City of Zombies: Zurich, Summer 1991

Daily life in the open drug scene: a man injects heroin into a woman's neck.

Nobody would have imagined that in 1991, the centre of the richest city in the world would serve as home to a huge drug scene – one so out of control that a civil militia would soon start to patrol the surrounding districts. But that was just the beginning.

The blood must have attracted the rats that flocked to the area on those warm summer nights in 1991. As a Platzspitz regular, there was not much that could shock Alain any more, but the horror of the scene penetrated even his heroin-induced stupor. The beast was the size of a small cat and made a beeline for the junkie that lay crumpled in the dark by a tree downstream from the Rondell. Normally, the rats would feed on the faeces all around Platzspitz, but blood tasted better. Alain went over to the man, but the animal refused to be scared off from its meal. It pushed its nose and protruding front teeth into the spot where a needle was dangling from the man's arm.

It was only when Alain kicked at the rat that it desisted. He bent down to check the unconscious man's pulse and see whether he was breathing, and slapped him a couple of times to try to wake him. Nothing. Alain could hear the rat rustling in the bushes. He finally dragged the man to the Rondell, hoping that the rat would be deterred by all the people gathered in the space lit by lamplight. Then he took another hit.

Zurich 1991 – one of the richest cities in the world with a community governed by morals and order. Ice cream vendors on Bellevue cannot even attach a canopy to their stands without the police coming by to check that they have a building permit. But at Platzspitz, a park once enjoyed by city residents out for a stroll, the law is being broken countless times every hour. Some 3,000 to 5,000 transients find their way to the park each day. They shoot up, loaf about, exchange money and drugs. In the bushes between the National Museum and the Sihl, neglected girls sell their bodies for a handful of coins. Behind the improvised market stalls made of banana crates, vegetable boxes and shopping trolleys, ‹filter junkies› peddle new syringes, spoons and ascorbic acid to other addicts. In return, they receive the residue from the cigarette filters that the heroin solution is drawn through. Doctors rush around reviving people that have collapsed and distributing salve for wounds on arms and legs. Experts refer to the infected sores that disfigure many addicts as ‹battlegrounds›, mercifully overlooking the fact that the whole drug scene itself is reminiscent of a battleground. One police officer who worked daily shifts at Platzspitz remembers how things were: «People were laying around in their own blood and faeces like battlefield casualties. Those still on their feet simply stepped over them.» Anybody that experienced these conditions would be hard pressed to forget them even today. The horrific sights and sheer stench continue to linger in the mind.

Looking back now, the questions come thick and fast: how could the government have allowed the situation to get so out of hand? What is the political context for the catastrophe that gripped the heart of the most important city in Switzerland? What does that say about the pervading ideology of the time? Why were so many ill, broken and distraught people left to simply give up on life, right out in the open? How did it come to pass that hard drugs were responsible for taking an entire city hostage? And finally: what does this all say about Zurich?

MayorJosef Estermann

«I was under enormous pressure.»

In 1990, Josef Estermann (now 66) was sworn in for the first of three terms as the Mayor of Zurich. He inherited the largest open drug scene in Europe from his predecessor. He is credited with securing canton and federal government support for the city's efforts to end the drug problem. Associated measures guaranteeing care for drug addicts enabled the drug scene at Letten to be cleared.

Drug addictUrsula Brunner

«We were harassed 24/7.»

Former drug addict Ursula Brunner, now 47, started injecting heroin when she was 17 years old. She was taking amphetamines at 14. She was the protagonist in the 1994 documentary Report from the Drugs Front Line directed by Felix Karrer. Ursula has not taken any hard drugs for over seven years. Today she looks after her mother, who suffers from dementia.

Zurich under the influence – images of suffering and helplessness

  • High on the riviera: the first open drug scene in Zurich was at the top end of Limmatquai promenade where the restaurant Terrasse is now located (photo taken in 1980). (Image: Keystone)

  • Recycled goods: in the 1980s, a used syringe cost around 10 francs on the black market while a new one cost about 50 francs. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • The suction effect: each year, increasing numbers of addicts flocked to the open drug scene at Platzspitz in Zurich (photo taken in 1990). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Open confrontation: an inspection at Platzspitz led to riots in May 1988. (Image: Keystone)

  • An about-face on drugs policy: the left/green city council closed Platzspitz for the first time during the night of 13 January 1992. (Image: Keystone)

