Alcorcón, Spain: Protests Against Latin American Youth

January 20th, violent clashes in the neighborhood of Alcorcón involving 50 people left three wounded by stabbing, one of seriously so. On the 21st, local Spanish youth organized a larger protest, involving as many as 1,000 people against what they called Latin American gangs. Specifically targeted were the Latin Kings, a youth organization who the youth blamed for beatings, murders and rapes in and around the city.

"Get out Latin Kings," and "We’re going to get them, we’re going to kill them," "The problem’s not racism, the problem is delinquency!" were a few of the slogans chanted. Some of the youth acknowledged that they were looking for members of the Latin King gang, while others acknowledged that the growing violence comes from both Latin American and Spanish youth. There were reports of hundreds of youth out on the streets the night of the 21st looking for Latin Americans, in revenge for earlier attacks on Spaniards.

This event marks escalating violence in Spain, a country which, despite the highest rate of immigration in Europe, has mainly avoided violence between immigrants and "native" populations seen in nearby countries such as France. Alcorcón is described as a working class neighborhood, and some describe the violence as a reaction to growing economic hardship. One of the complaints against the Latin American gangs was that they had taken control of basketball courts during the past summer and were charging the public for their use.

The role of the Latin Kings has been under dispute in recent months. While groups like the Latin Kings and the Ñetas have been nominally imported from the United States and Latin America, they play a cultural role as well. Many youth, especially from Ecuador, have joined the groups. Gang leaders are said to have recruited youth "by playing on widespread unemployment and feelings of alienation from Spanish society." However, reasearch found that, although the Latin Kings in Madrid have structural ties to their U.S. counterparts, "violence is not a structural aspect of the Latin Kings in Spain, nor are they involved in drug trafficking." Instead, the group functions more as a community support organization than a criminal ring, organizing to help members with housing, food and health issues . The government appears conflicted over how to deal with the recent escalation in violence. In October, government efforts to turn the gangs away from violence hit controversy when Barcelona’s regional administration registered the Latin Kings as a cultural organisation, while Madrid tried to have them labelled an organised crime gang.

Still, perceptions of the Latin Kings as a gang persist, and have a great deal to do with recent events. 16-year-old Spaniard Efe Victor described recent events as "a war for the district of Alcorcon against those who come from outside to invade us." However, Madrid government delegate, Soledad Mestre made the oblique comment the day after the first protest that "we have no evidence that there are Latino gangs in Alcorcón; of the nine people arrested, none belonged to a Latino gang." Mestre expressed concern over the youth of those implicated (six were minors) and the risk that the event could generate xenophobia, which, despite recent events, she said "doesn’t exist in Alcorcón." Enrique Cascallana, the socialist mayor of Alcorcón, corroborated that statement.

The gathering itself was organized by internet and cell phone text messages: "At 6 all of Alcorcón go to the sports fields where the youth center is. People of the neighborhood are dying and Alcorcón united will never be defeated." The youth gathered there, burned containers, and threw stones at the intervening police, who shot back with rubber bullets.

People with Latin American features kept out of the streets, fearing that they could be attacked by the crowds. "I was born in Spain, but because I’m mulatto and I’ve got curly hair, the police frisked me several times yesterday," a 14-year-old boy explained. His Dominican mother stated that "We are very scared because now they’re going to go after us. Neither my son or I get involved in problems, but I think we’re going to spend the next few days inside our house."

Mestre announced a series of measured to avoid new breakouts of violence: police presence will be "important and visible," and the authorities will maintain contact with the directors of secondary high schools and institutes, who "know the young people better." The municipal government is also planning to implement "integration measures."

However, some of the 164,000 residents are being called though to another session of violence against the Latin Kings. A cellphone text message received by some residents read: "Alcorcón united against the Latin Kings. It’s our neighborhood. Date set for January 27th in the Coura park." An email message has also been circulating: "Come to the peace park on January 27th to stand up against the latin fags, you can come how and with whoever we’ve gotta beat the record of 300 and some people from Sunday 21 who know that we don’t back down, let them know that they have to get out of Alcorcón. ALKORKON IS OURS!! PASS IT ON!!!"

Though violence has been quelled for the time being, it remains to be seen how the residents of the neighborhood, as well as the government, will respond to issues of violence, racism and poverty in the future. Long term results will require much more thoughtful reactions than simply increased police presence.