For two years, Spanish authorities investigated a shadowy business network that allegedly used complex financial transactions, real estate purchases and front men to hide profits, while setting up secret warehouses where product would be weighed and sorted.
The highly prized commodity for sale? Saffron.
A key ingredient in paella, one of Spain’s best-known dishes, saffron is worth more than gold by weight. A single kilogram can cost more than $10,000, so disreputable dealers who boost their profits by mixing in flowers and stems are a perennial problem. But the crime ring that caught the eye of Spanish police allegedly went even further: It imported saffron from Iran and passed it off as the product of Spain’s largest saffron-growing region, La Mancha.
While there’s no culinary consensus that Spanish saffron is superior to Iranian saffron, both countries see the spice as a matter of intense national pride. The quality of La Mancha saffron is “recognized throughout the world,” Spain’s national police said in a statement announcing the arrests of 17 people, “so its sale was guaranteed both in the national and international market.”
Spanish authorities began investigating the syndicate after receiving tips that several companies based in Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, were importing large amounts of saffron from Iran. Before being repackaged and marketed as Spanish saffron, the spice was mixed with “floral remains, styles and stamens that should not be sold as saffron, increasing the sales volume,” police said. It was then treated with dyes that hadn’t been approved for consumption to ensure a distinctive reddish-orange tint.
The fraudulent labeling “caused enormous economic damage to the Spanish saffron sector,” since companies selling properly labeled and unadulterated spices couldn’t compete on price, Spain’s national police said in its Thursday statement.
Working with tax and customs officials and EUROPOL, police reviewed more than 200 bank accounts across the European Union and in the United Arab Emirates, and discovered what they categorized as a massive money laundering operation. Members of the crime ring had bought more than 35 houses in Spain on behalf of individuals in Iran who had granted them power of attorney and appeared on paper to be legitimate owners, but in reality “were mere front men.”
Police raided warehouses, offices and homes linked to the group and seized six high-end vehicles, a van, watches and jewelry in addition to machines used to sort and label saffron. They also discovered more than two tons of Iranian saffron — worth millions of dollars. Seventeen were arrested, and 13 others were being investigated for possible crimes including fraud, forgery, money laundering and smuggling, authorities said Thursday.
Experts have long warned that international sanctions against Iran have created a thriving black-market trade in saffron. The country produces 90 percent of the world’s saffron supply, but the spice cannot be commercially exported to the United States under current regulations. As a result, it’s not uncommon for middlemen in countries like Spain to legally import Iranian saffron and simply relabel it before shipping it overseas.
In 2011, Spanish saffron farmers complained that only 0.8 percent of saffron labeled as “Spanish” was actually grown in La Mancha. Since then, the European Union has cracked down on illegal relabeling.