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Narcopisos: 'Drug flats' blight the heart of Spanish cities

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Narcopisos: 'Drug flats' blight the heart of Spanish cities
A youngster skates in front of a "narcopiso" or drug-flat, at the Raval neighborhood in Barcelona. Photo: AFP
08:51 CEST+02:00
A decade after Spain's property bubble burst, dozens of vacant apartments in Madrid and Barcelona city centres have turned into "drug flats", to the dismay of local residents who complain of abandoned syringes and frequent brawls.

"You don't live anymore. You are more afraid at home than outside," said Begona Sebastian, a 51-year-old accountant whose building was one of the first  in Lavapies, a district in the centre of Madrid, to have a "narcopiso", or  drug flat, where people come to buy and consume drugs.

For three years, dealers sold hashish and cocaine in the apartment below  her own, which had been seized by a bank from a heavily indebted family.    

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In mid-2016, she managed to have the squatters evicted and the door of the  flat walled up to avoid it from being illegally occupied again by drug dealers.    

The building was infested with bedbugs, and the constant coming and going  of drug buyers, combined with the fear that the squatters could trigger an  explosion with the gas cylinders they used for heating, caused her to lose  sleep.

"You end up crying," said Sebastian, a brunette with a round face, as she  passed by another drug flat that has since sprung up in Lavapies, an old  district of steep and narrow streets that has a high immigrant population.    

Staircase of a building housing a "narcopiso" in the Raval neighborhood in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

She knows by heart the addresses of each drug flat and has learned how to  recognise them from the outside due to their broken doors and windows boarded  up with cardboard.

Other neighbourhoods in Spanish cities, such as the working class Puente de  Vallecas district in southern Madrid and El Raval in the centre of Barcelona,  have seen an explosion in the number of drug flats in recent years, sparking  street protests by locals.

Some have taken to hanging red flags from their windows to draw attention  to the problem.

View of the entrance of a building housing a "narcopiso" or drug-flat, at the Raval neighborhood

Evictions

Figures on how many empty flats have been taken over by drug dealers are  hard to come by.

The interior ministry does not have national statistics on drug flats and  refers any questions to local authorities.   

In the Madrid region, national police say they have dismantled 105 "narco  flats" in 2017, and made 314 arrests.   

Catalan police said that by early this month 17 flats had been searched so  far this year in connection with drug trafficking and 34 people arrested.   

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The authorities blame the rise in drug flats on the sharp economic downturn  that followed the collapse of a decade-long building boom in 2008 causing tens of thousands of families to be evicted from their homes.

The empty flats they left behind often belong to banks or investment funds,  which can not sell them without making a huge loss, so they leave them empty  while waiting for property values to rise.

"El Raval is one of the areas most affected by speculation, with buildings  in a deplorable state of conservation, which facilitates occupations," said  Gala Pin, the local  Barcelona city councilwoman.

'Zombies'

"Mafias occupy the apartments, then they sell drugs there, or they install  people who sell for them," a police source told AFP.   

Traffickers take advantage of the fact that it is only possible to evict  squatters with a court order, which can take months to obtain, the source  added.

"They started by selling a lot of hashish, then they saw that there was  also a demand for cocaine and sometimes even heroin."   


Banners reading "We want a worthy neighborhood" hang from a balcony in the Raval. Photo: AFP

The opioid epidemic in the United States has revived bad memories in Spain  of its own devastating heroin crisis of the 1980s.   

"In my generation, everyone has lost friends because of heroin, and we do  not want it to start again," said Manolo Osuna, 54, a postman in Lavapies.   

In Barcelona, Carlos, a spokesman for a neighbourhood association in El  Raval who declined to give his last name because he fears the drug  traffickers, said the "streets are full of people who look like zombies".

"The stairs are soiled by blood, faeces, urine, they leave behind  syringes," said Carlos, who lived next to a building, which until October was  a key drug sales point in Barcelona.

Shift

Police and social workers say drug trafficking is moving from marginal  areas on the outskirts of cities where the authorities have increased  anti-drug operations, to city centres.

"Depending on where police pressure is, traffic is moving," said Josep  Rovira, the spokesman for the Catalan Federation of Drug Addiction.   

Barcelona city hall, led by a leftist former housing activist, tries to  convince the owners of empty flats to rent them.   


Syringes left by drug users are pictured in the staircase of a building. Photo: AFP

Madrid's left-wing city hall has boosted the number of municipal police to  fight the problem and said it will install security cameras on streets with  drug flats.

Associations that work with drug addicts have called for the government to  do more to care for drug addicts and reduce the risk that they will suffer an  overdose.

"It's a reality that will always exist," said Rovira.

By AFP's Adrien Vicente 

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