  • Disaster: after Platzspitz was closed in 1992, the drug scene shifted to district 5 in areas such as Klingenpark by the Museum of Design. (Image: Keystone)

  • Tightly packed: addicts and dealers on the Letten footbridge in summer 1993. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Behind bars: The police tried to keep the Letten drug scene under lock and key (photo taken in June 1993). (Image: Dominic Büttner/Pixsil)

  • Deployed to the disaster zone: ambulance crews were called out to Letten several times a day to revive collapsed junkies like in this photo from summer 1993. (Image: Dominic Büttner/Pixsil)

  • New dealer structures: foreign groups were the primary drug dealers at Letten. (Image: Marta Nascimento/Laif)

  • Two worlds: Lettensteg pool visitors in the foreground, the open drug scene in the background, summer 1994. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Wasted efforts: Christian missionaries’ brotherly love was not reciprocated by the junkies (photo taken in 1993). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Fighting a losing battle: the police had almost no legal means of combating junkies and dealers (photo taken in 1994). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Under the bridge: many addicts were unemployed and homeless – they lived at Letten (photo taken in 1994). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • «If you've got 200 francs' worth of dope, you want to enjoy it»: a junkie at Letten, 1994. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • An eternal ritual: no sooner was a raid over than Letten life returned to normal – as if nothing had ever happened (photo taken in August 1994). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • The illusion of freedom and revolt: a junkie at Letten, 1994. (Image: Ullstein Bild)

  • Wasted lives in a world of waste: Letten in August 1994. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Powerless against drugs: a police officer inspects a junkie at Letten, August 1994. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • The fear of AIDS: syringes at an official collection point (photo taken in August 1994). (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

  • Clearance imminent: Letten on 2 February 1995. (Image: Martin Rütschi/Keystone)

The original documents

The Tages-Anzeiger viewed countless city council minutes and reports focusing on the drug problem. They can be downloaded via the link below.

Facsimile of original documents

A confidential letter by Emilie Lieberherr dated 2 March 1992 to the city council: closing Platzspitz is placing too much strain on social services.

When the police and the city council set the wheels in motion to shift the steadily growing drug scene to Platzspitz in 1986, nobody could have predicted the sheer horror that would seize the park. This is evident from never-before-published documents from the era, which shed new light on the catastrophe's political context. They also show how the force with which this social experiment spiralled out of control took everyone by surprise. But by summer 1991, they did not have to wonder any more – the awful situation was plain for all to see.

There were two separate worlds: inside the park and outside. Outside was the world inhabited by the city's residents, who lived side by side with the surreal situation in a kind of stunned disbelief. One such resident was Jacky, a history student at the University of Zurich living close to Langstrasse in district 5. In his student flat, they referred to the street as the ‹zombie mile›, the setting for numerous incidents that still make him shudder when he thinks of them today. One morning he saw a woman on the corner of Langstrasse and Zollstrasse. She crawled along the street on all fours, hair dragging along the ground and skirt pulled up to expose her naked behind. She was not wearing any underwear.

The politicians were also part of this outside world. They took isolated measures from time to time – a crackdown here, a new day centre there, but they were not nearly enough to keep the scene in check. Finally in 1990, a new city council was voted in, replacing the left/green majority that had governed the city. The new council now included social democrats Robert Neukomm and Josef Estermann. The city council inherited a number of political flashpoints. The open drug scene was one of them.

Up to that point, the problem had been treated as a complex and delicate one. Furthermore, the isolated measures of the various departments had led to the city government working against itself. As such, Josef Estermann pushed for the council to conduct an exhaustive analysis of the circumstances. A project group was formed – a normal enough occurrence today, but revolutionary back then. Exponents from the police and the departments of social welfare, health, economic affairs and construction were tasked with gaining a «general impression of the drug problem» and devising an action plan for clearing the open drug scene. Operating under the name «Project organisation for the open drug scene in Zurich», this group of representatives convened for its first meeting in November 1991.

The world inside the park was inhabited by people like Alain. Hunkered down behind the Platzspitz memorial to shield himself from the wind and chasing the dragon from his lightly embossed brass plate from Bali, he felt at home in this cosmos governed by the laws of drugs. He would have preferred to shoot up like the others in his group, but the sight of his own blood made him feel dizzy – he was a failure even on this front. But he did not care. The drugs saw to that. Heroin was the answer, his Praetorian guard against any form of pressure that came his way. From his father, a successful businessman who left his family and sent them money to make up for it, and from his mother, preoccupied with a combination of alcohol and psychosis, yet full of hope for her favourite son. In Alain's own ‹good› job, his colleagues would prepare themselves for the day ahead with alcohol and cocaine. But he saw himself more as a melancholy artist. And when he inhaled the vapour deep into his lungs, the world beyond Platzspitz – a world that he did not think he belonged to – would unravel to the ends of the universe.


