Drug Trade Flourishes in Spanish Port Town

In the police station of Barbate, a port town in the southern region of Andalusia, officers have pinned a poster to the wall that reads “they owe us April,” referring to the late payment of their salaries.


At the same time, they are having to combat a pickup in illegal drugs trafficking - another consequence, some say, of the tough economic times.

“It’s a disastrous and chaotic situation here,” said Rafael Romero, one of the officers. “We need more boats, vehicles and everything, but there’s not even money to repair two broken surveillance cameras.”

Barbate, in fact, has found itself caught in a perfect storm: a fiscal crisis that has sunk public finances, a dwindling fishing industry that has exacerbated one of Spain’s worst unemployment situations, and a revival of the drug smuggling that has long plagued this area because of its proximity to North Africa. Powerful rubber boats need only about 40 minutes to cross over, loaded mainly with hashish from Morocco.

The mayor of Barbate, Rafael Quirós, garnered national attention during his recent re-election campaign by suggesting that a young person who could not find a job and turned to drug dealing should not automatically be called a delinquent.

“A youngster has absolutely zero chance right now of finding a fixed job here,” he said during an interview in the Town Hall. “The politicians in Madrid who consider my views on youngsters occasionally dealing drugs to be those of a caveman either don’t understand or don’t care about how much people are struggling here.”

Responding by e-mail to questions about the mayor’s views, the Spanish Labor Ministry said it was deeply concerned about the level of youth unemployment, but that “we cannot start to give value to individual opinions that do not add anything constructive.”

Mr. Quirós said that the drug activity had revived in the area since the start of the crisis, although it remained below what it was a decade ago.

Then, “there was just complete impunity here,” he said. “You can nowadays get sentenced to five years in jail, so it does make some people think twice, however desperate their economic situation.” Still, around 300 of Barbate’s 22,000 inhabitants are now sitting in jail because of drug trafficking, according to Mr. Quirós. Five years ago, before the onset of the financial crisis, there were about 160 in jail on drug cases.

Andalusia has the highest unemployment rate among Spain’s 17 regions, 29.7 percent at the end of the first quarter, according to the National Institute of Statistics. That compares with a national jobless rate of 21 percent, double the European Union average.

Barbate itself ranked as the town with the second-highest joblessness in mainland Spain at the end of 2010, behind Ubrique, which is also in the Andalusian province of Cádiz, according to a separate study published this month by the savings bank Caja España-Caja Duero.

To help create jobs, Mr. Quirós is trying to develop alternatives to fishing, an ancestral occupation that has fallen about 80 percent over the past 20 years amid stricter quotas, intense competition from foreign boats and a recent decline in domestic fish consumption.

A light bulb factory is due to open later this year, employing about 200 people, as well as a fish farm with a work force of 270. A few hotel projects are also earmarked, but “this isn’t exactly the easiest time to find investors,” the mayor said. Fishing still represents about 60 percent of the local economy.

Despite the national criticism over his remarks, Mr. Quirós’s seems to have struck a chord with voters. On May 22, he was one of the few Socialist mayors of Andalusia to win re-election, in what proved to be an unprecedented debacle for his party in regional and municipal elections across Spain.

Not everyone in Barbate believes there is a drug problem. Miguel Molina, the 39-year old local leader of the center-left Andalusian Party, said that “some people seem determined to give Barbate a bad reputation, but in all my life here I have never once been offered drugs.”

Five minutes from Mr. Molina’s party headquarters, however, in a neighborhood that the police described as a hub for drug dealing, two youngsters parked their black BMW along Vejer Street. Asked about his fancy car, the driver sniggered and said that it was bought “by selling drugs, of course.”

Nearby, a dozen youngsters were milling around, some of them openly admitting to drug dealing and one even offering a sample of hashish. Among them was Paco, a 30-year-old with a frog tattooed on his neck who would only give his first name. In early 2006, along with 10 other men, Paco said that he was arrested trying to smuggle into Barbate a boatload of 600 kilograms, or 1,320 pounds, of hashish. He was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail.

Since his release, he had not found a job and instead relied on “all sorts of things” to keep going, as well as to help support two young daughters. Prison time had not convinced him to abandon the drug trade, he said, but “to handle it better.”

The retail price of hashish, he added, was now about €2,000, or $2,855, a kilo, up from €800 when he entered jail in 2006.

The Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police, would not comment or provide statistics on Barbate’s drugs trade.

Still, last December, five people were arrested in Barbate as part of a nationwide investigation into a cocaine and heroin network, coordinated out of Madrid but using Barbate as its regional hub.

Barbate used to also be a major landing point for illegal African immigrants. But as a result of an upgraded system of infrared camera surveillance to monitor boats, the port has not witnessed any such arrivals in over a year.

“Why so much chocolate is still getting through is something that I just can’t understand,” said José Manuel Jiménez, a 14-year police veteran, using a slang term for hashish.

“There must be stronger interests behind the drugs trafficking and more money to be made from that than from people.”

In nearby Conil, at an enclosure operated by the Guardia Civil for seized vehicles, rubber boats with large outboard motors could be seen stacked four-high. One local officer, who would not give his name, said the main change was that “those who control the drugs used to have other legal businesses, but the crisis has wiped out those businesses, so they’re back focusing on the drugs.”

What counts as a legal business is another matter. Last January, Valeriano Gómez, Spain’s labor and immigration minister, estimated that Spain’s underground economy was equivalent to about 20 percent of its gross domestic product. In Barbate, the size of the underground economy is about 40 percent of the local G.D.P., Mr. Quirós, the mayor, estimated.

Most of that has nothing to do with drugs, he added.

Some local residents, Mr. Quirós said, had become “professionals at living off social security” and other benefits, even if holding a temporary job on the side. Others, however, cannot claim benefits because they never held an official job in the first place.

“The problem of Barbate is that there are plenty of guys like me who have a lot of work experience, but none of which ever came with a proper work contract,” said Joaquín Gil Narváez, who has been jobless for two years and is living at his mother’s home.

Still, he recently enrolled in a course to get a boat captain’s license. “There’s no future in fishing around here, but the course is free and it’s at least something to keep myself busy,” he said.