March 17, 2006

Spanish Youths in Mass Drink Binge

MADRID (Reuters) - Thousands of teenagers and students swarmed onto Spanish streets on Friday for mass drinking sessions, defying legislation introduced to stop the binges known as "botellones."

Police in the southern Spanish city of Granada said up to 25,000 people had gathered, causing the closure of a major road.

"We've never seen anything like this in Granada," a police spokesman told Reuters. "There's no doubt this is the biggest botellon in Spain ... there must be 20,000 to 25,000 people."

Youths rallied revelers by email and SMS messages for "macrobotellones" in 20 cities around Spain, while authorities have pleaded with parents to keep their children under control and pointed out the dangers of under-age drinking.

The botellon (big bottle) has become a seedy part of city life over recent years as teenagers, bored at home and too poor to go to bars, buy beer, spirits and cartons of wine from food stores and lounge around in plazas, drinking the night away.

Bombarded with noise, the stench of urine and vomit on the streets, and emergency rooms having to deal with drunks, many city councils have brought in rules to ban street drinking.

Police now patrol many of the botellon hot spots at the weekends, moving along groups of teenagers who mix cocktails with cheap spirits or "calimocho" -- red wine and cola.

They are girding up for an extra fight this weekend.

Some city authorities, such as those in Seville, Granada and Valladolid were allowing the gatherings to take place in designated areas although heavy rain in Seville had put many potential drinkers off.

Granada's botellon was the first to get under way, with thousands of young people congregating despite government attempts to make sure no law-breaking was allowed.

Police in Madrid said they would stop people from congregating and fine them 300 euros if they were found to be carrying alcohol. About 300 police will guard two squares in the capital which are known for the botellon, taking personal details of youths who turn up.

In Barcelona, police plan to stop anybody bringing drink or glasses onto the picturesque Las Ramblas street.

Granada authorities have taken a more liberal stance, agreeing to clear a road on the outskirts so the young can have a night out without disturbing the rest of the town.

The concern is that if the police overreact, teenagers will just rebel all the more.

"We shouldn't over-dramatize the situation," leading newspaper El Pais said. "The difficulty is going to be to apply the law gently. Anything else will only light the fuse."