Five heads, with their bare torsos, emerge above a sea of white poppies in the middle of a yellowish and lonely plain. From afar, the scene is reminiscent of an oil painting by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Up close, the picture is somewhat less bucolic. They are two women and three men who have slipped through a hole in the fence into an abandoned plot full of wild poppies on the outskirts of the town of Ajofrín, in Spain’s Toledo province. “We are three friends who came from France to pick the poppy, like many people who come from other countries in Europe,” explains Justin, 34. The two other trespassers are from Barcelona. They didn’t come for the showy white flowers, but for the blood of the plant, the latex contained in its capsule. That’s why people call them “the opium vampires.”
Justin is carrying two popsicle sticks in one hand, but he is not using them to defeat the heat on this Tuesday at noon. A razor blade is stuck between the sticks, and he uses this tool to meticulously slit the capsules of the plants and make their latex drip out: this is opium, a highly addictive and numbing substance that calms pain thanks to compounds such as morphine. It’s a kind of cheap heroin. Justin’s rudimentary tool is identical to the one that appeared next to the body of Pasquale, a 32-year-old Italian who died of suffocation and convulsions in 2009 in a legal opium poppy plantation in Albacete, in central Spain, after sneaking in to ingest opium. Three years ago, Ryan, a 20-year-old Irish youth, died in a similar way in Polán (Toledo), just a few kilometers from where Justin and his colleagues are cutting plants this May morning.
Spain is the world’s largest producer of opium and poppy straw from Papaver somniferum, with 113 tons of morphine equivalent per year, well ahead of France and Australia (75 tons each), Turkey (69) and India (27), according to United Nations data. Since 1986, a private company named Alcaliber has been the only one authorized by Spain’s Ministry of Health to control crops in Spain and manufacture these opium-derived drugs, essential in hospitals to treat severe pain.
Alcaliber, founded half a century ago, has historically been linked to the family of Juan Abelló, an 80-year-old businessman from Madrid with an estimated fortune of €2.5 billion, the sixth largest in Spain, according to Forbes. Abelló, heir to the pharmaceutical empire created by his father after the Spanish Civil War, was a hunting companion of former king Juan Carlos, with whom he competed year after year to kill the deer with the largest antlers in the country. A manager of a large estate in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region says that those hunting events also served to share out Alcaliber’s profitable business: the company delivered the seeds and harvested the poppies, while the landowners put up their vast fields. It was a win-win situation, because opium poppies are much more profitable than chickpeas or cereals. In 2018, the Abellós made around €69 million from the sale of Alcaliber to the British investment fund GHO.
The exact location of the 528 legal poppy fields is secret, but in the springtime it is impossible to hide those 11,000 hectares dotted with white poppies that exist in Spain, according to data from the Health Ministry. A caravan of consumers and dealers from all over Europe can be seen traipsing through the country these days in search of “the flower of laziness,” as the poet Pablo Neruda called it. The banks of the Tagus River are one of their favorite destinations, notes a 24-year-old native of Cádiz who has traveled to Ajofrín from Barcelona to collect opium. “Thanks to word of mouth, it is a well-known fact that you can always find them in Toledo and its surrounding areas. From there, well, you just put diesel in the tank and you start driving around the towns,” explains this young man, who is sporting a mohawk and a T-shirt featuring the Soviet satellite Sputnik.
Alcaliber refused to answer questions from EL PAÍS, but this newspaper has confirmed several incursions into its crops in Toledo, despite constant patrols by private security guards with night-vision goggles. In 2011, the Civil Guard arrested two Italians who had sneaked into an Alcaliber plantation in Polán. The two men, ages 24 and 26, had collected around 84 grams of opium in a liquid yogurt container and a Coca-Cola bottle, with an estimated black market value of nearly €3,400 euros. They wore knee pads so they could crawl among the flowers without being seen. They were sentenced to one year and eleven months in prison for drug trafficking and attempted robbery. In 2014, a Portuguese man was caught with 81 grams of opium on an Alcaliber poppy field in El Carpio de Tajo.
The raids are just a minor annoyance for the global opium giant. A decade ago, the Civil Guard began to detect an increase in the number of people who arrived in the area in vans and motorhomes in search of poppies, according to Álvaro Gallardo, spokesman for the Civil Guard’s Toledo Command. “Starting in May, which is when it blooms, young foreigners come who are fully aware that there are large fields of white poppy in this province. They come with the sole purpose of consuming these substances”, explains Gallardo. The wind disperses poppy seeds, so it is easy to see wild plants in the province. You don’t even have to jump fences to get the drug.
In June 2019, Ryan – the 20-year-old Irishman – and a friend were collecting opium in a wild poppy field in Polán, not far from the legal crops of Alcaliber. Ryan ingested the drug one day at noon and that same night he had difficulty breathing. By the next morning he was unconscious and was transferred to the town’s health center, with his left lung full of foam, according to the chemists María Antonia Martínez and Carlos García Caballero, who published the case in the scientific journal Revista Española de Medicina Legal. Their team at the National Institute of Toxicology and Forensic Sciences concluded that Ryan had died “from lethal opium intoxication,” possibly aggravated by cannabis use.
