Spain seeks a makeover for gangs

Times Staff Writer

The look is all too familiar to residents of Los Angeles and most other major American cities. Baggy pants on young men who move in a half-slouch, half-swagger. Gothic tattoos snaking out of oversize T-shirts. Jerky hand signals, nicknames and secret rituals.

Gangs have come to Spain.

A decade of immigration from Latin America has given rise to groups with names such as the Latin Kings, Vatos Locos and Mara Salvatrucha -- veteran gangs born in Chicago, Puerto Rico or Los Angeles that are undergoing a kind of transatlantic globalization.

Their appearance in this country in the last few years, and reports linking them to a sudden surge in crime, has terrified Spaniards and forced them to confront yet another twist in the twin issues of immigration and integration: accepting their Latino brethren.

"The Spanish here tell me to go back to my country, to get out of theirs, the usual stuff," said Antonio, a tattooed 23-year-old from Ecuador who has been a member of the Latin Kings since he was 13 -- first there, now here. "The Latin Kings is a way to protect and better myself."

In Barcelona, the capital of Spain's autonomous Catalonia region, authorities are conducting a controversial experiment: Rather than fight the gangs, they have granted legal status to a subset of the Latin Kings and its female auxiliary, the Latin Queens, recognizing them as a "youth cultural association" with access to city funds and venues.

Officials hope to cultivate and integrate these youths into productive society, turning them away from the path of delinquency. It is too early to make broad conclusions, but officials say no violence or criminal activity has been associated with the group since the project was launched a few months ago. A second gang, the Netas, is considering coming on board.

Erika Jaramillo, a.k.a. Queen Melody, is the leader of the Latin Kings and Queens in Barcelona. Rejecting the label of violent gang, she said, members are "going straight," focusing on obtaining proper residency and work permits, learning to function in Spanish society and fighting for their rights and against discrimination.

"It's going to be a lot of long, hard work," she said.

Many of the gangs that have reproduced themselves in Spain, at least in name, are less violent than their U.S. counterparts. Still, Spaniards greeted them with fear.

"We want to change the negative attitude people in Spain have toward us," Jaramillo said. "We don't want to have to be in parks and have the police come and chase us away, and to be asked all the time to show our documents. How long will it take for them to accept us?"

The experience of Central and South Americans in Spain exposes the prejudices of a nation that likes to think of itself as welcoming of immigrants and receptive to cultural diversity.

They share the same language, more or less, but Latin Americans speak Spanish with a very different accent. In Barcelona they have not learned the local language of Catalan, their skin is generally darker, and their features often reflect indigenous blood not typical of Spaniards.

"We have been racist -- it must be said," said Josep Maria Lahosa, a Barcelona city official who sponsored the legalization initiative. The bias that once focused on Gypsies and Arabs, he said, has been directed at Latin Americans.

This is how the gang culture emerged in Spain: Latin Americans, mostly women, came to work in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities in the 1990s. The country's relatively liberal immigration policies allowed for family reunifications, which meant the adults began to bring over their children -- who, in many cases, had joined gangs in their home countries.

Isolated, alienated, rejected and lonely, the newcomers re-created the structure they had known at home. In much the same way young Salvadoran immigrants who were deported from Los Angeles took the Mara Salvatrucha gang back to El Salvador, these youths brought their gangs to Spain.

There are important differences between the versions of the gangs on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. and Latin American chapters have a long history of crime and prison stays. Some of the Spanish branches are really just copycats, using the same nomenclature, symbols and rituals (often learned on the Internet) but with little association with the original group.

On the other hand, Jaramillo, Antonio and several other Latin Kings and Queens in Barcelona were already established members in their homelands, and the Barcelona group has been recognized by members in the U.S., where they call themselves a "nation." A "national spokesman" of the Latin Kings in New York, known as King Mission, came to Barcelona in October to endorse Jaramillo's group and its efforts to go straight.

The Latin Kings gang was born in Chicago in the 1940s and over decades spread to other U.S. cities and Latin America, especially Ecuador. The other gang debating legalization, the Netas, was born in the 1950s in Puerto Rican prisons and also eventually branched out.

In Spain, the phenomenon is more recent. In parts of the country, the number of Latin American minors arriving as immigrants quadrupled from 1999 through 2004, according to government statistics, and a small percentage of them had or developed gang ties.

Barcelona knew it had a problem in late 2002 when teachers began noticing new graffiti on school buildings. (The Latin Kings' signature drawing is a crown.) Then they started seeing more playground brawls. The schools contacted police, who launched an investigation and contacted the city department that oversees youth issues.

"We were seeing and hearing slogans and we didn't know what they were," Lahosa said.

Once the officials determined that gangs had formed, they were worried. Soon, however, they came to believe that they were dealing with a "different reality," as Lahosa put it, a phenomenon resulting from immigration and dysfunctional integration rather than hard-core criminal enterprises.

The city enlisted a social anthropologist, Carles Feixa of the University of Lleida, to study the gangs, figure out who they were and why they had appeared, and then devise a response.

From that came the idea to attempt to transform the street pandillas, as gangs are known in Spanish, to the more benign (in theory) cultural associations.

It may have helped that the Barcelona government, with its considerable regional independence, is controlled by leftist parties that favored a sociological approach. Madrid, which has rejected that tactic, is run by the right. Authorities there say they have had to deal with more crimes than Catalonia. At least three top gang members in Madrid are in prison on charges of murder, sexual assault or other crimes.

Lahosa and other Barcelona officials invited gang members to an initial meeting in spring 2005. In the meantime, a spate of killings and robberies, some of them wrongly attributed to gangs, created panic, fanned by headlines such as "Latin bands and cannibals."

The Barcelona officials made an offer: If the young Latinos would renounce violence and agree to abide by rules that included respecting women and choosing leaders democratically, the city would grant them the new status.

The officials had taken precautions, however: With the help of police, they had screened the initial group to be sure none had criminal records.

"We wanted to know who we were sitting down with," Lahosa said.

Jaramillo, who at 32 is a little older than the other Latin Kings and Queens, said her associates had doubts. They had to be persuaded to abandon much of their gang lifestyle.

So far their work as a cultural group has consisted of information sessions, the production of a documentary film and the writing and recording of hip-hop songs about the immigrant experience.

Jaramillo, a petite, oval-faced woman with a mane of black curls, has had a typical experience. She came to Spain alone four years ago, leaving a 10-year-old daughter and infant son in the care of her mother.

"We are young, and as young people we have committed errors," Jaramillo said. "We are not little angels, but we are not bad people."

Not everyone is buying it. No other part of Spain has followed Barcelona's model. And here in the Catalonian capital there is deep skepticism.

David Madi, a senior official with the center-right party that won the recent regional elections, suggested the government had been too lenient with the Latin Kings and Queens.

"It is really hard for me to believe," he said, "that one day they are a gang and the next day they aren't."

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