"Vallecas isn't what it used to be. These kids are violent"

The recent murder of a minor has put the spotlight on a Madrid district in crisis

A man plays with a bull terrier next to the bench where Jorge Luis Costas was shot on April 27.
A man plays with a bull terrier next to the bench where Jorge Luis Costas was shot on April 27.CRISTÓBAL MANUEL (EL PAÍS)

Not too long ago, the boulevard of Puente de Vallecas, a neighborhood in the south of Madrid, was the main local meeting point. The municipal band played in the mornings, there were cultural activities and grandfathers strolled down the tree-lined avenue with their shopping carts in tow. One could also go there to buy drugs, but the children of the 1970s only remember it as a place to run around, have an ice cream or drink sangria during the local fiestas. The boulevard helped forge the identity of a district where none of its residents had actually been born.

Today's residents are not originally from there, either. In the center of the boulevard, on Calle Peña Gorbea, groups of Latin American men while away afternoons playing dominos or chatting on a bench. Over at one end of the avenue, there are a few junkies left over from the hardcore drug days; at the other end, a cluster of unemployed people are trying to drown their troubles in beer. The occasional car drives by blaring loud music. Police patrols frequently make the rounds to give a sense of security. There are instances of petty theft - people who steal slices of ham to sell to a pensioner who can't make ends meet. There's the occasional street fight, too, but generally it's nothing serious. People hang out there because they have nothing better to do.

But sometimes things happen that underscore growing malaise over the deterioration of the district. Three weeks ago it was a homicide. A group of young Dominicans showed up at Plaza de Puerto Rubio, near the boulevard, with unknown intentions. They attacked Jorge Luis Costas Navarro, a 16-year-old born in Spain to Dominican parents who went by the nickname of Smith Chail Brown. First they beat him up, then they shot him twice with a modified firearm. The bullets went into his side and out his neck. The victim dragged himself towards the boulevard, and collapsed on the corner of Calle de Peña Arriba. A witness said it was several minutes before he died. "It was horrible. It seemed like an eternity before the ambulance got there," he says.

The police are investigating whether Smith's killers belong to Dominican Don't Play, one of the Latin gangs considered to be "in the shadows," but which has lately featured in face-offs with other gangs, such as the Trinitarios. Just a few minutes after the homicide, officers had already arrested 10 youths, all under 18, and three of them under 14, and therefore not legally liable.

It is hard to get Smith's friends to talk about his death in the open. They're scared, and they know some things cannot be told to strangers in broad daylight. Some only talk through social networks, and they speak of a cheerful, peaceable young man who liked to dance and be with his friends in the square. They also said they know who shot him, and that things were quiet only because preparations were underway for revenge. The most widely accepted version of events among these youngsters is that the Dominican gang went out looking for their rivals, the Trinitarios, also from the Dominican Republic. Instead, they found Smith standing alone, and figured they would send a clear message that they were the new lords of Vallecas.

Experts on gangs say that most members of Dominican Don't Play used to live in the district of Tetuán, but that their parents moved to Puente de Vallecas because of the cheaper rent. And that triggered a turf war.

People are sick and tired. A year ago, one kid got his arm cut off. And now this"

These days, there is no sign of either gang. Around 10pm, a pair of municipal police officers walk around the square where Smith was shot. A group of friends is out walking a bull terrier named Lola. "This neighborhood isn't what it used to be," says one. "People are sick and tired. These kids are violent. A year ago, one of them got his arm cut off. And now this. I've always liked my neighborhood, but now I am thinking of leaving. Lots of people are."

One of the people who possibly knows the most about Vallecas is Matilde Fernández Montes. A researcher at the Center for Human and Social Sciences at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), she has written several papers on the district. In her 2007 article Vallecas, identidades compartidas, identidades enfrentadas (or, Vallecas, shared identities, clashing identities), Fernández brings some perspective to the aggressiveness of the Latin gangs by recalling that the history of Vallecas is full of clashes between youth gangs such as Los escorpiones or Las focas and other Madrid districts in the 1980s, and disputes among Spaniards from different parts of the country who were devoted to varying images of the Virgin Mary.

The police, social educators and associations that work with minors all agree that gangs act like a family that protects youngsters who feel different or alienated. "They're regular kids who fall into a dynamic of violence imposed by the gang," says a police source who admits to the difficulty of winning their trust. "What we do is social surgery, but really the trouble is with the medicine and the GPs."

The biggest problem seems to lie with second-generation immigrants. "They don't feel they're from anywhere, neither Dominican nor Spanish," explains Antonio Llorente, of La Rueca Association. "They came here forcibly, they were separated from their grandmothers, and it takes time before they adapt to this. Now, with the crisis, they are told to go back. They're gang fodder."

Puente de Vallecas is defined by many people as a neighborhood on the brink, where families - whether Latin American, African, Gypsy or otherwise - are always facing imminent eviction. "But nobody goes hungry here," says a former educator who has been working on various social programs for the last 10 years. "The neighbor network is unbelievable. People help each other around here, just like in villages. If you have to leave your kids with someone, you can, and if you can't make ends meet, someone will help you. I started out 10 years ago. You end up staying because things work. Many of the troubled youths I had years ago are now monitors who help others. You get hooked on Vallecas."

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