It’s a weekday afternoon in Madrid’s Retiro park, and the classic folk song Cielito Lindo can be heard played on the accordion by a busker who is standing close to the Eugenio Trías municipal library. At this time of day, the park is filled with runners, cyclists, seniors out for a stroll, tourists trailing suitcases behind them, mothers watching their children on the swings, gardeners, local police cars – and a handful of drug dealers. It’s the same scene day in and day out, and almost everyone who goes there is aware of it.
“I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds buying drugs. From 65- to 70-year-old grandfathers to people in suits who look like they just left the office,” says Alejandro, a 44-year-old local resident who goes to the park almost every day. “The way some dealers and their customers greet one another, it’s like they know each other.”
Less than 200 meters away from Alejandro, in the area around the Ibiza and Sainz de Baranda entrance gates to the park on Menéndez Pelayo avenue, three men are hanging out. This area between the public library and the Florida Retiro pavilion has been an established dealers’ corner for years, with sales almost always involving hashish and marijuana.
I’ve never seen them told to produce their papers or asked what they’re doing thereAlejandro, local resident
There are three other specific spots in the park where it is easy to see drugs changing hands: one is the Paseo de Méjico, which is currently undergoing refurbishment; the area around the Alfonso XII monument, at the back of the lake; and the tunnel that provides access to the park from Lagasca street. As soon as this reporter enters the Retiro at this spot, a dealer approaches. “I have what you want. What do you want? Give me a little while and we can meet near the Gran Vía.”
The dealer is speaking in English, taking his potential customer for a foreigner. Later he becomes suspicious, as though he might be trying to sell to a plainclothes policeman. But finally names and phone numbers are exchanged.
The dealing is so obvious that it inevitably affects the park’s image. The authorities acknowledge this, but the amounts are insignificant compared with the large seizures that take place in the country. The dealers rarely carry more than a few grams on them, and when the quantity is larger, the deal is generally done outside the park. And in any case it is not hard for the dealers to get rid of their wares if the police decide to clamp down: the bushes, trash cans, hoses and sewers all come in handy for stashing the drugs.
The police are in permanent circulation within the park – plainclothes policemen from the National Police force and uniformed municipal officers. They belong to the Integral Unit of the Retiro District as well as the Cavalry Squadron Unit and the Environmental Unit, some of whose members patrol on bikes.
In my experience, it is easier to score in the Retiro than in other areasManuel Pérez Moreno, researcher
In the Retiro, you can buy “drugs with complete impunity,” says Manuel Pérez Moreno, a pharmacist who bought hashish from dozens of drug dealers all over Madrid to analyze as part of his PhD at the Complutense University School of Veterinary Medicine. “In my experience, it is easier to score in the Retiro than in other areas. The sellers are not Spaniards, they are all foreigners, and they usually leave it hidden around. Sometimes they get into arguments over who is controlling the market, and there are even robberies among themselves.”
The most delicate moment in petty drug dealing is when the transaction is actually taking place. Carrying hashish or marijuana for personal consumption is not a punishable offense, but dealing is. “For me the worst bit was the minute I had to wait for the dealer to come back with the hashish from wherever he had hidden it,” says Pérez Moreno, who despite having analyzed ninety samples for his thesis, has never smoked a joint. His PhD work found human fecal matter in 75% of the samples he analyzed.
But the sellers at Retiro park are always the same, and they know how the police officers work – both those in uniform and the plainclothes ones as well. They even know each other in some cases, which means that arrests and full-on raids are pretty rare.
“I’ve never seen them told to produce their papers or asked what they’re doing there,” says Alejandro, the local resident. “The municipal police officers pass them as they sit on the benches.”
Alejandro says he knows some of the people who regularly sell by the swings that his children go to in the afternoon. “Apart from the odd incident, they are not violent,” he says. “Sometimes they hang out with joints and alcohol and start shouting and arguing and making a fuss in front of our children. I don’t mind if the business is carried out discreetly but not so much if it gets out of hand right under the noses of those of us who live here.”
Apart from the drug dealing and the hustling, the main crime in the park is theft. The better the weather, the more visitors. And the more visitors, the more robberies. Those taking a nap or amorous couples are easy prey for the light-fingered, not to mention the peeping toms.
English version by Heather Galloway.