Community relations

Lavapiés, a hostile territory for the law?

Despite recent disturbances between residents and police, many in the neighborhood do not want to see the streets unpatrolled

Residents of Lavapiés confront a group of police on a raid in the central Madrid neighborhood.
Residents of Lavapiés confront a group of police on a raid in the central Madrid neighborhood.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ (EL PAÍS)

In mid-March a police helicopter patrolled the skies above Lavapiés, a multi-ethnic neighborhood in the center of Madrid. Around 50 residents had faced off with police in a nearby square. Riot vans arrived and disgorged their contents. There were some scuffles and an arrest.

Elsewhere, it might have been an eye-catching event but in Lavapiés it was nothing new. For more than six months, whenever the police venture into the area there is the latent threat of an explosion of violence. What has converted this central neighborhood, with a quarter of its residents university educated, into hostile territory for the law?

Similar confrontations have been taking place since last July, when a multitude hustled a dozen policemen out of the neighborhood after an incident involving a Senegalese man. The police said they had tried to detain the man after he had become violent after being ejected by Metro staff. The protestors said it was another identification sweep of immigrants; a practice that nobody now denies has been on the rise since the crisis hit and resistance against immigration began to rise.

Residents' associations and anti-racist groups say that harassment of immigrants in a neighborhood with 32.5 percent foreign residents - double the average in the capital - has caused a siege mentality. "They chase us: they come into shops and restaurants to get us," says Dauda Thiam, a Senegalese without documentation. "One day they took me to the station when I went out to buy bread."

Cristina Cifuentes, the central government delegate in Madrid, has called on citizens to report such sweeps by police. However, Alfonso José Fernández, Madrid's new chief of police, says that orders to cease these sorts of checks have been issued. "The situation in Lavapiés is worrying," he says. "It's not acceptable that when crimes are committed that require a police presence some elements block their way. We are looking for criminals and drug dealers without regard to race, and no group has the authority to oppose it."

The 15-M movement in Spain, which led to popular assemblies and a collective call for accountability, has given rise to a conviction that it is possible to ask for explanations from politicians and the police.

Lavapiés' foreign resident population is double the average in Madrid

Johanna Kippo, a journalist for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, describes the romantic aura that the spontaneous revolt effected on an outside observer: "It was disobedience in defense of basic human rights in contrast with the rise of xenophobic populism in some other parts of Europe."

However, the increase in confrontations between residents and police has divided opinion in the neighborhood. While some believe it is a logical reaction to xenophobic attitudes, others think a line has been crossed, generating a sense of impunity among delinquents.

"It is a disgrace that during these disturbances you see a known drug dealer shouting at the police to leave the neighborhood," says Manuel Osuna, president of the residents' association in the La Corrala area.

"We've always had drugs here, gangs that rob Chinese merchants, those that rob old people at cash machines, and the buying and selling of stolen goods is rife," says another member of the association. "It's not right that a group of people set themselves up as spokespeople for the neighborhood saying whether the police can come in or not. There is no discussion here. The police are needed."

The opinion of local businesses follows a similar line, from Alicia and Juan José, whose newsagency was held up by someone wielding a baseball bat, to Back Sene, secretary of the Association of Senegalese Immigrants in Madrid. "The situation is spiraling out of our hands. Of course we do not want xenophobic policing but if it is a matter of drugs or citizens' security we cannot protect the guilty," says Sene.

The SUP police union was the first to denounce the identification campaign against undocumented immigrants. José María Benito, the SUP spokesman, has called for patience on the part of Lavapiés' residents. "To react in this way is wrong," he says. "There are other ways and means. It's an error to think that every time the police act it is with xenophobic ends. In Lavapiés the police carry out countless operations against crime and the citizens should not block them, above all because from outside it is difficult to guess what the police are actually trying to do."

We do not want xenophobic policing but we cannot protect the guilty"

Residents that participated in the blockades say that the police always use the cover of the drug threat to carry out ID checks. The SUP and other unions claim that working in Lavapiés causes additional stress for officers - some equate it to policing the Basque Country during the worst years of ETA. Protestors say that the police are visibly nervous when approached.

Olmo Calvo, an award-winning photographer who has been covering illegal identification sweeps since 2007, says the police should be more open with the residents, more reassuring that they are acting only in the interests of safety.

"If they were more transparent, the residents wouldn't think that they are lying every time they say are looking for a dealer," he says. "A climate of confusion has been created. Now you never know if the arrests are legitimate or not."

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