Mark 'Fatboy' Lilley was grabbed from his villa in southern Spain by police last weekend. The arrest was the latest to signal the end of an era when UK criminals could find a sunny haven on the Med
The shaky handheld camera. The barking dogs. The hovering helicopter. The crack of splintered wood as the metal "enforcer" smashes its way into the villa. The garish four-poster bed. The hidden pistol. The bolted "panic room". Yes, it must be the latest flashy crime procedural to hit our screens, wearing all its cliches as proudly as a freshly inked tattoo.
But no, this film was made by the Spanish police and it showed the arrest last weekend of a fugitive British criminal. Mark Lilley, aka "Fatboy", "Mandy" and "Big Vern", a 41-year-old drug dealer from Merseyside, was arrested after more than 12 years on the run. The whole operation, from the scaling of the front gates of his villa in Alhaurín de la Torre near Málaga, to the exposure of his en suite lair, was captured on film. Although trained in the Brazilian martial art of vale tudo(which means "anything goes"), and guarded by three large dogs, Lilley went quietly.
The arrest came two months after another Briton on the run, Andrew Moran, was grabbed by his pool in Calpe on Spain's Costa Blanca. That arrest was also filmed, although Moran disobligingly spoiled his close-up by vaulting over a wall and pulling his T-shirt over his head before he was finally caught.
He had escaped four years earlier from Burnley crown court, where he was convicted in his absence of conspiring to commit armed robbery. Lilley was the 51st criminal on the 65-strong Operation Captura wanted list – drawn up by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) – to have his collar felt on the Costas. But to some it seems strange that British criminals still opt for Spanish hideaways. Have they never seenSexy Beast?
"The attraction for Spain is still there, as there is a huge expat British population," said Dave Allen, head of the fugitives unit at Soca. But there are other European options. "The language is not too much of an issue in the Netherlands either – the Dutch speak very good English and are culturally similar to the British, so it's easy to fit in." But some are now looking further afield: "The places we're seeing them go to now are Thailand, certainly, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates."
He said that 133 fugitives were arrested abroad at the request of the UK last year. "The people we put on the Crimestoppers website – it's not a top 10 'most wanted' list; that's an American thing – are the ones seen to be the most dangerous. They are wanted for violent crimes, predatory sex offences and the like."
The arrests of Lilley and Moran represent something of a coup for Soca, helped by the fact that they were filmed and thus received maximum publicity. Another high-profile fugitive was apprehended in Athens on the same day as Lilley, but the Greek police did not film it, so it received less coverage. Kevin Hanley, from Fulham, west London, wanted in connection with drug dealing, was caught as he tucked into sausage, eggs and soda bread in front of the Lions v Wallabies game at Molly Malone's pub in the suburb of Glyfada. The police knew he was a rugby fan and had staked out the limited number of places in Athens where the big game could be watched.
Jason Coghlan, a former armed robber from Manchester who served time with Lilley as a category A prisoner in Strangeways, now runs a Marbella law firm, JaCogLaw, which advises ex-pats who are in trouble with the authorities. Its website boasts an impressive series of quotations from Aristotle to Gladstone, although the one probably most likely to catch the eye of potential clients is from 18th-century jurist William Blackstone: "Better that 10 guilty men escape justice than that one innocent man goes to prison."
Coghlan, who is setting up a similar outfit in Bangkok, thinks that Spain is a daft place to hide. "If you're a villain on the run in Spain, you're just in a queue waiting to get nicked. What a lot of them don't realise is that the Spanish police can even trace where your emails are coming from. Being on the run is no life – and it's no life for the family of someone on the run. Some of them think that, with the passage of time, their sentences will be reduced. But the sentences don't go away."
He said that if he were on the run himself, he would probably head for eastern Europe, either Albania or Romania. "A lot of the armed robbers come to Spain because they can go into drug smuggling – it's the number one place, not just because of the hashish from Morocco but because of cocaine coming in from Mexico."
Coghlan said he thought the tip-offs that led to the arrests of Britons generally came not from sharp-eyed members of the public but from other members of the underground: "If someone throws their weight around and makes a nuisance of themselves, that might lead to a tip-off." And he's sceptical about the idea of villains now having a panic room along with the pool and the four-poster. "I think that was just a hidey-hole – people call it a panic room because of the film."
But take a virtual stroll through the English-language estate agents' websites in Spain and you will be amazed how many homes offer "bullet-proof glass" as a special feature along with the spa bath and barbecue area.
In a brief window between 1978 and 1985 when extradition agreements between Spain and the UK broke down, a number of wanted men settled on the "Costa del Crime". Ronnie Knight, the former husband of Barbara Windsor, is credited with establishing Spain as a getaway destination. But his Costa days are over; he now lives in sheltered accommodation near Cambridge and told magistrates, when he was charged with drink-driving last year, that he mainly uses his car to help fellow residents with their shopping.
The Spanish authorities are less tolerant these days of the expat criminals who land on their doorstep: there were 1,599 arrests of Britons there last year. But by no means all of them are on a par with the likes of Lilley and Moran.
"Most of the foreign nationals arrested in Spain don't fit the stereotype of the 'Mr Big' of the crime world," said Jago Russell of UK charity Fair Trials International. "Many of the dozens of people we help each year are arrested for minor crimes, and many of these are ultimately cleared, often after months or years in pre-trial detention." Another charity, Prisoners Abroad, which looks after Britons held overseas, says Spain is top of its list in Europe, with 95 clients there.
So if not Spain, where? Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus, which has no extradition arrangement with the UK because it is not recognised as a country, became popular for a while – as Asil Nadir's long exile showed. But last year Soca launched Operation Zygos, which covers the whole of island, with nine fugitives in its sights. The northern government now stresses that it does not want to become a haven for Brits fleeing justice.
Lee Murray, the half-Moroccan cage-fighter and ringleader of the gang that stole £53m cash from a Securitas depot in Kent in 2006, headed for Morocco when he fled, holing up in Rabat with another member of his gang. But he ignored the first rule for criminals on the run: blend in. The locals thought the pair must be gay, because it was so unusual for single men to be living together, and this attracted attention which eventually led to their arrests. Murray also could not resist splashing his money around. As Howard Sounes describes it, in Heist, his book about the crime, his villa was furnished with "cream leather sofas, an elephant tusk lamp-stand, a harp-shaped bookshelf and gold chairs in the shape of giant sea shells."
Thailand remains a popular criminal hideout. Bogus identity documents are easy to come by, corruption is still rife and, just like Spain, it provides the prerequisites for the Brit-on-the-run: full English breakfast, access to satellite coverage of the Premier League, and sunshine.
One final tip for runaways, apart from avoiding televised rugby matches in Greece: get rid of the tattoos. One of those recently nabbed in Spain had a tattoo of a pit bull terrier and the motto "only the strong survive". How true.