Heroin first appears in Zurich at the beginning of the 1970s. 1972: The first drug-related fatality is recorded. 1974: Cocaine appears for the first time in police statistics. 1975: The federal government revises the Narcotics Act and criminalises drug trafficking and consumption. The number drug-related deaths is recorded for the first time in a nationwide survey – 35. 1976: The metropolitan police narcotics squad is expanded from 3 to 15 people. August 1980: The AJZ is founded; the drug scene congregates there. March 1982: The AJZ is closed and the social welfare department assumes responsibility for the prevention of drug dependence and youth counselling. October 1982: The metropolitan police CID forms a narcotics surveillance squad. December 1982: The Drug Withdrawal Association is founded.

Repression: the police hunts down the drug scene in Zurich the riviera, Utoquai, Hirschenplatz, Bellevue-Rondell and the lake promenade. Despite this repression, the scene grows to an estimated 4,000 heroin addicts. The open drug scene is established at Platzspitz from 1986. Cocaine increases in popularity and the first AIDS cases are reported. HIV epidemic among addicts. The cantonal needle exchange ban is lifted in 1986 and the procurement of methadone is made easier. (Aerial image source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, image archive/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz)

1987 The city council adopts measures to help addicts in Zurich: advice and drop-in centres, city methadone programmes, hospital rooms for homeless people, emergency shelters, soup kitchens and labour programmes. This three-pronged approach, encompassing therapy, repression and prevention, is augmented by harm reduction programmes.

1988 One in two women and one in three men in the Zurich drug scene are HIV positive. Emilie Lieberherr meets with representatives of almost 60 communities to motivate them at local level into providing help facilities for drug addicts.

1989 The ZIPP-AIDS initiative is set up at Platzspitz, providing needle exchange facilities and first aid. A study by the Federal Narcotics Commission petitions for the decriminalisation of drug consumption.

1990 The city council approves ten fundamental drug policies. The Zurich electorate votes yes to initiatives for providing further social help to addicts and no to junkie-designated areas.

1991 The city council commissions the narcotics staff team (head officials of the police and departments of social welfare, health, economics and construction) to devise an action plan by October 1991 on how to tackle the drug scene. 30 October: The city council approves revised drug policies and expresses the intention to close the Platzspitz open drug scene and other such scenes by summer 1992 at the latest. 12 November: The city council authorises PODZ (open drug scene project organisation). 25 November: First PODZ working session.

1992 Platzspitz and ShopVille are closed during the night of 13 January. All non-resident drug addicts are expelled from Zurich facilities. 5 February: Platzspitz is fenced off and closed.

1992 On 13 May, the federal government approve trials for heroin to be administered under medical supervision. 25 May: Efforts to repress the scene are stepped up to give district 5 breathing space. Conflict between drug dealers in the Zurich drug trade and on the streets as aggressive strategies are introduced to control prices and quantities: the gram price for heroin plunges from 400 to 100 francs. From autumn 1992: Open drug scene in the Letten area.

21. April 1993 Discussion between the cantonal and city drug delegation regarding the establishment of a city-canton consortium headed by the police commissioner. Mid-1993: The Platzspitz area is reopened at hourly intervals. July 1993: The cantonal police offers its services to control the open scene in allocated district areas. Transport police increases its presence in the areas bordering the drug scene. The gram price for heroin fluctuates between 50 and 100 francs. 17 November: Federal Councillor Dreifuss makes an incognito visit to Letten.

January 1994 Start of project to administer drugs under medical supervision. 21 February: Federal Councillor Koller visits district 5. 22 July: The Federal Council agrees to form a city-canton working group to find a solution for the Letten open drug scene. 13-14 August: Escalation in the Letten open drug scene. August 1994: The city cleans up the Letten area for the first time and disposes of ten tons of waste. September 1994: The supervisory project organisation for current drug problems is commissioned (a federal-canton-city initiative). October 1994: Migros and the Arc Hotel lodge claims for losses sustained due to the drug scene. 1 November: Waid emergency prison is commissioned.

