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Old friends of the young

Spain’s drug-dealing mafias, nightlife entrepreneurs and their connections in the municipal government make for a lethal cocktail

Quite a few years ago, I ended up one evening at a big party in a splendid house built (in flagrant contravention of town-planning laws) in the open space within a city block in central Barcelona. But it dated from the late 19th century, when the building boom allowed latitude for all sorts of dirty business. The numerous company included many friends from the old days of student demonstrations against Franco. The former students were now real-estate promoters, regional government members, advertising executives, deputies or mere professionals, but most of them buzzed around City Hall like bumblebees around a succulent flower. This was not long after the 1992 Olympic Games, in the golden days of the Catalan Socialists, when they had a firm grip on Barcelona. Meanwhile in Madrid, some Socialist minister had bidden everyone to go ahead and "get rich," and these old revolutionaries were eagerly obeying.

At my table talk started up about the adolescent custom of gathering in the street at night and economically mixing your own drinks, out of a bottle or two of booze and a few containers of soft drinks. This now seems to have won official acceptance as a Spanish cultural custom, under the name of botellón, but in those days it was just beginning. I happened to mention that a French political lady, a communist of some prestige and married to a well-known writer, had recently been in Spain and was dumbstruck by the spectacle of outdoor drinking parties in Madrid and Barcelona. "You are raising the worst young people in Europe," she had said.

Around my table, reaction was vehement. Reactionary; uptight French prig; menopausal hag; married to that idiot who had been in the jungle with Che; and other choice terms. The most furious was a small man who fairly howled about Spanish young people's right to "have a good time," turning their backs on the reactionary, Franco-age world of their parents.

You are raising the worst young people in Europe, the reactionary, uptight French prig had said

Later in the evening I learned that his wife was a councilor belonging to the gilded sector of the party, which controlled the doubtfully legal bars downtown -- the discotheques, for example, that the police never seem to close down, no matter how much noise they make or how late, or how much the neighbors complain. Another source of their cash flow was renting sports arenas and big industrial hangars on the outskirts of town, and holding monster mega-parties in them, without the nuisance of municipal permits or security systems.

This was when it was first brought home to me the huge amounts of money these people make, hand in glove with local mafias. The golden spittoon rests on three legs, a tripod: the mafias who deal in alcohol and drugs (normally handling "security" on the side); the so-called nightlife entrepreneurs who rent the venue; and their connections in the municipal government. They lean on each other to stand, like three sheaves of wheat.

I am not saying the recent deaths of five girls in a panic stampede in Madrid were due to anyone's criminal action, but the fact that 16,000 teenagers were packed into a sports arena is typical of the racket I have just been discussing. Security teams of ill-defined responsibilities; uncontrolled sale of tickets; non-existent municipal inspectors; two doctors present (one for each 8,000 people or more)... The tragedy would have been impossible, if anyone had remotely thought he might be held responsible for anything. But no. Everyone concerned knows he is protected by the tripod system. His ass is covered, as they say in the movies. No one will go to jail in connection with this case. Young people have a right to have fun. The bodies can be thrown in the ditch.

The three legs of the tripod lean on each other. They employ the same legal counsel when, by some chance, they have a brush with the law. I wonder just how much profit resulted from these five lives. And how did they divvy it up?

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