Christine Spolar, Chicago Tribune, October 29, 2006
Barcelona — Spain’s biggest cities, riding an economic boom, were eager for immigrant workers to build roads, clean offices and wash dishes at their tourist hotels. No one bargained that the notorious Latin Kings would be among the new arrivals.
City workers first spotted the street gang’s graffiti in 2002. Police began inquiring when a school reported that an immigrant teen, who claimed to fear the gang, returned to Ecuador in 2003. Then Anna Collado, a youth center director from a poor neighborhood, was startled last year to see youths, who had nicely asked to use a meeting room, turn up flipping odd hand signals and chanting “Love to the King.”
“We’re not surprised by a lot,” Collado said dryly. “But this was strange. This was not usual.”
Months later, Barcelona has taken on gang life in a way that is anything but conventional. A group of Latin Kings has been christened a cultural association — the kind of recognition given to groups like the Boy Scouts — in an effort to integrate foreigners and, more importantly, stifle criminal elements at a time of record immigration.
The original Latin Kings, born in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the 1940s, operate a widespread drug-trafficking network and terrorize cities and suburbs across the U.S. The Latin Kings of Barcelona, made up largely of Ecuadorean immigrants modeling themselves after the original gang, have yet to show any broad criminal agenda — and that is what city officials are hoping to preserve.
The Barcelona experiment is an attempt to forge civil relations between some gang members and city authorities. It is a gamble by both sides that building trust and communication can make city life easier and, importantly, safer. They also hope the process will ease tensions among other gangs in the city and between newcomers and natives.
Defining gang life isn’t simple. There are about four or five factions of Latin Kings in Barcelona. They have evolved in the past five years as immigration from Latin America, and Ecuador in particular, has soared.
The city is not legalizing the gang. But as Barcelona, the industrial engine of Spain, recognizes the realities of growth and urban change on its storied streets, city officials say they are opening a door to some gang members who want to fit in.
“There’s been an issue of moral panic,” Josep Lahosa, director of the city’s preventive services department, said about the emergence of the Latin Kings. “What we’re trying to do is send a message to all those who arrive that they don’t have to form a gang to survive. There is a another way.”
Erika Jaramillo, a.k.a. Queen Melody, a 32-year-old Ecuadorean, spoke for the Latin Kings during negotiations that set up the cultural association. She acknowledges that the first meeting with the government was edgy. Ecuadoreans, like many Latin Americans, are not used to trusting government officials or encountering police who want to greet them, not arrest them, she said.
“We knew what we had to say,” Jaramillo said. “We weren’t going to say, `We want to be a cultural association and we deal drugs.’ . . . But we did this because we wanted to live easier. . . One big reason is we wanted to reduce police harassment.
“It’s easy to make money here,” she said. “But it’s not easy to make a living.”
This version of the Latin Kings — 200 members of the newly formed Cultural Association of Latin Kings and Queens of Catalonia — was recognized in July as a civic group that can apply for money for projects to improve their members’ prospects. To reap such rewards, these Kings wrote a constitution, vowing to reject violence, cooperate with authorities and obey the laws of their new land.
Skeptics, including Spain’s national police and Madrid officials who reject any idea of meeting with Latin Kings members there, call the Barcelona effort naive. They point out that Barcelona has addressed only a fraction of the youths who call themselves Latin Kings.
“This is not `West Side Story,’” scoffed Francisco Perez Abellan, an author in Madrid who has researched the gangs now cropping up in Spain.
“The Latin Kings mean juvenile violence, machismo and violence against women,” he said. “This group cannot simply remake itself. . . It would be like a neo-Nazi group wanting to form some kind of recognized association.”
But supporters see the regional leadership in Catalonia — which often has a contentious relationship with Spain’s central government — as acting true to its maverick form.
Sincerity from both sides
Those involved in the nearly 18-month process said the city, police and even gang members have approached their roles with a no-nonsense sincerity. But Catalonia police, in particular, played a key role.
Agent Lluis Paradell sent a team to Ecuador to find out how the gang operated and why it attracted people ages 13 through 30. Immigration, in fact, was one of the main influences. Mothers often left the country for work. Their children were increasingly joining gangs for mutual support.
“The press has confused people here with stories about gangs, and how they operate in other places. But it doesn’t fit what is really happening here, “ Paradell said. “The diagnosis we made was, we had to be worried but not alarmed.”
Asked his thoughts about gang members, Paradell had a surprising answer.
“I think they need love,” he said. “I know there is a shock when a police officer says that but . . . they need love, they need affection and when we look behind these issues, we see kids of divorces, kids whose fathers beat them. . . It is not the only explanation but it is one.”
Anthropologist Carles Feixa already had studied gangs in Mexico when he began researching the Latin Kings in his native Spain two years ago. A city park in Barcelona became his new laboratory when a Latin Kings leader phoned him from there one Sunday.
Gang members had been surrounded by Spanish national police, the gang member said in a panic. Feixa helped defuse the situation, but the university professor soon became both researcher and mediator to this group of Latin Kings. Eventually Feixa sought out police and government authorities who could see the Latin Kings as a worthy challenge.
“I’m not saying the Latin Kings are saints or angels. But neither are all these people criminals,” Feixa said.
University of Chicago doctoral candidate Andrew Papachristos has studied gang evolution and has spoken to Barcelona police about the Latin Kings effort. “From what I understand in Barcelona, they are just starting,” he said about gang activity.
“We did this with gangs in the 1950s and the early 1960s with not good results,” he said about the decision to call any gang — or even part of it — a community organization. “All the gangs that got help are still gangs today, and helping them develop was not a good thing.