuaia.

You talk about “institutionalized envy.” How does social media affect the way people act out on holiday now?
Oh, it’s massive. And this is partly why I suggest in the book that people come back from holiday feeling in the psychological doldrums. Because what they participated in is basically a nothingness, it’s pointless. There’s no essence to it. Their producing discourse is not for themselves, but for social kudos. It’s to have that Facebook status, you know, “I did this crazy shit,” or “I got arrested,” or “I shit myself” or something like that. Or even post clips on YouTube of the kind of stuff they do. I’ll give you one example of these young women I interviewed five hours after they were beaten up by bouncers at Pacha. They were beaten, they were arrested, they showed me their cuts and their bruises. And I asked them, “How do you feel about this?” They started laughing, because they knew that this would be a legendary story that would go down in history. One of them, when she was in the police car, said, “I’ve already thought of my Facebook status: ‘Already been arrested and molested in Ibiza.'”

She found the “authentic” Ibiza experience.
Exactly. There is real pleasure in this experience of pain. It means so much. That’s why it doesn’t matter that they go home with broken arms or broken legs or an STD or, God forbid, a friend in the morgue. Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme.

Clubbers complain that the drugs aren’t what they used to be. Would legalization help?
Possibly. When it comes down to the legalization debate, I have to play devil’s advocate. Anything that’s legalized, there’s always going to be a market that undercuts it. I suppose it doesn’t help to have it underground per se, so if it was regulated, you’d probably eliminate some fatal consequences. I think, really, you can’t stop drugs — it’s such a difficult thing to try. The only thing you can do is reduce the harm. There have been some attempts in these superclubs, people who walk around and provide advice about the level of consumption. But the truth is, it comes back to the same thing about the economy. These superclubs are only interested in people spending money, so they don’t want harm-reduction people in their club giving advice. The other thing is, it should be a legal requirement that these clubs give out water to clubbers so they don’t dehydrate. But water’s ten euros a bottle. They’re not interested in people’s health. They’re not interested in safety. They’re interested in making money at the expense of the tourists. Basically, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the tourists rather than the superclubs, and that’s where the problem is. These big corporations have a global brand, and they’re not prepared to jeopardize the potential profit.

Is local law enforcement up to the task?
No. To give you an idea of the way the police operate in Ibiza, it’s kind of in bed with the government. It’s a fairly liberal criminal-justice system; they don’t really come down hard on drug dealers. Yes, they have these propagandistic attempts every year where they’ll make several large-scale arrests of drug dealers in hotels, film it, film the drugs, say how successful they’ve been, but the truth is they can’t really dent enough what’s taking place. I’ll give you an example of just how liberal the criminal-justice system is. Recently we had a judge let off a British guy for possession of 80 pills, because he said it was for personal use. Eighty pills! In terms of situational harm reduction, in terms of policing, this resort San Antonio receives very little concentrated policing. It’s at best kind of responsive. The police don’t really walk around at night, there’s no real presence. They drive around sometimes in their cars. It’s to do with the structure of local policing. They have the local police who are responsible for this resort, but the local police don’t have the jurisdiction to deal with the complexities of drug dealing, prostitution, organized crime, which is taking place in the resort.

Croatia seems to be becoming the new Ibiza; should Croatia be worried?
Yeah, I think so. This is partly why local politicians have openly stated that they need to make as much money from the tourists when they come. One openly said that; I quoted it in the book. Because Ibiza is now in competition with these other nightlife destinations that are becoming more popular. Ibiza is in jeopardy of losing its global brand reputation. You can kind of forecast what’s going to happen here. Croatia’s going to become so fashionable that all the global chains will move in, and all the marketing entrepreneurs will be looking to capitalize on the popularity and the haphazard spending habits of the tourists who go there.

So many of the stories coming out of Ibiza sound almost like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
It comes back to what I was saying about these depictions. Is that not a blatant advertisement for young people approaching the end of their high school years to go out and get absolutely hammered? We have a very similar film, The In-Betweeners, which is about these guys finishing school. When they turn 17, 18, what do they do? They go on holiday, they go to Ibiza and get wasted. They do crazy stuff like give themselves blowjobs and things like that. It’s just really, really sordid, bizarre shit. But it’s become so normal and ingrained in what’s expected. There’s one program in this country called Sun, Sex, and Suspicious Parents. These teenagers think they’re going away and it’s being filmed and it’s all fun, but actually their parents are watching them in secret. You’d think at the end of the program when the parents go in and say, “We’ve been watching you,” that a lot of these parents would be shocked and horrified. But you see some parents saying, “Yeah, go on, well done!” Like they’re really proud of it! It’s really so normal, so ingrained, the expectation of these behaviors.

What are your own memories of Ibiza like, when you went there as a young punter?
In the book, I talk about what’s called the holiday career. What I see happening from this late-teen period up into the mid-20s and the 30, is that young people start off in these rougher nightspots around the Mediterranean and then progress to this pinnacle, which is Ibiza. I probably didn’t get that far if I was to put myself on the holiday-career ladder. I only went to Mallorca and another place called Faloraki. I think I kind of graduated out of this experience. The other side of it is that it’s quite boring, and I was far more interested in having a cultural experience — learning a language or seeing things outside the resorts, that kind of thing. A lot of these people, if you ask them, are you interested in seeing the island, they say no, that’s boring, that’s for boring people who want to go to Egypt. Another woman said to me, “Oh, we got really bored the other night. We didn’t want to drink three nights in a row.” I said, OK, what did you do? She said, “Well, we got so bored, we just ended up getting drunk.” It’s that embedded. What do we do with our leisure time? Well, let’s do what is available to us, and what we’ve kind of been subconsciously told to do, and what we expect of ourselves. I feel quite fortunate to have graduated out of what was expected of me, and to be able to look in hindsight at my youth experience as a very temporary flirtation with some of these resorts, thank God.

Daniel Briggs' 'Deviance and Risk on Holiday'

And now you can go back and experience it vicariously in your research from a safe remove.
Well, yes, a safe remove. This has attracted a lot of attention from my colleagues who think that I’ve gone there and had fun. I’ve come back really, heavily depressed, you know? Millions of people do this every year. And it’s not fun when you hear stories of people being raped and finding themselves on beaches or floating in pools naked without a passport. That’s not fun.

Daniel Briggs’ Deviance and Risk on Holiday: An Ethnography of British Tourists in Ibiza (Palgrave Macmillan) is available now from Amazon.