Racism rears its head in Andalucia

Justin Webster visits the prosperous Spanish town where rioters rampaged against Moroccan workers -

Juan Enciso, mayor of El Ejido, must have welcomed the resounding victory of the right in the Spanish general elections. The new conservative mood perfectly reflects the atmosphere in his own home town, where, for four days in the middle of the election campaign, several thousand people went on the worst rampage of racial violence in Spain's recent history.

Men and women took to the streets, wrecking businesses, shops and bars owned by immigrants, and beating up Moroccan workers. Furious locals patrolled the streets, and the vast surrounding fields of hothouses, with guns and clubs. The violence erupted at the funeral of a 26-year-old Spanish woman, killed by a deranged Moroccan youth who, a few days before committing the crime, had been taken to the local hospital blabbering about seeing fields covered in blood. The young woman's killing followed the murder of two Spanish farmers, two weeks before, by another Moroccan; he, too, seemed unbalanced and has since made several attempts to commit suicide.

The local police in El Ejido, under Enciso's control, did not try to stop the rioters. The 600 police reinforcements sent from Madrid to restore order arrived two days later. Although the story quickly reached the national news, there were few pictures of actual violence because local feeling branded journalists, along with immigrants, as fair game for beatings. One television camera was smashed, and several photographers were scared off.

Enciso turned down all requests for interviews. Secure in his local fiefdom, he resisted pressure from the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to condemn the violence. He refused to attend any of the hastily convened crisis meetings unless they dealt with law and order, vetoed a plan for the Red Cross to set up a camp for the immigrants whose shacks had been destroyed in the riots and forced the government to say it would tighten up the immigration laws immediately after the elections, before the summer migration from Africa gets under way. Enciso also helped provoke the resignation of Aznar's liberal labour minister, Manuel Pimental, who had spoken out in support of the immigrants.

Pale and portly, Enciso looks more like a bank manager than a populist. Watching him at a public session of the El Ejido town council a week before the elections, I could see he preferred to whisper instructions to his deputies rather than to make speeches himself. Though he refused my request for an interview, he was affable and soft-spoken when I approached him at the end of the session. Estimates over the numbers of unregistered immigrants in El Ejido vary from 5,000 to 12,000. He chose a higher number. "It is said there are 30,000 immigrants with no papers in the whole of this area," he said. "If they can get papers under the current immigration law, well, then they can go to other parts of Spain or Europe.

"But they can't stay here. We don't want camps here. We've seen what has happened elsewhere. The European Union has its laws and they should be obeyed. We have got to organise it so we can import workers, temporarily, and then they can go back to their own countries. My party has understood perfectly what the people of this town want."

In the centre of El Ejido, around the imposing modern ayuntamiento (town council building), banks, fashionable boutiques, estate agents selling luxury chalets, garishly decorated bars and the offices of tax consultants cluster along the smart new avenues lined with imported palm trees. At night, the only immigrants to be found there are the Russian girls in the brothels.

In a single generation, El Ejido has jumped from being one of the poorest towns in Andalucia to being the richest in per capita income. Irrigation techniques and 3,000 hours of sunshine a year have turned its 240 square kilometres between the mountains and the coast into a fertile stretch where fruit and vegetables are grown for export.

One of the side effects of the riots was a strike by the immigrant workers, the first of its type in Spain. To begin with, all work stopped because the Moroccans, the vast majority of the workers, were too afraid to turn up at their jobs. But once the police arrived, the Moroccan leaders announced a formal strike. It lasted for a week, at an estimated cost of £15 million in lost production, and ended with government commitments to spend £3 million on improving the immigrants' living conditions.

On the edge of the town on a wasteland covered with litter are a few fetid shacks where a group of Moroccans live. They are on the lowest echelon, casual labourers with no regular boss. They have no chance of renting a flat because many locals complain that, if they rent out a flat to one Moroccan, it is quickly taken over by a large group. Others, remembering their own experiences as immigrant workers in Germany and Switzerland in the 1960s and 1970s, have tried to help. Part of the tension comes from a clash of opinions, and emotions, on how to deal with an increasingly chaotic situation.

"Not everyone is a racist here," said Ahmed Zozo, a 25-year-old Moroccan who has worked for two years in El Ejido without papers. "We didn't know whether the mayor was good or bad until the problems. Now we know."

At daybreak each morning, Zozo and the other inhabitants of the shacks assemble in a square nearby, one of many locations in the area where the Spanish farmers come to pick their workers for the day. They will be paid around £15 a day. To get a work permit, all immigrants need a signed contract and the patronage of an employer.

Even during the strike, small boats of illegal immigrants were still turning up on the beaches a few kilometres away. All the Africans who arrive in these boats, or as stowaways on trucks and ferries, enter Europe without any form of identification. Passports and visas change hands at high prices in Morocco.

During the riot, associations involved with helping immigrants were targeted. Mercedes GarcIa, president of the Association of Progressive Women, told me: "I still can't believe what happened. Whole families of immigrants, with children, ran away up into the mountains out of fright, and people went out with guns to hunt them like rabbits."

Most of the townspeople prefer not to speak about the incidents, and are wary of journalists. They complain about the rise in crime, especially rape. In a bar in the main street, one off-duty policeman, who has been in El Ejido for seven years, voiced a commonly held view that the Moroccans who come to Spain illegally are ex-convicts, and that the latest influx has arrived to take advantage of the new, lax immigration law. Inadvertently, however, he revealed another, less talked-about aspect of life in El Ejido, which complicates relations with the Moroccans.

"There was a rape, for instance, three years ago," he said. "An immigrant raped a Spanish girl, but the parents - and they were people with money - didn't report it because they were involved in smuggling cannabis. You see, there's a lot of mafia here."

Enciso is right when he complains that the central government has ignored the problems for too long. Even if the underlying causes remain obscure, now that Aznar has an overall majority for the first time, it will soon be clear just how far he agrees with his party's populist mayor over the solutions.