Peer to peer just went gangster in Barcelona thanks to travel company Trip4Real… Duncan Rhodes books a sea view lunch with none other than Dani “El Millionario” Rojo, Spain’s most wanted felon.
“Robbing a bank is addictive – like fucking. It’s really orgasmic,” says my lunch companion, as he pries open a langostino from our shared seafood paella and sucks the juicy bits out of the crustacean’s shell. I wait in silence while Spain‘s most notorious gangster, a man who robbed over 150 banks in a prolific criminal career, wipes his lips on a velvety napkin, before elaborating on his analogy con gusto.
“It’s like seducing a woman. With a woman you see her, you like her – so you study her and prepare your strategy. It’s the same when you’re getting ready to rob a bank. Like seducing a woman, you find the weak point and that’s where you get in.”
“When you get inside the bank – or the girl – you’re completely high on adrenaline – that’s why I say orgasmic. The only difference is that with a bank it’s only when you’re outside, the car is there and there are no police that you get your release – that’s when you come.”
“Robbing a bank is addictive – like fucking. It’s really orgasmic,” says my lunch companion… a man who robbed over 150 banks in a prolific criminal career.
If this is not the kind of language usually tolerated by members of the Rhodes family at meal times then I’m not about to complain. Dressed in a sharp grey suit with black shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and standing 1.90m tall with broad shoulders and barrelled chest, Dani “El Millionario” Rojo may be no longer be the one man crime wave that he was in Barcelona during the 80s and 90s, but his aura still suggests that with one click of his clunky-ringed fingers he could engineer the sort of “accident” that meant my next Spanish meal would be a watery gazpacho, sucked up through a straw at the nearby Hospital del Mar. When he pushes away his plate – now a cemetery of langostino shells and lemon husks – and lights up a cigarette, neither I, nor any of the neighbouring diners so much as raise an eyebrow.
As he leans back, exhales a flume of smoke and prepares to regale the table with another of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of law-violating anecdotes, I notice perhaps the only incongruity in Dani’s hardman image. His eyes. Warm, friendly and expressive they seem more suited to a benevolent uncle than a jaw-smashing mobster. They light up now, in amused disbelief at his own derring do, as he reminisces on one of his very first heists.
“It was easy in those days. The banks barely had any security. It was a time when they gave out credit and had their doors open. Franco had just died, everything was opening up. They gave out Cava and canapés when they opened banks! One day, I was living with my parents – I was 16 – I go out onto the terrace, where we live on Telégrafo-Renacimento street, and I see that they’re opening a bank, a Caixa Catalunya and giving out canapés. So I say “OK”, and I go downstairs and get my Vespa. I drive a few meters along the road, I stop, I open the door and I rob the bank. Then I simply ride my Vespa around the block, park it and walk home. When I get back to my terrace I see the police arriving.”
“It was easy in those days. The banks barely had any security… They gave out Cava and canapés when they opened banks!”
He certainly had some cojones did young Dani, and his fearlessness reaped unthinkable financial rewards for someone who was still just a boy. By the time he was 18 he was a leading member of two criminal gangs and a multimillionaire, using the vast hauls he would make robbing banks (three at a time on occasion) to fund high-rolling casinos and nightclubs around the city. Of course being a dedicated professional he wasn’t adverse to sending one of his gangs in to rob the other, to be sure he always got the lion’s share of the cash. All of this whilst jacked up on a explosive cocktail of cocaine and heroine.
Naturally it couldn’t last, and when he got caught in a police shoot out using a gun he had stolen in a lucrative jewellery shop heist (at this point in the story Dani emphasises that he never shot to kill… only to scare) he was finally put behind bars. He was 19 years old.
So after three gruelling years in jail did young Señor Rojo mend his ways and come out of his cell a reformed character? No chance. Dani says he had a great time in prison in the early 80s, where his wealth (he was still coining in 2 million pesetas a day from his share in the casino businesses) and youthful audacity were widely respected. So with no fear of going back inside, when he was released in 1984, instead of changing his ways, Dani started exactly where he left off, still addicted to the orgasmic high of daylight robbery.
“So I thought: if I’ve only got one year to live, I’m going to make the most of it!”
The next time he was caught he had to serve four more years behind bars, but there was a far bigger shock in store for him. “In ’89, just before I got out of jail, the doctors told me I have one year left to live. Since 1985 they’d detected AIDS antibodies in my body. In ’89 when they let me go, they tell me: if you don’t stop taking drugs, you’ve got a year to live.”
“So I thought: if I’ve only got one year to live, I’m going to make the most of it!”
Dani doubled down on his bad boy lifestyle, performing higher and higher profile robberies, increasing his drug habit (he estimates during this time he was spending 72 million pesetas a year on drugs), and furthering his connections in the criminal underworld, even mingling with Pablo Escobar when he was forced to lay low in Colombia.
When Dani (inevitably) returned to jail, doctors could not believe that he had exceeded his life expectancy by two years, despite not taking the antiviral drugs for AIDs (at the time he believed, like many others in jail, that the disease was introduced by the government to get rid of undesirable elements of society).
During his third stint behind bars, Dani discovered that life in the locker had changed considerably since the ’80s. “Now, they had psychologists and therapists to treat prisoners. We had a ‘treatment’ instead of a ‘regime’ and they focused on treating drug addictions too. When I stopped taking so many drugs, I felt that my mind recovered its old values. I went to the best schools… I went to lots of schools, they kicked me out of all of them! But I went to the best schools in Barcelona.”
