In February 2022, two murders of youth (also by youth) in a single night shocked the Spanish capital and sparked a sharp debate in the regional parliament.
“Illegal immigration is terrorizing Madrid,” declared Rocio Monasterio, the leader of the Right party VOX, referring to the murders.
Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional president from the centre-right Partido Popular, got wide-eyed while she held her tongue to let Monasterio finish her tirade against immigrant youth delinquency.
“They are immigrants as Spanish as Santiago Abascal,” Ayuso spat back, addressing the president of VOX. “Stop relating immigration with crime.”
Those involved in the murders were members of two rival gangs, the Dominican Don’t Play and the Trinitarians, often referred to as Bandas Latinas (Latin gangs), a reference to their origins among Latinos, although it is considered more politically correct—and by some, more factually accurate—to call them simply youth gangs.
In terms of the political quarrel, Ayuso has statistics on her side. According to both the Spanish police and other experts in Spain’s gangs, most gang members today are not immigrants, though they may come from families that immigrated from Latin America a generation or two ago, mostly Ecuadorians and Dominicans. They also include a significant number of youths from various nationalities, including ethnically Spanish youth. The same sources also cite a person’s family situation rather than immigrant status when calculating their risk for gang involvement. The principal soft spot that gang recruiters exploit is a dysfunctional, broken family system, parents who work long hours, and a precarious economic situation.
Still, these gangs can’t be entirely separated from immigration. The Latin Kings, the Dominican Don’t Play, and the Trinitarios, three of the most well-known and notorious, and which all formed in Spain in the early 2000s, run a parallel history with immigration, forming in the United States, then migrating to Latin American, and then to Spain. Of course, this migration itself can easily be related to other sociological patterns—industrialization, urbanisation, and globalisation.
How the Latin Kings became a Spanish Gang
By the mid-twentieth century, the first stage of globalisation was a practical fact that has only accelerated since then. At the same time, the waves of European immigrants that had contributed to exploiting the natural resources of the United States and to sustaining various industries had ceased to flow in. The children of those immigrants had firmly established themselves in the mainstream middle-class, moving from their ethnic neighbourhoods in the city into the post-war suburbs so evocative of the American Dream. America had to employ other people to fill its lower economic ranks, and they came from the southern border—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans. On their arrival, they faced many of the same hardships as the Irish, for instance, had encountered, including a certain amount of racism on top of the ordinary struggle to “make it” in a new place. Like previous immigrants, they lived close to each other in inner-city neighbourhoods and banded together for mutual support, some of it wholesome and some of it not. The Latin Kings turned out to be of the less savoury kind.
In the 1990s, the group’s criminality—violence, drug dealing, and the like—got many of the members arrested and deported in the decade’s dual crackdown on crime and illegal immigration. Among those caught and deported was King Mos, his gang name. He had founded the Latin Kings of the Bronx in New York just a few years before being sent back to his homeland of Ecuador, where he quickly reorganised his criminal activity in the country’s capital. Erik Velastegui, who had never lived in the United States, was introduced to them through a schoolmate.
In that same decade, on the other side of the Atlantic, Spain’s economy was gaining strength and it too was stepping onto the global economic stage following its initial isolation under the Franco regime. From sending workers to more prosperous places in Europe or to South America, as it had through the 1960s and less acutely in the 1970s, it suddenly became a country with enough economic activity to attract, even needs, foreign workers.
Velastegui arrived in July 1999, just as the immigration wave was gaining momentum. He had an aunt already living in Madrid. According to the police, he was fleeing police oppression and threats from rival gang members in his homeland. According to his lawyer, he had come to Spain to escape gang life and do honest work, but due to various circumstances he was eventually pressed back into gang life.
Whatever Velastegui’s true motive, he did indeed organise the Latin Kings, first returning to Ecuador to get the blessing of King Mos, and then moving from the Madrid suburb of Galapagar to Usera, a lower-class neighbourhood near the city centre. Other gang members had also ended up in Spain, either coming alone or migrating with family members. In Usera, they started recruiting.
One of his first recruits was a Spaniard, Maria Oliver Torres.
“My parents were separated, my mother worked thousands of hours and I was always alone at home. When you’re a teenager you need rules, someone to structure your life, you feel like you’re nobody,” recalled Oliver Torres in a 2018 interview.
She said she always had a soft spot for lost causes and felt empathy for other lonely kids like her, as well as her Latino immigrant neighbours and classmates, who suffered racism and discrimination.
“They were the ‘panchitos’,” she said using a derogatory Spanish slang reference for Latin Americans. “They were marginalised, and I wanted to help and defend them.”
In this circle, she met Velastegui and started the Latin Queens, the female arm of the gang, though she denies the women committed crimes. The gang provided her with something she didn’t have at home, a close circle, structure, a feeling that she mattered.
From there the gang “grew in the dark, developing in Madrid, Barcelona, Murcia and the Alicante coast,” according to the police report.
In 2003, Velastegui was arrested for rape and condemned in 2007. He is still in prison, as he was convicted in 2010 of directing the gang from jail, a charge he denies. Oliver Torres served a much shorter sentence, and today she’s an English teacher.
