Squatter horror stories: Extortion in Sitges

San Sebastian beach, Sitges
San Sebastian beach, Sitges

A squatter extortion-gang strikes a second-home in Sitges, and demands a €5,000 ransom from the British owner.

Early last week I had to make an emergency trip to Sitges – a stylish resort town just south of Barcelona – to install a property-watch system in a friend’s flat after squatters made themselves at home in a neighbour’s apartment, which they are now holding to ransom. It brought home to me the reality of squatter extortion gangs threatening absentee second-home owners in Spain.

The building is in a smart part of Sitges, just a stone’s throw from San Sebastian beach, in an expensive postcode where the average asking price is around 4,600 €/m. So we’re not talking about a deprived area blighted by social problems where people squat to avoid sleeping rough. I assume the property occupied is worth more than half a million Euro.

After breaking into the ground floor flat through the terrace, the squatters -called okupas in Spain – were left undisturbed for a week or more because the owner did not have an alarm or property-surveillance system installed.

Neighbours didn’t raise the alarm either, because other owners were kept away by Covid-19, and only one flat was occupied by a lady who fled to Barcelona when she found out she had squatters next door. There is no doubt that the travel restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic have made it easier for squatter gangs to find empty second-homes to prey on.

When word of the squatters got back to the owner in the UK the Spanish police were called, but it was too late to get the them out quickly the legal way. They were well installed by the time the police got involved, so it was treated as a case of occupación, or squatting / adverse possession, to be left to the courts to sort out. That means the squatters have the owner over a barrel.

The police have made it clear they will not do anything without a court order, and told the owner not to disturb the squatters. You can’t blame the police, though. They are only doing what the law allows them to do.

Had the owner called the police when the squatters first got in, or shortly after, it would probably have been treated as a breaking and entering (allanamiento de morada), with the intruders arrested and removed on the spot. 

Squatters demand €5,000 ransom to vacate the property

Now the squatters have made themselves at home in the property, in control of all its contents, walking around in the owner’s clothes, and protected by the authorities, they are demanding a €5,000 ransom to leave. The price will be negotiable, of course.

I don’t think there was ever any doubt that this is a professional squatter gang who’s business model is extorting money from owners by holding their property to ransom. Of the different types of squatters in Spain, extortion gangs are biggest threat to second-home owners, and driving the rise in cases around Spain, from what I’m told.

I spoke to the okupas whilst I was there. They were well dressed (in the owner’s clothes, it turns out) and addressed me in English. They were waiting for me at the front door when I left, because they didn’t have a key to the building. They looked like professional squatters to me.

Golden invitation to extort second-home owners

The extortion business model is encouraged by squatter-friendly laws and politicians, and enabled by the overburdened legal system. You get no help from the authorities once squatters have made themselves at home, but they get immediate help if you take the law into your own hands.

By taking so long, costing so much, and protecting squatters so well, the Spanish legal system hands a golden invitation to squatter gangs to extort absentee owners of second homes in Spain. Is it any wonder that squatter extortion is on the rise in Spain? The bigger surprise is why anybody bothers with any other sort of crime.

No good options 

Once squatters get installed in Spain, which takes 24 to 48 hours, you have no good options. Sadly, that’s the case for the owner of this property in Sitges.

Going down the legal route means struggling with a long, costly, and draining legal battle to get them out who knows when, which is the key to the squatter extortion model in Spain. The more overburdened the courts , the longer it takes.

Paying the ransom is often the least costly option, but you can imagine how it would make you feel. The injustice of it!

A third option is to call in the heavies – one of the squatter-eviction companies that promise to get okupas out for a fee using methods that some say are illegal, or at least dodgy. The owner in Sitges has gone down this road.

Given the way the system seems to crucify owners in Spain, it’s understandable why many choose to go down the extra-judicial route if the State leaves them at the mercy of extortion gangs.

For people who do choose to go down the extra-judicial route, there are quite a few anti-okupa companies staffed by muscle-bound heavies to turn to. They offer to mediate with the squatters, and use a mix of carrot and stick to get them out quickly for a price.

Leaving ethical questions aside, are they worth it? It might be cheaper just to hire an experienced lawyer to negotiate with the squatters. The heavies only make sense if they get the squatters out for less than it would cost you to pay the extortion money.

Community problem

After I left, the squatters set about breaking the lock of the front door of the building. The police have advised the owners not to change the lock as, if they do, they will have to give the squatters a key. So, when squatters get into a building, they create a problem for the whole community, and have been known to make life hell for neighbours to put pressure on the owner to pay the ransom quickly. A squat in your community can be a problem for you too.

Take steps to protect your property from squatters in Spain

protection against squatters in Spain
Good window bars are expensive to install

With the extortion of property owners by squatters being such a lucrative, low-risk business opportunity in Spain, it’s not hard to imagine the problem of squatter gangs extorting money from absentee holiday-home owners getting worse.

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of squatters breaking in and making themselves at home before holding your property to ransom. Putting in an alarm, or property-watch system, is just one of them. You also need to know what to do if squatters get in, what your options are at every stage, the pros and cons, who to call, and what to expect. You don’t want to be caught unprepared, in a panic, making bad decisions from afar under pressure. I’ll start putting together a guide.

In the meantime I am also testing out a home-surveillance system I have developed that allows you to keep an eye on your property in Spain from anywhere in the world, even if you don’t have an internet connection installed at home. Find out more.

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