MADRID — As record snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures enveloped much of normally temperate Spain, few residents suffered as severely as the thousands who live in La Cañada Real Galiana, a mega-shantytown outside Madrid that is ranked as one of the biggest slum areas in Europe.
Much of La Cañada Real had already been without electricity for months before Storm Filomena arrived. Officials say that's because marijuana growers in the informal settlement diverted power supplies to indoor plantations that overwhelmed the grid. The extended outage meant that more than half of the 7,500 residents in the “poblado,” or township, remained without power during brutal weather more suited to Siberia.
“It’s very cold, and we have no light,” resident Yolanda Martín Herrera said this week after temperatures dropped to as low as minus 16 degrees Celsius (3 F) in the greater Madrid area. “We’re practically out of firewood and can’t get more because of the snow.”
With both her and her husband out of work since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Martín Herrera, 47, said they survive on her mother’s pension of some 600 euros ($730) a month. Few social services were available to help the area’s residents cope with the added emergency of extreme weather.
“We’re forgotten about here,” Martín Herrera said. “We’re people, not animals.”
The substandard housing and shacks that make up La Cañada stretch some 14
The area runs through a flat, nondescript landscape and consists of basically a single road with side paths, some of it paved, leading to a mixture of decent houses in its better-off areas and shacks constructed of simple brick, metal panels and canvas sheets.
Residents live off construction jobs or by collecting scrap metal or whatever they can. The area has long been associated with sales of illegal drugs, mostly cocaine and heroin. In recent years, growing marijuana in basements and garages with powerful lamps became an extra source of income for some.
La Cañada has few basic services with just one mobile medical unit visiting each day and a bus that takes children to nearby schools. The local shops are flimsy set-ups with little on hand to sell and almost no fresh food.
Plans have been afoot for several years to improve facilities and rehouse the neediest residents, but the area typically does not register on the Spanish public’s radar. However, La Cañada Real recently resurfaced in people’s awareness with the news that two of its poorest areas had been without electricity since October.
The outage left an estimated 4,600 people, including some 1,800 children, dependent on gas bottles and small fuel-powered generators for heat and to cook.
“We’re having a bad time,” said Jesús Pérez, 49 who lives with his wife and eight children in a shanty. “Nobody helps us. They didn’t come to clear the snow, they don’t provide solutions or anything. We’re abandoned here. These people don’t listen to us and that’s it.”
The situation spurred the U.N. Human Rights Council to issue a statement before Christmas demanding an immediate resolution.
’"Without electricity, there is no heat in homes and no hot water, meaning children cannot shower or wash properly,” the statement said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, when hygiene is more important than ever, this is especially troubling.”
Residents have blamed both private national utility company Naturgy and Madrid authorities, who said marijuana growers were responsible for the power outage and that illegal drug activity in La Cañada needs to be tackled before electricity is restored. .
“The electricity supply has never been turned off,” Alfonso Adánez, a spokesman for the Madrid region’s housing department, said. “The problem is each time it’s on, it keeps being cut off because of surges from the plantations.”
The electricity infrastructure in the area was originally designed to power an old furniture factory. Over the years, many residents, mostly those areas of extreme poverty, ran cables from the power lines to heat and light their residences. Authorities have generally permitted the diversions, although they are technically illegal.
Officials and non-governmental organizations say police must dismantle the marijuana grows, but so far that doesn’t appear to have happened. It was not immediately possible to get comment from the Spanish government, which would have authority to order such a raid.
“Right now, it’s obvious we have a problem of incompetence or inability to resolve the problem of the electricity,” Pablo Choza, the head of projects at La Cañada Real for the Catholic charity Cáritas. He said the area always has had water and electricity supply problems, but they are normally resolved relatively quickly.
Choza said the majority of residents “are normal people trying their best to make a living” and that many of La Cañada’s troubles stem from being stigmatized as a drug zone by officials and the news media.
The U.N. Human Rights Council office also criticized authorities for blaming the outages on marijuana plantations and implying that the settlement’s residents are criminals.
Local authorities on Tuesday reported that Naturgy workers, accompanied by police, had begun cutting suspect connections to the plantations. Electricity to the two affected areas was not yet restored.
In the wake of Storm Filomena, the Madrid regional government tried to distribute some 100 gas bottles and heaters on Monday but workers were met with barricades, insults and stone-throwing from some residents, according to Adánez, a sign of the complexity of the problem. Residents says gas bottles are not a solution.
The regional government also set up emergency shelters that could accommodate more than 500 people during the weather crisis. But as of Tuesday, only one family had accepted the offer of a place to stay.
“With the situation that there is with the pandemic, I am not going to a shelter,” La Cañada resident Gemma San José Herraez said. “I have a home. What I don’t have is electricity.”
“Children and their families are freezing in their houses,” Catalina Perazzo, the organization’s director of awareness and childhood policies in Spain, said in a statement. “We’re on the threshold of a tragedy if action is not taken right now.”
CiaráN Giles And Manu FernáNdez, The Associated Press