García Caballero is very forceful. “This tourism by people who come to Spain to consume opium is a dangerous trend - dangerous for them, because they cannot control the dose of morphine they are taking,” he warns. Morphine, he notes, can cause serious breathing problems, especially in high doses or combined with alcohol. “These people are at high risk of having an adverse reaction, including dying from respiratory failure. Just because it’s a natural product doesn’t mean it’s good. Opium is dangerous,” warns García Caballero.
Ana, a talkative 28-year-old woman from Barcelona, is also touring Toledo province in search of opium. She doesn’t think it’s reckless. “We are not afraid of overdosing and dying, because you have to be very stupid for that,” she says, despite the fact that she spent last year collecting opium in Polán, where Ryan died. Ana met another group of collectors there and stayed with them in an abandoned residential project in the outskirts of town, a ghostly place full of half-finished buildings. “We like to travel, move around and earn our living,” says Ana. A gram of opium sells for around €40 in the black market.
The young man from Cádiz and Ana arrived together in Ajofrín and it was there that they met the three French friends on a similar mission. The five of them begin to slice poppies as if they were lifelong colleagues. Justin, who is from the Perpignan region in southern France, pulls out his cellphone and plays a hypnotic techno song that he has written himself. “The plant inspires me because it relaxes me and I have another vision of music,” he maintains in a very slow voice, while his dog runs among the poppies.
The striking opium flowers proliferate along the ditches of some roads in Toledo, in part because the seeds fall from the trucks that transport the poppy straw to the Alcaliber morphine factory, which is protected by concertina wire. The agronomist Javier Seseña, who works for the company, believes that the abundance of wild opium poppy on the banks of the Tagus has helped prevent more attacks on legal crops. “The hippies know where our plots are and we know where they are. The Civil Guard and our guards talk to them and we respect each other. They go about their business, which is the plant that grows wild, and we go about ours, which involves plants with a pharmaceutical use,” he says.
The 11,000 hectares of opium poppy fields run by Alcaliber are mostly concentrated in the large estates of Castilla-La Mancha, but can also be found in the provinces of Valladolid, Burgos and Palencia, according to Seseña. “We try to give out very little information to avoid attacks from these people. We don’t need to reveal too much, because our customers, the growers, already know us”, he stresses. Ignacio Méndez de Vigo is one of them. His family business has been growing opium poppy for Alcaliber in Malpica de Tajo for the last 30 years. On their plots they alternate medicinal opium —up to 40 hectares— with green peas and wheat.
Méndez de Vigo says that he has never had problems with the “opium vampires.” “We had never seen foreigners around these parts, but now tons of vans are showing up with a lot of hippies from all over Europe, as if these were the beaches of Cádiz. These poor people, in this June heat, are taking water from the irrigation canals, which is water from the Tagus, and they are washing with it. It’s horrifying. In order not to disturb anyone and avoid getting into trouble, they take the wild opium poppy plants and get high with it”, explains the 56-year-old businessman, a marathon runner who combines the management of his 300 hectares with a managerial position in an insurance company.
Legal opium no longer brings in as much money as it did a few decades ago. “It is a crop that does not give you much trouble and gives you a good, reasonable return, but it is not a panacea. It’s not like growing marijuana,” says Méndez de Vigo. The agricultural engineer on his land, Ildefonso Alonso, explains that opium poppy had always been known as “the crop of €1,000 per hectare,” but now the profitability has dropped to about €700, just a little more than barley. The businessman Juan Abelló, the king of morphine, has in fact changed opium for marijuana after obtaining the first license to cultivate medicinal cannabis in Spain.
Ana, the young woman from Barcelona, explains that she consumes opium in every way except injected: ingested, drunk as an herbal tea, smoked or even rectally. “Through the ass, you avoid the vomiting that you can have if you eat it, and it is better absorbed,” she explains graphically.
The early 20th-century writer Emilia Pardo Bazán portrayed a woman addicted to morphine in her novel La quimera (or The chimera). It was published in 1905, a time when some Spanish artists, including Pablo Picasso, were flirting with opium. The drug, according to Pardo Bazán, opened “paradise for brief moments” and caused “a kind of sweet unconsciousness” that made one forget the pain and allowed “escape from the prosaic world.” But the novel also warned that it was “the disease of an entire generation, the slow suicide, [...] the drug of death.”
The chemist María Antonia Martínez agrees with the Galician writer. “I am not a moralist, but drugs, sooner or later, can only lead you down two paths: to the cemetery or to jail,” says Martínez, head of the Drug Service of the National Institute of Toxicology and Forensic Sciences in Madrid. The scientist warns that ingesting opium in the field is “extremely dangerous.” “With one milligram of morphine you can kill a person. You can have an overdose on the spot, ”warns Martínez, who also investigated the death of the Italian Pasquale in Albacete.
A few days before the start of spring, Spain’s official tourism channel published a spectacular Instagram image of Polán’s fields packed with red poppies, which are related to the opium poppy, but without the opium. The town’s mayor, Pedro Cano, urged tourists to visit his municipality, but not to secretly harvest opium. “In Polán there are beautiful poppy fields,” proclaims the mayor. “But they’re there to be photographed.”