Spanish fishing town thrives on hash trade

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    Spanish fishing town thrives on hash trade
    There are only a few ways to make money in Barbate: collecting pine cones, catching squid or trading hashish. Only one of the above is really lucrative.

    The grass trade is "like a party, and everyone in Barbate is enjoying it", said Antonio. Although he denied any part in the flourishing drug trade in the southern Spanish fishing town, he was willing to tell how much money can be made in trafficking hashish. "Everybody here knows that anyway," he said, sitting down in his office at the municipal sports complex where he does odd jobs at the weekend.

    Antonio, who is referred to by anyone who knows him as 'El Feo' (the Ugly), sported a trimmed mullet and fake Armani sunglasses as he explained what happens when a smuggling boat from nearby Morocco lands in Barbate. "Several people are needed to safeguard the load," he said. "The price is determined based on the risk someone takes."

    One kilo of hashish used to have a price of one million pesetas, currently around 6,000 euros. "For every transport, five to ten 'bushmen' are needed. The informers on the look-out earn half a kilo, so 3,000 euros. The runners who bring the load to a safe place get three kilos. And there are the people who guard the stash, they get five kilos. That's how it works," Antonio said.

    Lawless city

    Barbate, a town of 24,000, has a national reputation for being Spain's most important transit port for hash. Smuggling boats from Morocco go unnoticed between the busy sea traffic in the narrow Straits of Gibraltar. Once they reach Barbate, they drop their cargo on the beach or in the harbour, where it is quickly collected, hidden and transited. For years, this happened so openly, Barbate got nicknames such as 'lawless city' and 'city of crime'.

    Part of the trade moved to other ports in the Cádiz region after the Guardia Civil implemented a new radar system a couple of years ago. But the streets of Barbate show there is still a lot of drug money in circulation; as easily spent as it is made. After lunch, a few young men, often with a shy, younger girlfriend by their side, flaunted their expensive cars on the boulevard. Others raced through the town on the most costly and new motorcycles.

    Meanwhile, the village's economy, like the rest of Spain, is suffering. Unemployment is at 36 percent, almost double the already high national average. Fishing generates less money every year and tourism is not as developed here as it is in nearby coastal resorts. Anyone who doesn't want to be part of the drug trade but make some money during these times of crisis has two options, said Antonio: "collect pine cones or catch squid." Neither of those will make a fortune.

    Student drop outs

    This is why drug trafficking is very popular amongst youngsters, said José Cagigas. He is a physical education teacher at a high school in the poorest part of Barbate. He estimates almost half of his students' parents are unemployed. "Many of my students drop out. The only way to keep them in school is to threaten their parents with losing their welfare. But that triggers some children to make trouble at school, so we have to suspend them and they can stay home for another month."

    In his first year as a teacher here, he sometimes tried to change such kids. "I would tell them they are ruining their future," Cagigas said. "They would answer: 'I can always go into hash'. I would reply: 'I don't know anyone over 30 who has not been in jail because of trafficking'. But they would start bragging in class how they had an uncle who was 45 and had never been caught."

    Elisa Cid is a pro-bono attorney at the local court. Over 90 percent of the cases she deals with, she estimates, is related to the drug trade. But she does not agree with Antonio that all of Barbate is profiting from it. "It may seem like that, with the media attention and the quick money that is being flashed around. But I believe no more than 20 percent of the population depends on drug money."

    Cid, who was born in Barbate, said the youngsters in town don't realise there is no future for them here. "Everyone with any potential should leave to work or study. No one is stopping them."

    But the escape offered by the drug trade is keeping many here, said Cagigas. "Even without the drug trade, it is difficult enough for a normal kid to grow up here without problems. My colleagues and I are surprised whenever that does happen." He agrees with Cid, every one with a bit of talent should "get out of here".

    By Merijn de Waal in Barbate
    Published: 8 March 2010 12:45 | Changed: 9 March 2010 10:24

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