Once the world’s capital of all things liberal and free, Ibiza’s soul has been swallowed by mega-brands and commercialisation. Headlines suggest that Mexican cartels are the latest power to prey on the party haven, but scratch below the surface and you’ll find the biggest threat may actually be the partygoers themselves.

It was a shocking scene: two young girls led through crowds of reporters by Peruvian police, hands cuffed, heads down and fear etched on their faces. The so-called Peru Two, arrested for smuggling drugs at Lima airport, ignited a media frenzy with ostentatious reports on everything from drug-fuelled parties in Ibiza to gun crime and suspicious suicides. Some newspaper reports suggested Mexican cartels had infiltrated the White Isle, others said the party scene is simply spiralling out of control. Either way, the spotlight has turned on the glamorised debauchery of Ibiza, and it doesn’t make for a pretty sight.

Ibiza’s liberal identity was carved by hippies in the 1960s, fuelled by free-thinking, escapism and an open drug culture, but over the last two decades this image has been hijacked by super-brands, as club and hotel chains capitalise on the

island’s infamous party scene. “Ibiza’s notoriety has also attracted an underbelly – an informal economy that plays on the relationship people have with music and drugs,” explains Dr Daniel Briggs, author of Deviance And Risk   On Holiday: An Ethnography Of British Tourists In Ibiza.  It’s this informal economy that serves as the linchpin to Ibiza’s survival. Without the hedonistic holidays, the tourists wouldn’t come; without the tourists, the economy would collapse.

As such, it’s believed the police are left with little option but to turn a blind eye to much of the turpitude unfolding in front of them. “They know that drugs form part of how the economy is sustained,” explains Dr Briggs. “Sometimes they need to overlook how drugs are dealt, because they need people to come to the island.” Overlook may be a slight understatement – it’s alleged in one case a man caught with 80 class A narcotic tablets was released without charge as courts decided they were for personal consumption.



But where do these drugs come from? On the back of claims from the Peru Two – Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum – that they were kidnapped and forced into drug trafficking, newspapers are rife with speculation that Latin American mobsters have taken control of the Spanish drug trade, preying on young partygoers. This is a view that Dr Briggs finds unlikely. “I don’t think there are any South American cartels in Ibiza,” he says. “Impressionable girls can get carried away with the lifestyle. That’s much more likely to be the case rather than them being the target of gangs. That’s not generally how cartels function.”

Dr Jennifer Fleetwood, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester, UK, also believes that stories of Mexican cartels infiltrating Ibiza are likely to be media hyperbole. “When we think of drug trafficking we think about Pablo Escobar-style cartels [a large, violent criminal organisation], but there’s actually a lot of variety involved,” she says. “I’d question whether or not there are cartels. It’s much more messy than that. There are all sorts of people who get together to do business, rather than a hierarchical organisation.”

It’s widely acknowledged that only 15 per cent of narcotics travel via drug mules. According to Dr Fleetwood this is because large drug organisations have enough money to invest in sophisticated technology and bribing border agents. Mules can only carry a small amount of narcotics at once, therefore, the bigger the scale of the trafficking organisation, the less chance there is of mules being used as the profit margins aren’t large enough.

Dr Fleetwood says that people are recruited by small drug trafficking rings in places like Ibiza for lots of reasons but, in general, it’s about money coupled with chance. “[Mules] often think, ‘We’ll just give it a go.’ Traffickers tend to see themselves as quite professional, they wouldn’t want to force anyone into it,” she explains. “People come across an opportunity, or they meet a successful mule, and all of a sudden it becomes possible. We have a stereotype of a mule being an impoverished woman who needs to pay for a family member’s operation, but I’ve met lots of Westerners aged between 19 and 22 in Latin American prisons [convicted of drug trafficking],” she says.

Some are motivated by lifestyle choice, others need the money for more serious circumstances, but almost everyone does it for fast cash. There are, however, people who view drugs as a social enterprise rather than a danger, and are less money-orientated. Their reasons can be as simple as facilitating the party. “I met a guy from England who went to university, was well educated and middle class. He got involved in drug trafficking through friends and didn’t see it as that problematic,” says Dr Fleetwood. “If you’re in Ibiza you’re exposed to different people and a different drug culture, so you might view drugs differently to mainstream society.”



Until the Peru Two, the scale of Ibiza’s problems was largely ignored. However, the drug scene and high-risk behaviour of its holidaymakers is becoming clear. “The people who I’ve spoken to who are on the wrong side of this party have ended up in hospital, with severe illnesses or in the morgue,” says Dr Briggs. “I met a young British man who’d been in a coma for 24 hours after consuming drugs and alcohol. After being woken up by doctors, he checked himself out of hospital because he realised he was missing DJ Carl Cox [playing at a club night].” According to Dr Briggs, who has done extensive field research on the island, this is a mild example of the behaviour he encountered.

Those who don’t end up in hospital or the morgue often find themselves with money problems. Most people spend the equivalent of Dhs6,100 per week sustaining the lifestyle. The monopoly of power held by superclubs makes for inflated drink prices and entry fees. Season workers will find themselves with even more money woes, shelling out for expensive rent and groceries. The drug trade is often the most accessible way to top up their income.

“It’s very typical of someone who wants to live the Ibiza dream to fall into debt,” says Dr Briggs. “Casual worker’s wages never come close to covering the basic necessities, so dealing drugs becomes an easy way for them to maintain the lifestyle. And, of course, it allows them to take drugs themselves at a low cost.”



There is pressure to develop sordid accounts of what happened, which goes some way in explaining why so many people are willing to put themselves in danger and participate in illegal activity. A lot do it for the ‘fame’. Dr Briggs says: “They say, ‘What happens in Ibiza, stays in Ibiza,’ but it often ends up as a YouTube post or Facebook status.” He gives an example of a group of girls he met in a diner, covered in bruises. Some of them had been beaten up by security staff and arrested by police after being refused entrance to the VIP area of a club. He recalls one of them laughing, because “she’d started constructing her Facebook status in the back of the police car, even though she’d just been kicked-in by bouncers”.

It seems that peer-to-peer comparison has tainted the way dangerous behaviour is viewed in Ibiza. One San Antonio holidaymaker said, “I overheard someone bragging about how easy it was to take drugs into the country. He said he’d smuggled them in plane and one of his mates was taking some before they even landed. Everyone was laughing and the guy was clearly loving the attention.” This attitude seems to stem from a disillusioned generation with poor job opportunities, who seek heightened social status by spouting daring and exciting tales.

According to Dr Briggs, this is a result of the popular YOLO [you only live once] catchphrase and commercials telling youths to grab the moment and live their younger years to the extreme. “Campaigns tell young people to forget about tomorrow and live their lives. For these people, it doesn’t matter whether the experiences are good or bad. What matters is that they are making the most of this finite period of time,” he explains. In today’s society youth is seen as a precious commodity that must be lived to the full. Couple that with the readily available vices in Ibiza, and there are tragic consequences.

It appears that cartels can’t be blamed for the dark turn Ibiza has taken. Partygoers need to accept a much more frightening reality – that their quest for thrills has serious consequences. The only similarity Ibiza has with the streets of Mexico is the tributes to those who have died as a result of a massive drug problem. “There are shrines in San Antonio where people have died,” Dr Briggs says. “Flowers are littered around these corners where people have been run over or collapsed, and yet the party goes on.”

Image: Getty