Drug clans take control in shanty town where Madrid's politicians fear to tread
10,000 addicts a day visit sprawling settlement as lawlessness takes over.
Bulldozers have knocked down some of the Cañada Real’s illegal homes – but not those belonging to the drug clans.
Two men are asleep on a filthy mattress under the weak autumn sunshine. Another, in ragged clothes with his skin stained dark by the sun and dirt, lies motionless on the concrete strip surrounding the small church of Santo Domingo. In the dusty, rubbish-filled esplanade in front, dozens of addicts sit among the garbage, shooting up doses of heroin.
On the outskirts of Spain's capital city, Madrid, one of Europe's biggest drug supermarkets thrives in a precarious settlement of some 30,000 people strung along an old cattle-herding path, the Cañada Real Galiana.
About 10,000 drug addicts come every day to this stretch of shambolic housing, where lawlessness has grown in a legal void that local politicians have failed to tackle.
Addicts stumble down the Cañada's wide main street, looking for their dose. Others, employed as look-outs and hustlers, call them in past the high metal gates of the compounds owned by the drug clans.
Thickset men sit out on fold-up picnic chairs, watching their business enter the compounds, which – in some cases – are dominated by huge houses built with money from heroin and crack cocaine. The odd police car drives past, but little disturbs the relentless business of buy and sell.
Charity workers bring four-wheel-drive vehicles to get around the town. "I spent 20 years working in poor neighbourhoods of Venezuela," said one, who like most of those working here asked not to be named. "I never saw this kind of filth. Nor did I see there what drugs can do here."
A small traffic jam builds up as a police car stops to interrogate some people coming in the opposite direction.
"This is nothing. You should see this at 9pm or at 3 o'clock in the morning," said a church worker. "I don't think there is a nightclub in Madrid with quite such a crowd of people at its doors."
A lack of political interest has allowed the drug clans to make this their home. "While the politicians do nothing, the law of the jungle grows," said Antonio García, parish priest at Santo Domingo. "We are right in the middle of it. Many people are too scared to come to mass or to baptisms."
The three municipalities, including Madrid, that the 10-mile-long Cañada Real runs through, have pledged to act. In recent months bulldozers have been brought in to knock down some of the illegal homes – but not those belonging to the drug clans.
Where the drug supermarket ends, the Cañada Real turns into a thread of housing that stretches for miles in both directions. Much of it backs on to the vast dump where queues of trucks wait to deposit Madrid's rubbish.
Homes here vary from weekend bungalows with gardens of fruit trees to simple, solidly-built homes belonging to Moroccan immigrants. There are also dilapidated buildings or shacks where Spanish Gypsies and Romanian Gypsies form separate communities.
"We are scared they will just come and bulldoze our home as they have done with others," said Lucía Jiménez in the three-room shack she shares with her husband and three small children. "I don't mind them moving us out, but only if they give us somewhere else to live."
"I'm giving up this shop," said Mohammed Gueyo at his small supermarket around the corner from the Ibn Nosair mosque. "People come here with their pistols."
Gueyo and three relatives bought the shop from some Spaniards after their jobs on building sites disappeared two years ago. He knows the ownership documents they gave them were not legal. "The police can come any time with the bulldozer and that will be it," he said. "If they knock this down then they'll probably demolish the mosque too."
A new law proposed by the regional government of Madrid may allow him to make the building legal – but it will not, for the moment, get rid of the drug clans.
"The decision-making about what to do with the land will be passed to the town halls in the three municipalities where the Cañada Real runs through," explained José Masa, the leftwing mayor of one of those towns, Rivas Vaciamadrid. "We want to turn it into a green zone – but there must be an agreement on how to rehouse people first."
Elena Utrilla, head of housing for the ruling People's party in Madrid's regional assembly, said the law allowing the authorities to start cleaning up the Cañada Real would be passed by early next year, but money to rehouse people had still to be found.
"It won't be solved overnight," she admitted. "But I hope that, in a few years time, we will no longer be talking about it as a problem."
It may take another two years, however, before the town halls and regional government agree on who will pay to rehouse people. Masa estimated it would take six years or more to clean the Cañada Real out. "And then we will have to make sure that the problem doesn't just move somewhere else," he said. "It only came here because they closed down another settlement."
"Some people have lived here for 40 years," said García. "Three years ago this was still a tranquil area to live. Now whoever can get out, does."
For the moment, a single bus route provides transport to and from Madrid for those who live here. Those who ride on the number 339, however, share it with addicts who sit at the back and smoke heroin off heated strips of aluminium foil. "They call it the junkie bus," said García.
Author: Giles Tremlett
Date: 17th November 2009