Neighbourhood groups want more action from police and politicians to shut down apartments
The heroin dealers of El Raval do not discriminate and nor does their product.
“We’ve seen executives in suits and ties arrive by taxi at six in the morning, couples, pregnant women, people with every type of disability, teenagers,” says Carlos, a resident of the central Barcelona district.
Carlos – no one round here offers their surname – is the spokesman of the Robadors-Picalquers-Roig neighbourhood association, named after three of the El Raval streets where narcopisos, or drug flats, have sprung up like mushrooms.
The empty properties, many of which are owned by banks and investment funds following Spain’s property crash, serve as distribution-points-cum-shooting galleries; places where people come to buy, smoke and inject cheap heroin.
Three decades after the drugs epidemic that ravaged Spain in the 1980s, the proliferation of narcopisos in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Valencia is a reminder that heroin is far from gone – even if times have changed.
Today, dealers use apps to help customers find the flats where drugs are available. They also tie coloured cloths to balconies to signal availability: white for heroin available, blue meaning they are under police surveillance, and red for out of stock.
At the end of February, neighbourhood groups across Spain came together to form the National Network of Cities and Neighbourhoods affected by Narcopisos, which aims to raise awareness of the problem and work with police and politicians to shut the flats down.
For those who live close to narcopisos, or, worse still, in the blocks that house them, life is filthy, loud and dangerous.
“If there’s a narcopiso in your building people come and buy at all hours, they shoot up, there’s blood, syringes, faeces, people asleep on the stairs and in the doorway,” says Carlos. The fights, he adds, can be heard at five o’clock in the morning.
Before it was closed down by the city council, the big narcopiso in Carrer d’en Roig was receiving up to 150 clients an hour. The heroin is cheap (around €10 a hit) but of poor quality, so users keep coming back for more.
“How can you explain to your children when you take them to school in the morning why there is someone lying unconscious in the street with a needle stuck in their vein?” asks Naiara, who set up a group in her area of El Raval after addicts armed with iron bars staged a pitched battle in her street.
One night, she and her neighbours started beating their pots and pans in a traditional cacerolada protest. “The narcos joined in,” Naiara says. “They were taking the piss, just laughing at us.”
The clattering of cookware has also echoed around parts of Madrid. Last September, residents of the working-class Puente de Vallecas neighbourhood held a cacerolada followed by a demonstration of 1,500 locals and, over the past few months and weeks, a targeted police operation.
Jorge Nacarino, chair of the Puente de Vallecas residents’ association, estimates that 20 of the area’s 34 or so narcopisos have been shut down by police since November.
He points to the homemade sign on the barred window of what was, until recently, a well known venue for addicts. “There are no drugs here,” it reads. “Please leave us alone. Thank you.”
Nacarino attributes the increase in heroin users in the area to the demolition last year of part of the notorious Cañada Real shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid but he says there are other factors also at play.
“You have to ask yourself what’s happened to all the preventative resources that existed in Madrid? They basically had the plug pulled during the economic crisis because there’d been a big drop in consumption.”
He also points to the thousands of people who lost their homes during the crisis and the financial institutions that took them on.
“Either because they’re speculating – or because they’re banks and property isn’t their business – they don’t pay much attention to looking for a solution,” he says.
Nacarino, who was born in 1983, remembers playing on the streets of Puente de Vallecas as a child. He also remembers his parents telling him which parks and streets to avoid because of the addicts and dirty syringes.
“We’re still pretty far from that situation,” he says. “But it is true that we’re seeing some things now that we haven’t seen for a long time.”
Barcelona’s city council has spent €500,000 on securing properties in Raval and cleaning up the area, but they have limited powers and the dealers are much more agile than the courts and the police. The private flat owners support the residents’ campaign but the hedge funds and banks are less responsive.
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, denied turning a blind eye to the problem at a meeting in February attended by residents’ associations, the police and the council. “We are treating this as a priority,” she said. “We are contacting all the owners of empty flats to persuade them to offer them as public housing.”
Despite the dark mutterings about a return to the 1980s, the authorities dismiss suggestions that another heroin epidemic is beginning to take hold. Spain’s national police say they are doing what they have always done: gathering evidence so they can get the judicial authorisation needed to go into the narcopisos and shut them down.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s always existed; there have always been places where people deal, just as there are in all countries,” one police source said.
“I don’t see a heroin problem on the streets today that’s anything like the way it was in the 80s.”
But the fact that things aren’t as bad as they once were is little comfort to Carlos and his neighbours. Part of the problem, they say, is that some people have never had much interest in what happens in the poorer parts of town.
“The authorities think, well, it’s El Raval – drugs, prostitutes and pimps,” he says.
“But we’re not all junkies and prostitutes; all kinds of people live here. A councillor told me she wasn’t comfortable with what we’re doing. I said: ‘Good. If you feel uncomfortable, maybe you’ll do something about it’.”