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Galician Connection: Coastal Towns Succumb To Lure Of Drug Money

August 6, 1992

VILLAGARCIA DE AROSA, Spain (AP) _ The confiscated speedboats that fill the customs yard carry four outboard motors, three more than you’d need if you were just out gathering mussels in nearby coastal inlets.

They are ideal, however, for drug traffickers who need to dodge the few police and customs boats in this part of the northwestern Spanish region Galicia.

It takes no more than a glance to understand what a few outspoken locals are saying: that many residents in the fishing villages along this jagged Atlantic coastline have sold their souls to the drug trade.

Those residents of these medieval towns are now paying their end of a Faustian bargain, watching helplessly as corruption spreads and their children succumb to marijuana, hashish, cocaine or heroin.

″Normally on weekends it’s not just the beautiful people but also the sailors and others who snort their little lines of cocaine,″ says Sito Vazquez, former mayor of Villanueva de Arosa, about 3 1/2 miles from Villagarcia.

″There’s a crisis of values,″ says Pastor Alonso, former mayor of Noya, a coastal city about 15 miles to the north. ″People aren’t motivated to study or work because they can make so much money in one night.″

But it’s not just the traffickers who are cashing in.

Despite a bad year for fishing, coastal towns are bustling with new construction, and local officials in Noya say the influx of drug money has driven up the price of real estate.

″In the Galician culture, when you have money, you spend it,″ said Javier Lopez who regularly writes about the drug problem for the Galician News Agency. The drug traffickers have offered a bouquet of such temptations to Galicia, and many Galicians have found it irresistible.

″When there’s money to be made, people don’t really care who’s getting hurt because of it,″ says Eileen Munro, a Scottish nurse who runs Noya’s drug dependency referral service.

Noya is home to 15,000 people, with 115,000 in the surrounding areas. In the last two years, 420 people - mostly young male heroin addicts - have signed up for the municipal drug treatment program.

There have been a half-dozen overdose deaths in the last four years, Pastor says, and 15 people have tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, which can be transmitted among drug users who share needles.

Contraband is a way of life for many Galicians, who bit decades ago on the lure of easy money.

Under the autarchic economic policies of Gen. Francisco Franco, fishermen and others padded their incomes by smuggling medicines, arms, liquor, grain and cigarettes into the inlets and rivers that stripe the Atlantic coast.

Franco died in 1975, and the country returned to elected government in the years that followed. But the Galicians’ penchant for sneaking banned goods across the border remained strong.

Across the street from police headquarters in the regional capital of Santiago de Compostela even National Police officers buy contraband American Winston cigarettes, which are cheaper than the Canary Island Winstons made under license by Spain’s state tobacco monopoly.

In the mid-1980s, the inevitable happened. With worldwide demand for cocaine booming, local smugglers converted their tobacco distribution systems to drugs.

Now the region has become a major entry point for South American drugs that pass through to other parts of Spain - often packed in fish trucks - as well as to the rest of Europe.

Last year, more than a ton of cocaine washed ashore in Galicia after it broke loose from a smuggler’s stash moored off the coast.

After several large-scale police sweeps along the Galician coast over the last two years, most of the well-known drug bosses are either in prison or under arrest. Last month, charges were filed against 52 suspects.

But some locals complain that the bosses continue to run their operations from behind bars. They also say they fear repercussions if they denounce police corruption or locals involved in the drug trade.

Noya’s police chief is appealing a prison sentence for slander that he received after he accused three local paramilitary Civil Guardsmen - who are in charge of patrolling the coastline - of drug trafficking.

″If you open your mouth against the known narcotraffickers ... they take you to court,″ says Ms. Munro, who like Vazquez and Alonso has received numerous anonymous threats. ″And since they can afford two million pesetas ($20,000) for a lawyer, they win.″

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