Dawn on a beach in Andalusia, and as the darkness lifts, large numbers of figures can be seen dotted along the shore. Some of them are wearing the green uniforms of the Civil Guard, others the ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt and tracksuit trousers worn by local men who have come to Sancti Petri, a magnificent stretch of sand near Chiclana in Cadiz province, where a couple of days beforehand, smugglers coming across the Strait of Gibraltar lost a large consignment of hashish overboard.
Among them is Juan, who has walked 20 kilometers from his home in Conil, and who is scanning the choppy waters with a friend. “Why can’t they just leave us alone?” he asks, indicating the Civil Guard officers keeping a close eye on them. “Why can’t they just let us take whatever we find? It’s only going to rot otherwise,” he says, referring to the packages of cannabis he hopes will be washed ashore.
We’ve gotten used to people looking for drugs, but never on a scale like this” Manuel González, Cadiz Civil Guard spokesman
The Civil Guard says that on November 29 three inflatable dinghies left Morocco headed for the Cadiz coast with 2.4 tons of hashish aboard. They were seen by coastguards and changed course. One vessel was captured with a significant part of its cargo, while the other two reached Sancti Petri. But one was overturned in heavy seas, tossing dozens of packets of hashish overboard. Three men were arrested, while two others drowned. The magnitude of the tragedy has been eclipsed by what happened afterward: as soon as word spread that packets of hashish were floating in the sea, dozens of local people made their way down to the beach in the hope of finding one.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten used to people combing the beaches in the hope of finding drugs, but never on a scale like this,” says Manuel González, the spokesman for the Cadiz Civil Guard. In the 1980s and 1990s, young people in the area regularly found packets of hashish on the beaches of the area, and there was a recent case of a group of people in Sanlúcar that pelted a Civil Guard helicopter with stones as it tried to intervene while they were rescuing a large package of cannabis from the seashore. “But we’ve never seen anything like this number of people head for the beach,” says González.
Even while the police were still scouring the waters off the beach in search of a third possible body, hordes of people began heading down to the shore. Some pretended they were fishing or jogging, while others made no attempt to hide what they were up to. Officers searched suspects, discovering up to 30 kilograms on some individuals, while most had only been able to scoop 100-gram packets out of the water. “The Moroccans have done a very bad job. Everything has split open. If these had been properly wrapped, all these packets would be floating. Wet hashish is worthless, all you can do is smoke it yourself,” complains Juan. The arrests had no visible dissuasive effect: as soon as they led one person away, several more took their place.
The arrests had no visible dissuasive effect: as soon as they led one person away, several more took their place
Juan and his friend insist that they are doing nothing wrong. “We have nothing to eat and we’re hooked on dope, compadre. We’re fishing, and whatever you find in the sea is yours to keep,” he insists.
The Civil Guard sees things differently. “Those arrested face prison terms of up to four years, even longer if they have previous convictions,” says the force’s spokesman. So far the authorities have detained around 70 people in relation to the incident on November 29. The majority are men in the twenties, although a number of minors, as well as women, have been picked up. Almost all come from Chiclana, although some have come from as far as Seville. So many people have been detained that the local police station ran out of plastic handcuffs, and more had to be borrowed from a nearby prison, which was also used to hold those arrested. Two days later, after making a statement, they had all been released on bail while awaiting trial.
So many people have been detained that the local police station ran out of plastic handcuffs
But Antonio Peña, the head of a local residents’ collective, has called for all charges to be dropped. “These are people who are on the bread line, with nothing to lose. They are desperate. What is needed round here are measures to create jobs,” he says, pointing out that Cadiz has the highest unemployment rate in Spain: 40 percent of the active population is jobless.
The central government’s deputy delegate to the province, Javier de Torre, dismisses these arguments. “This isn’t being done to buy something to eat. There are a lot of organizations that can help these people.”
Meanwhile, those still on the beach in the hope of finding a package of hashish defend their right to do so. “I’ve been told that a small block of hash is worth up to €100. The money I make will help prevent me losing my home,” says one man, who accepts he is running the risk of being arrested.
As does Juan’s friend, who prefers to remain nameless. “I used to run a bar. I was self-employed, and like everybody else in my position, when the bar closed I was left with nothing. I have two children, and if I can find 30 kilos, then at least I’ll have the money to feed them.”
Juan himself has been unemployed for eight years. “I have to eat, and if not, then I’m going to jail.” He believes he can outwit and outrun the police, and is hoping to find enough hashish to buy a car. He says he is prepared to wait a few days more without sleeping, his eyes searching the waters of the Atlantic until something turns up.