Latin gangs rule Spain's streets
As Latin American immigration increases to Spain, so does gang activity.
MADRID -- They call themselves kings and queens. They rule over neighbourhoods they nick-named the Inca, Aztec or Hispanic kingdom. They believe in God, honour and brotherhood. And whoever breaks the code of silence does so at his or her own risk.
The Latin Kings are the best-known among the Hispanic youth gangs that formed in Spain among the immigrants from its former colonies.
Gradually, Spanish police experts are beginning to understand the mentality of the street gangs born in or based on models in poor and crime-ridden neighbourhoods in the Americas.
The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation was first formed to help and defend Latin American immigrants in the Chicago area of the United States in the 1940s. Its members later became involved in violent crimes.
The Spanish branch of the Latin Kings was launched in 2000 by the young Ecuadorian Eric Velastegui, known as King Wolverine, who is now serving a prison sentence for rape.
US leaders of the Latin Kings visiting Spain, however, minimised the group's violent reputation, and evidence from the north-eastern region of Catalonia suggests that such gangs can potentially be transformed into constructive social forces.
The Latin Kings' big rival in Spain are the Netas, a gang started in the prisons of Puerto Rico in the 1970s.
Other gangs include Dominicans Don't Play (DDP), many of whose members come from the Dominican Republic. The Madrid DDP began to sell drugs and obtained guns, the daily El Pais reported.
Recently, evidence appeared in Catalonia of the presence of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, Central American groups known for their extreme violence.
In the Madrid region alone, the number of gang members tripled from 2004 to about 1,300 by 2007, police estimated. Nearly 300 of them were considered violent.
The main gangs, present in several cities across Spain, are categorically structured, tribe-like organisations.
They are characterised by the use of mystical symbols, religious beliefs and macho attitudes, and defending Latin American identity in surroundings considered racist and hostile.
The Latin Kings, for example, wear hip-hop-inspired clothing and black-and-gold bead necklaces. Their symbol, a five-pointed crown, represents respect, honesty, unity, knowledge and love.
The gangs tend to place women in a secondary role, with the Latin Kings as the only one to have a female section.
Many of the gangs have a double nature, with leisure activities such as football alternating with robberies or blackmail which new members can be ordered to commit as an initiation rite.
Dozens of gang members were arrested for kidnappings, threats, attacks and killings. Most of the violence takes place between rival gangs, but former members also told courts about beating those who break the internal rules.
"We were told to pay EUR 1,200, or we'd be burned alive", two girls who tried to leave the Latin Kings told a Madrid judge.
The growth of the gangs is based on the rapid increase of Latin American immigration to Spain.
The overall number of immigrants increased sharply from 1.8 percent of the Spanish population in 1990 to more than 10 percent. The largest groups include 420,000 Ecuadorians and 260,000 Colombians.
"Immigrants never see their children, because they work 23 hours a day. The kids are on the street, in search of a (new) family", King Mission, a US representative of the Latin Kings, explained during a visit to Spain.
Gangs like the Latin Kings also provide a sense of purpose and self-esteem to youth who come from neighbourhoods with gang violence in their home countries, grew up without their parents who emigrated before them, and who are now struggling with the difficulties of adapting to a foreign culture.
In 2007, Latin street gangs did not commit any killings in Spain for the first time in several years. The decline was credited to police efforts and, in some regions, to attempts to integrate the gangs into Spanish society.
While the conservative Madrid authourities outlawed the Latin Kings in 2007, liberal Catalonia took the opposite approach, giving them the status of a cultural association.
Representatives of the Latin Kings and Netas visited the regional parliament, explaining to legislators that they were planning to make joint musical recordings to end their hostilities.
International experts on street gangs praised Catalonia's ground-breaking approach, but it did not entirely end gang violence.
Text: DPA / Sinikka Tarvainen / Expatica 2008