Europe’s largest illegal settlement spends almost 3 months without electricity

“La Cañada Real”, in the outskirts of Madrid, is one of the last shantytowns in Europe. After almost three months without electricity, children write to the UN this holiday season: “It’s like torture”.

Close to the M-50, one of Madrid’s motorways, the shanty town of La Cañada Real stretches for 15km along the municipalities of Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Coslada and Madrid itself. Barely 20 minutes away from Madrid’s city center, it is the largest informal settlement in Europe. Whether it be the drug cartels in its infamous sector 6 or the prevailing absenteeism in secondary school, La Cañada has been a source of local debate in the past decade. More recently, the lack of electricity in the area has caused numerous protests by its inhabitants.

“Electricity is a right”, shows a sign at a protest. SOURCE: Daniel Rodrigo Arenas

For almost 3 months now, La Cañada’s residents have been living without electricity, and subsequently, warm water, heating and light. The frequent and long power cuts are caused by overload in the area’s power grid. Naturgy, the utilities company that provides electricity for the area, cites indoor marihuana plantations as the reason for grid’s overload, as they increase power consumption by up to 500%. In October alone, police dismantled seven illegal marihuana plantations.

However, everyone agrees that tackling the drugs problem, particularly in sector 6, where some areas are still controlled by drug cartels, is not a short-term solution. Since October, neighbors in sector 5 and 6 have been organizing protests which have culminated in a lawsuit against Naturgy and Madrid’s regional government for human rights violations.

The consequences of the power cut are devastating.

In December, a teenager was hospitalized after inhaling carbon monoxide from a gas heater. The same week, 8 inhabitants were also hospitalized for the same reason. In total, 40 people have been intoxicated by carbon monoxide. A child was brought to a health center to treat frostbite symptoms.

Not only is this happening in the middle of winter, in an area where almost half of the inhabitants are underage, but also during a pandemic that has left Madrid’s most impoverished neighbourhoods in very vulnerable situations, at a time where most of us are told to stay at home.

At the beginning of December, over 50 children living in sectors 5 and 6 (the most vulnerable areas of the Cañada Real) wrote to the United Nation’s Children’s Rights Committee (CRC), demanding that the settlement be provided with electricity. Many of the children’s letters are about struggling with online school because of the power cuts, one of the eldest (17) explaining that it is “basically psychological torture”.

Some of the letters written by children of La Cañada Real to the CRC demanding electricity (Source: El País)

“Don’t talk to me about social problems, this is about crime in the area”

The above was said by Madrid’s regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, at an assembly meeting. Nervertheless, Javier Rubio, the lawyer representing the neighbors of La Cañada stated that the marihuana plantations represent the crimes of a handful of family-run drug cartels for which the 4000 inhabitants of sectors 5 and 6 are not responsible for. Rubio also emphasizes that in 2017, the regional government, along with the municipalities of Rivas, Coslada and Madrid (all ruled by different parties at the time) signed an agreement to formalize La Cañada and rehabilitate the area, which has not been met to date.

A brief history of La Cañada

The cañadas reales are old roads that were used for the seasonal movement of cattle in the region. They were originally state-owned, which means that building on or along them was, and still is, illegal. In the 1960s, a slight change allowed for crops and storage sheds to be built along these roads.

By the mid-80s, illegal neighborhoods and settlements were a common problem in Madrid, so much so that a law was passed in 1985 to formalize them and provide them with basic urban services (pave the roads, water, create local councils). However, because the Cañada Real was on state-owned land and ran across three different municipalities, it was excluded from the scope of this law.

Today, this settlement runs along the cañada real galiana, and is the home of over 8500 people as of 2012. Most of them are of romani origin and Morrocan immigrants, and have been shunned after decades of various administrations’ failure to formalize the settlement.

From the mid-2000s onwards, due to Madrid’s urban development in the south, La Cañada was brought to the the public’s attention again, particularly when families had to be displaced for the construction of M-50 and the high-speed train tracks. In 2011, the area ceased to be state-owned property

Pictures from a 1988 study by María Teresa Franchini

Some stretches of La Cañada Real are partially being integrated into the city’s network of services, such as sector 1, where some parts look like any other suburb in Madrid. Running along the south of Coslada, bin and post collection has been made available to its inhabitants. In May of 2017, the three municipalities agreed to legalize housing in sectors 2 to 5 in the aforementioned pact.

However, the vast majority do not have formal water and electricity networks and live in unsafe housing with lack of plumbing.

Map showing the Cañada Real’s sectors by color (Source: author, Victoria Verdesoto)

Sector 6, the one furthest away from any urban center, is the most contentious one. Its nickname, Madrid’s “drug supermarket” speaks for itself. For the past 20 years, clans such as los Kikos and los Gordos have been involved in cocaine, heroine, and more recently, marihuana trafficking. But this is only part of the story. Sector 6 is the largest part of La Cañada and as of 2017, home to almost 3000 individuals, 300 of which are on RMI (renta mínima de inserción) benefits, aimed at those in extreme poverty and at risk of social exclusion. It is by far the most impoverished area of the settlement and subsequently suffering the most.

Image of sector 6. SOURCE: EFE, 2017

As of now, the regional government has not answered the National Committee for Child Poverty’s plea for the provision of electricity, in which it reminded the government that this was in direct violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year’s holiday season is going to be for everyone. For now, la Cañada’s residents will celebrate with a candle-lit dinner.

You can donate to Cáritas Madrid and to Avanza ONG , both of which have specific programs in place for La Cañada Real.

Anthropology student. Spain/UK.

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