Methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth or ice, and notoriously cooked up by high school teacher Walter White and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman in the hit US television series Breaking Bad, is still uncommon in Spain, but could be about to spread, due in part to its widespread use among Barcelona’s Filipino community.
The Philippines is the only place in the world where the highly addictive drug is used more widely than the United States, and many Filipinos take their addictions with them when they move around the world to work. Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar has detected the substance in at least 10 Filipinos who came in to give birth and who all lost custody of their newborns.
Catalonia’s regional police says for the moment Filipinos account for 98% of crystal meth users in Spain. The hydrochloride molecule extracted from amphetamine is 15 times stronger than cocaine and far more addictive, while its effect on the nervous system is devastating. The UN estimates it is consumed by 24 million people worldwide. In the case of Spain’s Filipino community, the drug is not about leisure: most addicts, say police, are using it to get through long shifts working in kitchens or aboard ships.
Catalan police say Filipinos account for 98% of crystal meth users in Spain
When Filipino-staffed vessels drop anchor at Barcelona, crews soon head to the central Raval district near Las Ramblas, where the drug is readily available, say police, who began detecting use among the 9,754-strong Filipino community in Barcelona in early 2011.
The drug was initially shipped in by post, but then Nigerian drug dealers took over its distribution, bringing it from South Africa. The fear now is that its use could spread among other communities in Spain, made easier by production in secret domestic laboratories.
Cris and Robert, two Filipino cooks working in a bar in Ciutat Vella, confirm that use of the drug is on the rise, saying that Raval – Barcelona’s Chinatown – is awash with it. Both have taken it regularly: “The first day, you can’t sleep. You just want to work without a break, then you look for women… But the next day, you can’t do anything. So you have to take it again, but you end up a mess. You can be awake for many days,” they explain.
Robert says he pays €50 a gram, which is far more expensive than back home in the Philippines. He believes that 60% of Filipinos he knows have taken crystal meth, known as shabu in his home country. “It’s very common,” he says. “In any kitchen where Filipinos work, you’ll find shabu. If you take too much, you turn into a zombie. It starts with the men, but then the women get into it too.”
Spanish pediatrician Dr Ángeles López-Vilches says she began to notice something was seriously wrong with some Filipinos who came to give birth at the Hospital del Mar where she works. “We thought there was some mistake in the results of the tests, but the babies also tested positive,” she says. Hospital staff then noticed that the women’s partners also looked run down. “The effects on them were even more evident,” says López-Vilches, who has published an article on the subject and is carrying out a study in collaboration with Barcelona’s Hospital de la Maternitat where many Filipinos have been going to give birth. “They had what is known as meth mouth and could hardly talk.” López-Vilches adds: “When we told them we were taking their babies away, they didn’t seem concerned. Some of them didn’t even ask to see them.”
According to Dr Antonio Payà, head of Obstetrics at Hospital del Mar, taking crystal meth during pregnancy can result in brain damage and detachment of the placenta. “It’s not just about the drug,” he says. “It’s about the lack of sleep and eating habits.”
Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar has detected the substance in women who came in to give birth
In response to the problem, Catalan police have begun cracking down on distribution. In January this year they seized eight kilograms and arrested 28 people, most of them Filipinos. But police say the ringleaders were Nigerians bringing the crystal meth in from South Africa and using Barcelona as a distribution base for the rest of Europe.
“We arrested 12 Filipinos,” says a sergeant from the Catalan police about the operation. “We found pistols, a home-made shotgun and shabu hidden under a bed. We found a total of eight kilograms, including what we found in Paris,” he says, referring to a parallel operation at Charles de Gaulle airport when five kilograms were seized.
Spain has become crystal meth’s gateway to Europe, says Catalonia’s police force, which is now worried that use could spread to the rest of the country.
English version by Heather Galloway.