Drug Trade Flourishes in Spanish Port Town

07:14 El NACHO 0 Comments

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.