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Friday, 3 October 2008

Spanish branch of the Latin Kings was launched in 2000 by the young Ecuadorian Eric Velastegui, known as King Wolverine

The Spanish branch of the Latin Kings was launched in 2000 by the young Ecuadorian Eric Velastegui, known as King Wolverine, who is now serving a prison sentence for rape. The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation was initially formed to help and defend Latin American immigrants in the Chicago area of the United States in the 1940s. Its members later became involved in violent crimes. US leaders of the Latin Kings visiting Spain, however, have downplayed the group's violent reputation, and evidence from the north-eastern region of Catalonia suggests that such gangs have the potential of being transformed into constructive social forces.
The Latin Kings' big rival in Spain are the Netas, a gang founded in the prisons of Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Other gangs include Dominican Don't Play (DDP), many of whose members come from the Dominican Republic. The Madrid DDP has begun to sell drugs and acquired firearms, the daily El Pais reported. Recently, evidence has even emerged of the presence in Catalonia of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, Central American groups known for their extreme violence. In the Madrid region alone, the number of gang members tripled in three years to about 1,300 by 2007, police estimated. Nearly 300 of them were regarded as violent.
The main gangs, which are present in several cities across Spain, are hierarchically structured, tribe-like organizations. They are characterized by mystical symbols, an ethos of religiosity and machoism, and an ideology of defending the Latin American identity against an environment perceived as racist and hostile. The Latin Kings, for instance, wear rap-style clothes and black-and-gold bead necklaces. Their symbol of a five-point crown represents respect, honesty, unity, knowledge and love. The gangs tend to place women in a secondary role, with the Latin Kings as the only one to have a female section. Many of the gangs have a double nature, with leisure activities such as football alternating with robberies or extortion which new members can be ordered to commit as a kind of initiation rite. Dozens of gang members have been detained on charges ranging from kidnappings and threats to attacks and killings. Most of the violence takes place between rival gangs, but former members have also told courts about the beatings faced by those who break the internal rules. "We were told to pay 1,200 euros (1,700 dollars), or we'd be burned alive," two girls who had tried to leave the Latin Kings told a Madrid judge.
The growth of the gangs is based on the rapid increase of Latin American immigration to Spain. The overall number of immigrants has soared from 1.8 per cent of the Spanish population in 1990 to more than 10 per cent. The largest groups include 420,000 Ecuadorians and 260,000 Colombians. "Immigrants never see their children, because they work 23 hours a day. The kids are on the street, in search of a (new) family," King Mission, a US representative of the Latin Kings, explained during a visit to Spain. Gangs like the Latin Kings also give a sense of purpose and self-esteem to youths who may come from neighbourhoods riddled with gang violence in their own countries, grew up without their parents who emigrated before them, and who are now struggling with the difficulties of adapting to a foreign culture. In 2007, Latin street gangs did not commit any killings in Spain for the first time in several years. The decline was attributed to police crackdowns and, in some regions, to attempts to integrate the gangs into Spanish society. While the conservative Madrid authorities outlawed the Latin Kings in 2007, liberal Catalonia took the opposite approach, giving them the status of a cultural association.
Representatives of the Latin Kings and Netas even visited the regional parliament, explaining to legislators that they were planning to make joint musical recordings to bury their hostilities. International experts on street gangs have hailed Catalonia's ground-breaking approach, but it has not entirely eradicated inter-gang violence.


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