Gangs are occupying Britons’ second homes in Spain and the law helps them to do it. The only way to get rid of the squatters is to shell out thousands to send in the ‘heavies
Sophie Robinson arrived at her Ibiza villa with her two daughters for their Easter break at midnight — and found another family had moved in.
The 48-year-old British yoga teacher was confronted by a man and woman, with their children, who had changed the locks and were refusing to leave. When the police arrived, officers told her that she would have to continue paying the water and electricity bills for the squatters until she secured an eviction notice.
Armed Guardia Civil came to evict the squatters last week and found a different, single man living in the villa in San Antonio. There were no signs of children but the police did find locks fitted on each bedroom door and drugs scattered over the floor.
Along with dozens of other Brits with second homes in Spain, Robinson had fallen victim to an occupation movement that new legislation is expected to exacerbate. In Ibiza, the gangs occupying empty properties are thought to be connected to the drugs trade; elsewhere in Spain, they are known as the “extortion mafia”.
They are exploiting the Spanish constitution which affords every citizen “the right to adequate housing”. After 48 hours, squatters gain the right to live there and can only be evicted by judicial order. Robinson was lucky. Getting rid of them can take years.
Squatters and the ransom demands
The encroachment of los okupas (squatters) increased during the pandemic as the government legislated to prevent snap evictions, strengthening the rights of those unable to afford rent.
In Ibiza last week, The Sunday Times found that lawyers, property experts and businesses which forcibly remove squatters believe that the majority of occupations are linked to criminal gangs. They are selling the owners’ possessions and demanding ransoms of more than €3,000 to leave.
Francisco Sancho Jaraiz, a lawyer, deals with dozens of British and European clients whose second homes are occupied on the island every year and represented Robinson.
The original man and his partner who had occupied her villa are part of a family who are allegedly a front for a network run by criminal gangs. “It is always the same child who comes to the door crying, but we do not know who he is. He is an enigma,” Sancho Jaraiz said. “It goes like this: the family first enters the property, they take possessions to sell and then the criminals move in and live there, sometimes for as long as two years.”
If police catch the squatters removing belongings, they can arrest them; but occupants who have been in the property for more than 48 hours can only be removed with an eviction notice ordered by a judge — even if, like Robinson, the owner shows property deeds to police.
“This is an embarrassment for Spain,” Sancho Jaraiz said. “We have a floating population of one million in Ibiza and tourists can move the economy. Yet this is the price they pay for choosing here because the law does not respect them.”
Squatters’ exploitation is legal.
La ley de vivienda (the Housing Bill), agreed by the Spanish parliament last month, gives even stronger rights to squatters.
“They’re already protected in Spain more than they are anywhere else on the planet, but this law means that it will take two years of social services before you can even get an eviction going,” said Mark Stücklin, the Barcelona-based founder of the website Spanish Property Insight.
A creaking judicial system means that victims such as Robinson wait an average of 18 months for eviction notices to reclaim the properties they own, compared with 48 hours in France and 24 hours in Germany.
“Podemos [one of the socialist parties making up the Spanish coalition government] has rolled over and given the hard left everything they want,” Stücklin said. “It’s a legislative catastrophe which will have untold consequences.”
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, swathes of properties seized by banks stood empty and became ripe for los okupas. “The first okupas were people in need, but they only occupied repossessed properties,” said Santi Ventalló, co-director of the Catalonian law firm Colomer Ventalló, which specialises in property litigation. “It was a political and social movement.”
“The government will tell you the bill is for the vulnerable,” said Stücklin, “but often it’s exploited by organised crime. It is state-sanctioned exploitation.”
For the squatter removal firms, however, the movement is not a matter of politics, but business. “Desocupas work in a more pressured way than the police by going in and negotiating with the squatters,” Ventalló said. “There’s the way of the judiciary — and there’s the desocupas.”
One of the most popular firms in Spain is Fuera Okupas, which translates as “Get out occupiers” and was formerly a debt collectors’ business. Jorge Fe, the boss, saw a gap in the market in 2018 when home occupations were on the rise and switched his business model accordingly.
Fe, 51, who has trained in a Russian form of jiu jitsu and boxing since he was 16, operates the business from a cramped office in Barcelona city centre. Fuera Okupas has a gorilla as part of its logo under the Latin motto Fortes fortuna adiuvat — fortune favours the bold.
The company claims a 97 per cent success rate in the 4,000 cases it has handled. In only 2 per cent of cases does it encounter people who are in genuine need, he says.
“Occupations used to be socially acceptable because it was a reaction to a shortage in housing, but since gangs learnt they could take advantage we have seen a boom,” Fe said.
“We don’t blame the police because they do all they can — but they do not have the backing of the law. We operate just within the law. It does not allow us to use force, although sometimes we would like to make use of it.”
Negotiation with the squatters varies depending on each case, but Fuera Okupas starts by visiting them and trying to mediate in the dispute, often accompanied by the in-house lawyer. The next step is to wait for the squatters to leave the property — and make their return impossible by blocking all entrance points. Fuera Okupas usually charges €2,500 per job.
The company’s tactics helped Michael Reagan, 74, from London, when his villa in Sitges, southwest of Barcelona, was occupied in 2021. His neighbour first alerted him to squatters in his three-bedroom flat in the coastal town during the pandemic by sending him a photo of them on his terrace, watching television and playing backgammon.
Reagan says he paid the “heavies” €3,500, with half upfront. The firm went to talk to the squatters, who turned out to be a group of young Moroccans. Police called by the squatters told the company to “ease off a bit”, Reagan said.
The firm claimed the squatters wanted €5,000 to leave but that they had negotiated down to €2,000. Reagan didn’t question this because “I just wanted them out”. Four days later they were gone.
“I’d only dealt with these people on the phone — they were very polite gentlemen and I thought they were all lawyers wearing suits,” Reagan said. “When I saw all these photographs I thought they looked like Hell’s Angels. But you’re caught in between a rock and a hard place because the law is very ineffectual.”
Almost three years since filing for an eviction notice, he still has not had a response from the police or a judge regarding his complaint. Without Fuera Okupas, he could still have squatters on the property, he said.
Small risk, high cost
About 800,000 Brits own a property in Spain and prices there are expected to rise 8 per cent in 2023 overall, according to market analysts. In the popular holiday destination of the Costa del Sol, the increase could be as much as 11 per cent.
“It’s one of those problems where the risk is very very small but the cost is very very high,” Stücklin said.
Reagan tells friends who are looking to buy in Spain not to be discouraged by his experience, though the effects still linger. He paid €10,000 to replace the door and locks broken by the gang and pays €70 a month in wi-fi bills for an alarm system that will alert him, not the police, if a break-in occurs.
In Ibiza, Robinson is hoping to sell her three-bedroom property on one of the quieter streets of Spain’s party capital. “We were lucky to have this solved so quickly, but there’s such a massive gap between rich and poor here and with high flyers and drugs circulating, it’s not the same place it was 20 years ago,” she said. “It’s a very dark side of the island.”
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