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story.lead_photo.caption A protest with candles reading in Spanish: "'You are extinguishing our lights" in reference to cutting off the electricity at the Canada Real shanty town, outside Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. As a record snowfall blanketed much of Spain this week and temperatures plunged below zero, few suffered the consequences as severely as the thousands of residents of the La Canada Real Galiana mega shantytown outside Madrid, long a major embarrassment for Spain. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

MADRID (AP) — As record snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures enveloped much of normally temperate Spain, few residents suffered as severely as the thousands who live in La Caada Real Galiana, a mega-shantytown outside Madrid that is ranked as one of the biggest slum areas in Europe.

Much of La Caada Real had already been without electricity for months before Storm Filomena arrived. Officials said that's because marijuana growers in the informal settlement diverted power supplies to indoor plantations that overwhelmed the grid. The extended outage meant more than half of the 7,500 residents in the "poblado," or township, remained without power during brutal weather more suited to Siberia.

"It's very cold, and we have no light," resident Yolanda Martn Herrera said this week after temperatures dropped to as low as 3 F in the greater Madrid area. "We're practically out of firewood and can't get more because of the snow."

With both her and her husband out of work since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Martn Herrera, 47, said they survive on her mother's pension of some $730 a month. Few social services were available to help the area's residents cope with the added emergency of extreme weather.

"We're forgotten about here," Martn Herrera said. "We're people, not animals."

The substandard housing and shacks that make up La Caada stretch some 9 miles on the Spanish capital's industrial outskirts. The settlement spread over several decades along a former path for driving livestock as poor Spaniards, Spanish Roma people and Moroccan migrants sought somewhere to live.

The area runs through a flat, nondescript landscape and consists of basically a single road with side paths, some of it paved, leading to a mixture of decent houses in its better-off areas and shacks constructed of simple brick, metal panels and canvas sheets.

Residents live off construction jobs or by collecting scrap metal or whatever they can. The area has long been associated with sales of illegal drugs, mostly cocaine and heroin. In recent years, growing marijuana in basements and garages with powerful lamps became an extra source of income for some.

La Caada has few basic services with just one mobile medical unit visiting each day and a bus that takes children to nearby schools. The local shops are flimsy set-ups with little on hand to sell and almost no fresh food.

Plans have been afoot for several years to improve facilities and rehouse the neediest residents, but the area typically does not register on the Spanish public's radar. However, La Caada Real recently resurfaced in people's awareness with the news that two of its poorest areas had been without electricity since October.

The outage left an estimated 4,600 people, including some 1,800 children, dependent on gas bottles and small fuel-powered generators for heat and to cook.

"We're having a bad time," said Jess Pérez, 49, who lives with his wife and eight children in a shanty. "Nobody helps us. They didn't come to clear the snow, they don't provide solutions or anything. We're abandoned here. These people don't listen to us and that's it."

The situation spurred the U.N. Human Rights Council to issue a statement before Christmas demanding an immediate resolution.

"Without electricity, there is no heat in homes and no hot water, meaning children cannot shower or wash properly," the statement said. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, when hygiene is more important than ever, this is especially troubling."

Residents have blamed private national utility company Naturgy and Madrid authorities, who said marijuana growers were responsible for the power outage and that illegal drug activity in La Caada needs to be tackled before electricity is restored.

"The electricity supply has never been turned off," Alfonso Adnez, a spokesman for the Madrid region's housing department, said. "The problem is each time it's on, it keeps being cut off because of surges from the plantations."

The electricity infrastructure in the area was originally designed to power an old furniture factory. Over the years, many residents, mostly those areas of extreme poverty, ran cables from the power lines to heat and light their residences. Authorities have generally permitted the diversions, although they are technically illegal.

Officials and non-governmental organizations said police must dismantle the marijuana grows, but so far that doesn't appear to have happened. It was not immediately possible to get comment from the Spanish government, which would have authority to order such a raid.

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