The thieves targeted holidaymakers in the vicinity of hotels and motorways in the Greater Madrid region and at the airport, dressed as police officers with fake ID badges, and are said to be the largest and most prolific in recent history.
They would target tourists who appeared to have money or valuables in their luggage or about their person, and who appeared not to know the area very well.
The victims were mainly stopped in hired cars, frequently on the A-1 and A-4 motorways.
On the pretext of searching their vehicles for drugs or stolen goods, the bogus policemen pulled the holidaymakers over, showing them their ID badges and requesting their passports and wallets.
They took cash from the tourists’ purses, claiming it was counterfeit, and watches and mobile phones, saying they bore resemblance to stolen items.
The offenders would also wrench jewellery and personal effects from the victims before making a run for it.
Investigating officers said the eight men wore caps with sewn-on badges bearing the Spanish flag and the word España, alongside plaques or badges which turned out to have been bought from toy stores.
These were made from plastic and bore logos such as ‘Super Police’ – meaning no Spaniard or long-term expatriate would believe they were real officers, but foreign tourists were more likely to think they were genuine.
The eight men, all Iraqi and Irani nationals, used a number of different cars to avoid trace.
Although they have been formally charged with 21 offences, many more may have gone unreported if holidaymakers believed genuine policeman had confiscated their personal belongings.
The gang had been operating in various countries worldwide, and had only been in Madrid a few months, where they rented flats and moved around often.
Some of them had been arrested in 2012 in Barcelona and Madrid for similar offences, but were released with charges.
At this point, a few of the men were said to have bragged about their crimes on social networks, claiming they were ‘the best in the field’ at their ‘work’.
The ringleader is known to have used up to 10 false names and identities to enable him to rent property and buy cars without arousing suspicion.
Concerned officials say gangs like this give ‘a poor impression of Spain’, since tourists may well believe ‘the system was corrupt to the core’ and go home telling everyone their watches, phones and cash had been confiscated during a roadside police check with no explanation.
Madrid regional government stresses Spain is ‘a safe country’ and police officers will never ask for cash at the roadside, nor to see drivers’ purses or wallets – only their licences and ID – and do not take away personal items without a court warrant.