Dead-end city: Reflections on the marginalized in post-crisis Madrid

A study of Valdemingómez in Spain’s capital highlights the social consequences of austerity and the suffering it can cause

Daniel BriggsValdemingómez in Madrid is one of Europe’s largest urban ghettos rife with drugs, violence and destitution. When I first heard about it ten years ago when in London, I found difficult to believe that a place with such multifaceted social problems could exist in the twenty-first century.  I knew since then that I wanted to research it.

After moving to Madrid in 2013, I tried to get research funding to enable me to study Valdemingómez. However, my three proposals were denied by the Spanish government so after two years I took the decision to work part-time and started teaching English as a way of self-funding my research.  In 2015 I began my study of Valdemingómez’s organised crime networks, violent gypsies, and a drug market that was attracting 5,000 people per day, and the wider issues of the influence of the Spanish government’s social policies and its law enforcement agencies.

Here are some of my early fieldnotes which highlight the destitution there:

‘As we return, we see a man with his sleeve rolled up next to an orange tent: he stands up and moves a chair with the syringe of heroin and cocaine hangs from his upper arm. Very damaged and thin women pass us from time to time with very heavy looks on their faces as they trudge up to the harm reduction bus. We decide to take a walk around the back of the church area.  A metre or so away is the sleeping place of the man who we saw injecting the other day.  Next to his rags, lie used syringes, piss stains and shit.  Further on, mostly concentrated around trees or large bushes, are collections of injecting paraphernalia and evidence of fires having been lit…some ashes still warm in their cinder from the night before.  Behind the church, a man stoops to inject himself in the legs and even as we look just behind the harm reduction bus, two cars sit full of people smoking heroin and cocaine.  Around them, are small mountains of rubbish and a wild grassland peppered with more unwanted debris.’

The surrounding area of Valdemingómez was initially occupied illegally in the 1960s and 1970s as Madrid expanded in its industrial period. However, although the area grew in size as a consequence of the increasing prevalence of neoliberal free market politics in the 1980s, deindustrialisation that melded with aggressive social policies and law enforcement efforts to target gypsy camps in the centre of the city which occupied potential places for investment and profit.  As camp after camp was closed down, so too the government taxed and criminalised the gypsy means of survival like selling things in markets and recycling scrap metal, leaving them limited options and pushing people towards those in the expanding drug market.

As large numbers of the out-of-work urban working class and new immigrants fell victim to processes of neoliberal globalisation, they found solace in the increased availability of drugs such as heroin and cocaine in these areas. The numbers of addicts soared and so too did punitive measures to deal with the ‘delinquents’.  Many filled Spain’s prisons during the 1990s only to leave after their short-term sentences in the same predicament.  Investment in drug treatment remained piecemeal so as many went into prison, they came out facing the same circumstances, essentially asked to muster up their own self-motivation to escape spiralling addiction and endemic labour market and social exclusion.

These processes were exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity that followed which reduced any form of support to drug addicts to its most basic structure. Even though Spain borrowed one billion Euros to bail out its banks, the taxpayer has continued to foot the bill and inequality has continued to grow and is now 14 times higher than the European average: in 2014, 508 people declared assets more than €30 million, an 8 per cent rise from 2013.

Spending on public institutions, policies to combat unemployment and social welfare programmes (like drug treatment) has further decreased. As a consequence, nearly 30 per cent of the population – or 13 million people – are considered ‘at risk’ of poverty.  A quarter of young people are not in school, nor employed or in training and there have been significant changes to labour laws, making temporary contracts the norm: in August 2016, 80,000 short-term contracts were signed in Madrid yet 36,300 were for less than six days. Early in 2017, in Leganes on the outskirts of the city, 500 job vacancies in a new mall attracted 20,000 applicants.  Over the last decade, 91 per cent of social housing in Madrid been sold to private firms, and even though there are 400,000 empty residences in the capital, around 200 people are made homeless each day.

Madrid is now the most segregated city in Europe in terms of distribution of wealth and income inequality. The working class and gypsies have been at the frontline of the processes that have led to rising segregation as city centre spaces have been targeted for potential investment opportunities.  As the gypsy camps continued to be closed, and the addicts which didn’t die were moved on, they have ended up in Valdemingómez – bundled together as a kind of lumpen group of people unwanted by the city, resulting in moments such as this:

‘Out comes Julia from the tent and removes Juan’s rucksack as he wipes his lightly perspiring brow from our long walk around the area. She sits on a stump opposite us and rapidly makes up a heroin injection, placing half the hit in another syringe for Juan. Giving it to him, he places it behind his ear and starts to study her neck as if he were a DIY man making an assessment on where best to drill a hole in the wall.  She hugs her arms tight like a little girl might as if she were to receive her first inoculation. Yet this is not her first.  As he gently tilts her to one side, her face turns red and he lightly jabs the needle around in her neck only for it to fill slightly with blood.  He withdraws from his first attempt and reminds her to keep still – though she hasn’t moved – and returns to his position.  We peer over looking at the blood trickle down her neck slightly as Juan gently digs around for the vein.  No luck.  He mops his brow again and looks around the barren landscape for inspiration, takes a breath and returns to his position.’

These notes from my study exemplify how austerity measures have essentially degraded an already excluded people existing in the urban peripheries of Madrid. Perhaps most worryingly, younger groups are now turning up in this space.  It shows how global processes coupled with market economics have hollowed out these people’s livelihoods, to the point that many invert and internalise their own suffering into a fatalistic form of drug use which only visibilises them as a threat to the urban dream and thus making them an easy fodder for criminal justice institutions.  Having developed an almost irreversible drug dependency, as a consequence, many simply end up between prison, the street and Valdemingómez – a place politically imagined where they will not poison the aesthetics of the city and just die quietly among the rubbish and waste.