“When I stopped taking so many drugs, I felt that my mind recovered its old values.”
After he is released from jail for the third time, he is sent to work on a rehabilitation farm where hard physical labour helps him keep off the crack. During a routine health check, Dani is amazed when a pretty 25-year-old doctor touches him with her bare hands, instead of gloves, the first to do so after he was diagnosed with AIDs. It is she who persuades Dani to start taking antiviral medication, and miraculously after 9 months of taking them he shows no detectable signs of AIDs antibodies in his blood. Sure enough, you guessed it, the medic and the mobster get married, and they’re still living happily together to this day in Barcelona, along with their two kids.
So is this the end of Dani’s story?
Since going straight Dani has found that he is blessed with a number of other talents, besides reconnaissance, firearms and intimidation. Amongst other forms of employment in recent years he has worked as a merchandise manager for some of Spain’s most famous rock bands, a bodyguard to none other than Lionel Messi (who once gave him a lift home from Camp Nou) and even as an actor in the Spanish film industry – check out his turn in this trailer of Ancleto: Agente Secreto, a big budget Spanish parody of James Bond that was released earlier this year.
Whilst his menacing presence means the film gigs are unlikely to dry up any time soon, it’s obvious that the work Dani enjoys most is his writing. He has already penned three best selling memoires, but it’s his latest project that seems to positively enthral him. It’s a series of crime novels based around the fictional character Hugo The Shark.
“In the novela negra genre, I’ve made two big transgressions. Nearly all crime novels are written from the perspective of the police, a detective, or a crime journalist… my books aren’t. In mine, the hero is the criminal. The other transgression I’ve made is humour. If I have him [Hugo] win all the time, he’d have tonnes of gold. So I make sure he has bad luck, loses things and he often gets caught through funny or strange coincidences.”
“Nearly all crime novels are written from the perspective of the police, a detective, or a crime journalist… my books aren’t. In mine, the hero is the criminal.”
Naturally with all the stunts he pulled during 20 odd years on the wrong side of the law, Dani has a major advantage over other crime fiction novelists: “Any other writer, to write about something, has to familiarize themselves with the topic, do a tonne of research… but not me!”
Despite his surfeit of tried and tested material I soon learn however that, rather than fictionalising his real life exploits, the source material for most of Hugo’s best adventures are the grand heists that Dani planned but for one reason or another was never quite able to pull off. Like the time he stole two helicopters (one from the military) with the intention of robbing every bank in Andorra, or the time he plotted to steal the sacred Black Madonna statuette from the abbey at Montserrat.
Of course, it’s obvious that Hugo The Shark is Dani’s vicarious vessel for recreating the excitement of his youth. His way of reliving the gangster lifestyle, with its orgasmic, drug-enhanced adrenaline highs, which – judging by the nostalgic glint in his eyes – he would jump at the chance of experiencing all over again. As for us ordinary citizens, maybe booking a dinner with Dani, and feasting on his countless tales of brigandry and bravado, is the safest way we can enjoy the extreme highs of a life of crime. At least now that Spanish banks have stepped up their security measures.
Essential Vocab for Dinner With Dani
Atracador de Bancos = bank robber
Caja Fuerte = the safe
Pistola = gun
El Gran Golpe = the great heist
Rififi = a type of bank job that involves tunnelling, as in Sexy Beast
Carcel = jail
Golfos = homies
Delicuencia = teen spirit
Drogas = drugs
Sexo = sex
Rock’n’roll = rock’n’roll
Book Your Own Gangster Lunch
Amazingly, eating a criminally good seafood paella with Dani is not an experience exclusively available for bloggers / the media. Rather it’s one of many unique and original activities you can book via the exciting peer to peer travel company Trip4Real. Promising to do for tours and experiences what Airbnb has done for accommodation, Trip4Real is a platform that allows ordinary – and sometimes extraordinary – local people to offer travellers activities in their own city. The results are an impressive spread of creative experiences on offer, and just in Barcelona for example you can choose between activities such as exploring the Catalan capital in a World War II era sidecar, checking out the local nightlife in the company of a DJ, enjoying a yoga session on the beach, watching the sunrise under sail… and of course eating a slap up Spanish lunch in the company of bank-robbing royalty.
Booking a date with Dani costs €120, and that cost can be split between up to six people. Dani is an incredibly hospitable host and will happily talk for as long as you like, and although he does speak a little English you should definitely ask for a a translator (at no additional cost) if you don’t speak Spanish, in order to maximise his impressive story-telling ability.
Meanwhile Trip4Real are also active in other cities across Spain (where they started out) as well as in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. So check their website for more info.
Keep Up With Dani
…More on Barcelona!
And if you’re coming to Barcelona, don’t forget to check out our complete “Long Weekend” guide to the city, as well as our feature articles on learning street photography and shopping tours, and these hot local tips.
“All I have in this world is my balls and my word… and I don’t break them for no one!” But in case you think I’m some kinda wise guy, this is to disclose that I experienced this activity at Trip4Real’s invitation, and should you decide to book by clicking on a link from this post Urban Travel Blog will earn a small commission. All opinions are my own.