Fighting a losing battle against Málaga's drug dens

Andalusian police admit it is getting "harder and harder" to combat dealers

Like many Spanish cities, the Andalusian port of Málaga is ringed by shanty towns and run-down neighborhoods that have become drug supermarkets. And three or four times a week the police go into them, kicking down doors and arresting small-time drug dealers. The dealers are held in custody and charged, but within a few hours the gangs that control the drugs trade have found others prepared to take their place.

"We have always been tough on the gangs, but it is getting harder and harder to make any inroads," admits Málaga's police chief Juan Jesús Peñalver.

Last year Spanish police seized more than a ton of cocaine in a single raid. But despite the authorities' struggle, the country's demand for recreational drugs remains the highest in Europe.

Spain's drug policy is laid out in its National Drugs Plan, which more or less fits in with EU policy. The focus is on harm reduction. Its stated aim is to limit the negative impact on individuals (in terms of health and antisocial behavior, for examples) and the negative impact drug use has on society in general (including crime and the costs of healthcare and policing). The goals are to reduce use (especially by those under 18); reduce drug-related deaths and health problems (especially AIDS); reduce supply and demand; and bring down drug-related crime. The strategy employs a three-pronged approach: police work minimizes the supply of drugs and identify problem users; education warns people about the dangers of drugs; while support from the medical community helps addicts get their lives back.

The gangs that control the drugs trade in cities such as Málaga use sophisticated video surveillance systems, as well as installing heavy protective doors and windows in the buildings they use to sell drugs. In the time it takes the police to force an entry - up to 45 minutes on occasions - they are able to get rid of their supplies, typically by dissolving them in water, flushing them down the lavatory, or burning them.

"A short while ago we arrested two people who fled carrying a mop," says the head of the police unit that deals with small-time dealers. He says there were around 25 hits of heroin-laced cocaine inside its handle. The dealers were operating from a small house with a reinforced door, and sold drugs through a tiny ground-floor window.

The drugs trade in Málaga is controlled by clans, many of them run by women whose husbands are in jail. Dealing is typically done by addicts, who are paid with drugs. They are usually the ones arrested, while those higher up the chain make the real money. "Just cutting a kilogram of cocaine means making something like 85,000 euros," says one police officer.

Three out of four of those arrested on drugs charges in Andalusia are small-time dealers. The police say the clans have taken over most of the marginal neighborhoods in the outskirts of Málaga, Cadiz and Seville, where few people are prepared to talk to the authorities.

In the absence of the state, the patriarchs who run the clans settle disputes, and offer employment to prepare, store and distribute drugs.

"They use up to three intermediaries, as well as multiple lookouts," says a drugs unit police officer in Málaga. "They also make sure that whoever is buying the drugs never knows where they are being stored.

"One member of the organization takes the buyer's money to the store house, and a different person hands over the drugs," he adds.

Last year, the police in Málaga seized some 273 kilograms of drugs, of which just 5.6 kilograms were cocaine and heroin ready to be sold in small amounts.

"Many honest families have to live with this problem, and are suffering the consequences. Their children grow up seeing people buy and consume drugs," says one inspector in the Málaga neighborhood of La Palmilla.