A recent court case in Barcelona shed light on the modus operandi of squatter mafia gangs who target properties for sale as a way of extorting ransom money from estate agents and owners.
Back in February 2017 a gang of squatters identified two renovated flats for sale in the Raval district of Barcelona, gathered information on the properties whilst pretending to be potential buyers, and then broke in and squatted the flats demanding extortion money to leave. This all came out in court.
In the course of their research the squatters found out that the properties had been reserved by a buyer with a downpayment of 60,000€ towards the total price of 300,000€. In Spain the deposit or arras contract stipulates that the buyer must be paid back double if the vendor does not complete on time.
The estate agency handling the sale on behalf of a developer had signed the arras contract and taken the deposit from the buyer. The presence of squatters meant the properties could not be delivered on time, placing the agency in the dire situation of having to re-pay the buyer 120,000€, which would have put the agency out of business.
Ransom or ruin
Facing the choice of financial ruin or paying the extortion money the squatters were demanding, the agency decided to pay the ransom. Going to the police was not an option. It can take several years, and cost thousands of euros, to evict squatters the legal way in Spain, which is why so many owners turn to extra-judicial methods when squatters break in and hold their homes to ransom.
The squatters were asking 10,000€ for each flat, a total of 20,000€, which the agency managed to negotiate down to 8,000€ in total to get the squatters out. The okupas, as squatters are known in Spain, also stole TVs from the flats when they left.
For reasons that are not entirely clear from the press reports, the estate agency decided to report the squatters to the police for coercion and robbery after they vacated the properties. It took more than four years but the case finally came to court in Barcelona this October. The squatters were found guilty of extortion and robbery, and sentenced to between two and three years in gaol, along with paying compensation for the ransom money, the TVs, and damage to the door locks.
In their defence the squatters tried to claim they had rented the flats for 6,000€ from a “man in the street” who was “wearing a suit” and even produced a rental contract he allegedly signed. This argument was dismissed by the judge, who pointed out that the document was “a common trick amongst people who dedicate themselves to usurping real estate,” and consisted of boilerplate information that anyone can “download from the internet.”
This case illustrates how easy it is for squatter gangs in Spain to hold homes to ransom, and target properties in Barcelona for sale or rent because that is when the owners are at their most vulnerable to extortion. After all, you can’t rent or sell a property with squatters in it.
Most owners or agents who are unfortunate enough to find their property held to ransom by squatter extortion gangs usually just pay the squatter ransom money and try to put the whole business behind them as quickly as possible. The agency in this case decided to take it to the authorities and press charges. More than four years later justice was done. Most owners can’t afford to wait that long.