The beginnings of Latino gangs’ trans-Atlantic spread lies, ironically, in an anti-immigration policy. King Mos was just one of tens of thousands of immigrants deported annually in the 1990s, with numbers reaching the hundreds of thousands in the last decade, among them gang members. Landing back in a country where they likely faced no consequences for their gang crimes, where they had little connection since many had left as children, and where they encountered other deported gang members, it was almost natural to restart their gang lives in their homelands. With their international connections, in some cases, cross-border crime was a logical business step.
“U.S. immigration policy has amounted to unintentional state-sponsored gang migration. Rather than solving the problem, the United States may have only spread it,” an article in Foreign Policy observed in 2005.
These gangs did not necessarily jump to Spanish territory intentionally, either, though some consider the Latin Kings an exception. Rev. Alberto Diaz, who has worked with gang members on both sides of the Atlantic and runs the Observatorio de Bandas Latinas (the observatory of Latino gangs) in Madrid, sees in the spread and growth of gangs in Spain more imitation than intentional implantation, the plight of youth who didn’t integrate well after immigration—whether legal or illegal—or like Oliver have little parental supervision and support. They turn to a phenomenon they are familiar with and find what they were looking for in gang membership and its urban tribe identity. Today, the Internet also helps spread gang culture, according to Diaz.
Even in the case of the Central American ‘maras,’ such as the MS-13, defined in their operation as “authentic criminal organisations, to make money and expand their businesses,” and considered by law enforcement a step up in criminality from gangs, the nominal presence they have in Spain (also since the early 2000s), is more imitation.
“Really, they are pseudo-maras: immigrants who are here. Those who come in as a result of Trump’s pressure to close immigration and because there are direct flights from those countries,” an expert from the National Police told the Spanish newspaper ABC. “But they come fleeing from their gangs because they want to leave him. They are detected [at the airport] and returned to their country.”
At the same time, both modern immigration and gangs are linked to industrialization and urbanisation.
“The phenomenon of youth gangs is classic and fundamentally urban. In the 50s and 60s in Spain there were the Ojitos Negros,” Lorenzo Castor, a sociologist specialized in gangs and security, told ABC.
In those decades, a flood of people from the Spanish countryside migrated to cities, as the Franco regime pushed for the country’s industrialization, inevitably destroying traditional rural life. These internal Spanish migrants landed in the periphery of Madrid, in areas like Usera. In fact, Los Ojitios Negros started in Usera, the same neighbourhood as the Latin Kings.
Sergio Molino describes in his book La Espana Vacia, how Madrileños looked askance on these country folk, regarding their neighbourhoods as no-go zones of disrepute, the further out from the city centre, the worse. The Ojitos Negros were just one of many juvenile urban tribes that formed in this milieu of displacement, urbanization, and economic disadvantage. Like the Bandas Latinas, they each had a name, and hung out in nightclubs and on street corners, getting into fights and committing petty crimes.
The Ojitos Negros took it to the next level, though. They were more fierce, more organised, and more feared than any other gang. They specialised in a purse snatching technique that entailed grabbing a bag from the security of a car or a motorcycle, to ensure a quick escape. Their crimes, too, eventually caused alarm and made them the object of political and social reaction, a police crackdown that diluted it in the mid-1960s, as the Latin Kings have also been diluted many times.
Today, the children of those Spanish country immigrants have largely moved into the middle class and out of the neighbourhoods of their childhoods. Now these neighbourhoods have a new population thanks to a new wave of immigrants. Usera, for example, is now the “Chinese neighbourhood” of Madrid, though a mix of other nationalities also reside there.
Gang crime ebbs and flows, according to police experts, usually following the same trends as the rest of crime, which sadly seems to be steadily climbing. Drug trafficking, for instance, led by both new mafias composed of immigrants and classics from the Calabrian mafia to Irish mobsters, is increasingly violent and internationally connected as well. At the same time, Spain still finds itself desperate for workers, to both sustain its pension system and supply labour. The government recently eased work visa requirements to fill labour gaps.
The pattern seems obvious. Once the capitalist-industrial-urban complex—which tends to ultimately diminish humanity both figuratively and numerically—has used up all its national ‘human resources’ and moved up in the global-industrial food chain, it must reach for a new mass of men from further afield to feed the machine. Even Hungary and Poland need foreign labour. In fact, the more their economies grow, the more foreign workers they seem to require.
The cycle of industrial disruption of traditional communities followed by immigration continues as well. The EU has fishing agreements with many African countries that allow European industrial fishing fleets, including Spain’s, to take advantage of African waters, such as those off the coast of Senegal. But the Senegalese have far less sophisticated, rather traditional, fishing equipment, and the supposedly ‘sustainable’ industrial European fishing fleet easily beats the local fishermen to whatever catch is left after years of industrial exploitation. With their businesses ruined, some Senegalese fishermen have turned to an alternative business—helping illegal immigrants reach Spain’s Canary Islands, and often joining them. As Ayuso told Monasterio, simply railing against illegal immigration misses the point. Carlos Perona Calvete also reasoned in his analysis of VOX’s recent under-performance in local elections that the party will need to widely expand its talking points or risk being outflanked by a non-woke leftist party that, in my opinion may end up taking up the many just concerns of Spanish citizens more convincingly, perhaps even more coherently than VOX does. In other words, even if immigration is the fundamental problem for the current increase in crime, Spain will have to do some deep soul searching—going far beyond border control—to reasonably address it.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.