January 1995 Holz Reuter lodges a claim for losses sustained by its business on Limmatplatz. 15 February: Letten open drug scene is closed.

«Zurich is burning and it stinks» wrote one anonymous scribe on a billboard by the National Museum. Even now, Andres Oehler can still remember the smell. In the early 1990s he was an information officer for the drug delegation. Today he is the Chief of Staff for the structural engineering department. «For years, that smell would hit me as soon as I passed through the underpass from district 4 to district 5, even after the scene had been disbanded. They had diarrhoea and were sick, and when it rained the stench was an overpowering mixture of vomit and decay.» Oehler was part of the group trying to understand the scale of the problem on the front line.

The city distributed up to 12,000 syringes per day to try and contain the spread of AIDS. Junkies would only receive new syringes in exchange for old ones. Despite this, hundreds ended up in backyards, parks and children's playgrounds. Former student Jacky explains: «There was a genuine phobia of needles in my group of friends. We'd all had the nightmare at one time or another about stepping on a needle. It actually happened in real life to my flatmate.» The city dispatched cleaning crews. «The place had to be cleaned up,» says Oehler. «Time and time again. It was very important for the citizens.» But it was not possible to simply brush 3,000 addicts under the carpet, let alone get rid of the Lebanese and Turkish drug cartels. Barricades were erected, gates were put around backyard entrances, schools and playgrounds were fenced off with barbed wire, and blue lights were installed in building entrances to make it more difficult for junkies to locate veins. At a meeting with the municipal working group, a district parson complained about prostitutes and their clients copulating on the church steps during service. An iron fence was erected around the parsonage, and a camera and steel door were installed. Turnover for shops and restaurants in the area nosedived by up to 70 percent. «It placed huge strain on the residents. It was absolute torture,» says Oehler. «It was almost as if the neighbourhood was in a state of war.»

This was no overstatement, as Jacky recalls: «At night you could hear shots from Platzspitz echoing through the neighbourhoods. I bought a pistol. You could get them on the street for 600 francs.» In June 1991, affected residents formed an action group, the ABA. Conceived of as a «politically and confessionally neutral citizen's action group», the ABA was a private militia that patrolled the area at night to «protect the property of citizens living and working in the area.» The situation would have set alarm bells ringing for any government in charge of the city. It was on the verge of losing its monopoly on the use of force. The reaction to these events by then-Zurich chief of police Robert Neukomm is, however, significant. The Social Democrat drily commented to the media that the vigilante group was a «foolish idea».

The ABA was not just occupied with nightly neighbourhood patrols. It also placed advertisements in newspapers criticising the city council's drugs policy as «totally misguided and irresponsible». The Platzspitz ghetto inhabitants were having «their misery nurtured and maintained out in the open by the employees of the departments of health, social welfare and parks,» they said. In late summer, the ABA set the city council a deadline of 15 October 1991 to bring an end to the illegal situation, provide therapy for drug addicts from Zurich, and return non-resident junkies (approximately 75%) to their home communities. This «just get rid of it» mentality revealed the ignorance of the time. The solution was actually much more complicated, as the city had made itself responsible for solving not just the drug problem of its own community, but of the whole of Switzerland.

This is not to say that the police remained inactive throughout the period. Suited up in full riot gear, they would make regular raids on Platzspitz and fill the air with panic and screams. The filter junkies scarpered with their shopping trolleys along the Limmat, dealers threw drugs into the river and addicts fished them out again further downstream. When the police left, Alain remembers, everything went back to normal: «It was like interrupting a trail of ants: everything reformed immediately.»

If the police brought junkies to the station, withdrawal symptoms would quickly cause them to slump where they sat. In a report by the Zurich metropolitan police, officials describe one operation where 24 heavily dependent drug users were locked up over a weekend: «It was as bad as can be. The people brought in were in no fit state for anything. Withdrawal symptoms quickly took hold of them, causing them to vomit. The methadone prescribed did not work either.» The police eventually had to let them go. They were seen again a short while later at Platzspitz.

The Platzspitz problem had arisen due to a combination of disastrous social romanticism, ideological blindness and a laissez-faire attitude, with whole neighbourhoods ultimately being devalued to the point of poverty. Just like the drugs gradually ruined Alain's life. When he stopped taking drugs after 15 years, he became a different person. And after the open drug scene was cleared, Zurich became a different place to live. Before this happened, however, both man and city were subject to one catastrophe after the next.