'Drunk and proud' Spanish go on the rampage

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The Independent Online

Scenes of drunken violence and wild revelry have shattered Spain's reputation as a haven of moderate, Mediterranean-style drinking that Britain should seek to emulate.

An outbreak of binge drinking took hold of the country on Friday night. It was all a far cry from the tapas-and-cava evening s out that the world has come to expect of the Spanish.

For this was an orchestrated contest to establish which of some 20 Spanish cities could bring on to streets the biggest number of young drinkers. The unprecedented competition, or macro-botellon ("mega big bottle"), resulted in clashes with baton-wielding police in Barcelona and Salamanca that lasted until dawn, resulting in more than 50 arrests and 80 people being injured.

Barcelona is one of several cities that recently introduced stiff laws against anti-social behaviour in an attempt to control the growing phenomenon of the botellon. The practice of drinking alcohol bought from supermarkets in public places took root initially in Andalusia as a cheap and agreeable alternative to bar-hopping among students and young people. But this weekend marked a darker turning point in a trend that is worrying parents who fear their children are becoming alcoholics, and authorities who fear grave threats both to health and public order.

For weeks, thousands of young people have been mobilising for the inter-city rendezvous via a blizzard of emails, text messages and internet chat forums.

The competition began when youngsters in Granada planned a botellon to beat a 5,000-strong celebration held last month in Seville. The message spread to other cities, from Vigo to Valencia, which called for drinking parties, or "spring fiestas", of their own. Friday's event took on a harder-edged militancy, with drinkers insulting police, throwing bottles, and carrying banners asserting their right to drink and occupy the streets.

In Barcelona groups broke into shops in the city's old red light Raval district. By dawn yesterday Salamanca's historic Plaza Mayor was a desolate scene of overturned cars and mountains of rubbish. Granada succeeded in breaking the record by attracting some 25,000 drinkers. The gathering was largely festive, but scores were treated in hospital for alcohol poisoning or injuries caused by falling over while drunk.

Why have Spaniards broken the national mould, to throw strong drink down with such abandon? Under-age alcoholism has increased sharply in recent years and is now a big problem, with more than a third of teenagers admitting they get drunk regularly. Half a million are reckoned to join botellones most weekends.

The authorities, meanwhile, are baffled by the bottle-swigging monster that's suddenly reared its head, while the chief of the National Campaign against Drugs, Carmen Moya, could only suggest: "Youngsters must learn to enjoy themselves without alcohol."