High-tech shantytown mushrooms in Madrid

CNN.com, 1 June 2001, 9:56 AM EDT (1356 GMT)

MADRID, Spain (AP)—Beneath the tall, glistening office towers and government ministries, an unlikely camp of protesters has built a high-tech shantytown, complete with pirated utilities and computer access.

The nearly half-mile (one kilometer) long cluster of blue tarpaulin coverings and clapboard shacks has become a familiar sight to millions of commuters driving by on the Castellana boulevard since the first tents went up in January. The residents have pirated their electricity from underground road sensors, the water is tapped from city mains.

But the new guys on the tree-lined median of Madrid's central artery are not typical squatters.

They are skilled engineers and technicians, formerly employed by Sintel Telecommunications, a Spanish telecom company that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000. A move many of the squatters blame on alleged mismanagement at the hands of a U.S. cable installation firm.

With a mixture of ingenuity and tenacity, the workers have transformed their claim to $10 million in unpaid wages and refusal to accept forced resignations into a national issue.

“We’re not going anywhere until our demands are met, even if it takes years,” said Joaquin Dominguez, a former fiber optic network manager and local union organizer from the southern city of Malaga.

He placed his hand on a shopping cart filled with softball-sized rocks and said: “If they come to evict us we’ll be ready.”

Municipal authorities don’t appear willing to risk a violent confrontation between the police and protesters. And the squatters have drawn the support of workers across the city.

Now a bustling village

El Campamento de Esperanza (The Camp of Hope) is now a village of about 1,200 inhabitants, with libraries, bars, hot showers and cafeterias serving daily meals.

Workers have furnished their shacks with rebuilt televisions, video players, microwave ovens and computers recovered from garbage heaps around the city.

“The days are very long and you have to keep yourself busy,” said Jose Maria Casado, who used to install cellular antennas.

After stirring an enormous cauldron of white beans and chorizo sausages, Miguel Rastrojo, a line maintenance worker, opened a closet stocked with rice, canned vegetables and cured pork legs hanging on hooks.

“I used to watch my wife cook and picked up a few things,” Rastrojo said as he made dinner for his neighbors and a local firefighting company that had contributed to the food stock. Neighborhood bakeries and butcher shops have also donated food.

Workers say the demise of Sintel, which had subsidiaries throughout Latin America, began after it was sold for $40 million in 1996, the same time the government began to privatize Telefonica, Spain's then government-owned telephone company.

The buyer was Miami-based Mastec, headed at the time by late Cuban-American political leader Jorge Mas Canosa, who had ties to Spain's conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Mismanagement allegations

According to union leaders, the Mas Canosa family mismanaged the company, neglecting to diversify activities and plundering its assets. Two years later, Mastec sold the firm to Sintel's current managing director Carlos Gila for $2 and assumption of a debt that now totals $102 million.

“They took everything and left us with nothing,” said Casado. Next to his shack hung a poster of Che Guevara, the symbol of Marxist insurgency and early ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Mastec is also in court with former Delaware-based partner Artcom Technologies over the alleged siphoning of $ 6 million from a former Sintel subsidiary in Puerto Rico.

In a statement, Mastec chairman Jorge Mas Santos said his company tried to diversify Sintel, but accused Telefonica of violating the sale terms by canceling its orders with Sintel, which “was heavily dependent on Telefonica.”

Telefonica spokesman Alberto Martinez said that the 1996 sale price was low, but he said that Telefonica did what seemed best, noting that at the time Mastec was expanding and its shares were soaring on the New York Stock Exchange.

“Sintel didn’t have a very bright future in our hands,” he said. “So we decided to sell it at a very cheap price.”

In March, Spanish anti-corruption prosecutors launched an investigation into the sale. Last month, government representatives began negotiations with Sintel management over the fate of the workers.

The Sintel squatters have vowed to remain until the government intervenes to guarantee their jobs and forces Telefonica to settle a multimillion dollar debt to the firm, which would cover their unpaid salaries.