Youth gangs inside: "They teach you to stab without fear of consequences"

The two adolescent protagonists of this story count the days to regain their freedom. Both are in a center for minors of the Agency for the Reeducation and Reintegration of Minor Offenders in Madrid for robberies with violence. One with a firm sentence, the other, in a provisional situation. They are 17 years old, but they have known the cells of the Group of Minors of the Police (Grume) since they were 13. One of them has 48 days left to leave, he will have to spend them in a closed regime after having escaped in one of his last outings. The other one has a little more left. The two know well the reality of youth gangs.

One gives the name of Ramiro, but it is not the real one. Both have agreed to speak, but with the commitment that their names and surnames will not appear, since the gangs have a code of honor that prohibits them from talking about them. In addition, as they are minors, their identity should not be revealed. Ramiro openly admits that he belongs to one of the two majority youth gangs in Madrid (Dominican Do n’t Play and Trinitarios). The other, who gives the name of Manuel, maintains that he sympathized with members of one of the minority groups (Blood and Forty Two). This year, the disputes between these opposing groups have left four dead and more than a hundred injured in Madrid.

Rarely is there the opportunity to listen to the protagonists of this macabre game in which more and more young aggressors are involved. This time, they can explain what leads them to be part of a group that mistreats them when they do not meet their demands and in which they can even lose their lives without having turned 18. They explain it separately, but their stories they intertwine. Both are from the south of Madrid. These are all the personal data that can be disclosed about them to protect their safety and promote their reintegration.

The beggining

By the age of 14, they had both left school and high school behind. They spent the day on the street or at other friends’ houses. “My mother used to go to work early, she would get me up, but I would tell her that she didn’t go to school. She had already seen my brother stop going and I wanted to do the same. She couldn’t force me,” says Ramiro. Now he reflects out loud on something that at that time he did not even consider: “I felt alone, but not because my parents were not there, but because I felt that way and that’s it.” He spent the day at home smoking joints. His parents were also users.

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Manuel’s story is identical: “I stopped going to class very soon, I felt that nobody cared much that I stopped going. You’re getting lost.” At the time, he was playing soccer and it was on the pitches that he met the members of the dominant gang in the area in which he grew up. “They told me if I wanted to join. Two or three times. I always said no, that I was going with them but I wasn’t going to do any of the tests they asked me for. I don’t know what they were, but they wouldn’t be any good,” he says in an almost whispering voice.

Ramiro was admitted at that time to a public center specializing in behavioral disorders. By then he was already using LSD, ecstasy and tranquilizers. At that moment he met his “elder”. A member of the gang he later joined. “My eldest is the one who taught me. He didn’t tell me to join the band, but I told him that he wanted to because I felt loved there, he had everything I wanted and wanted to earn my respect, “he says.

Both boys have known dungeons since they were very young. Manuel says that he will have been arrested a dozen times before his first conviction for robbery with violence. He remembers the first. It was in a shopping center where a week before he and his friends had robbed another boy. A few days later they came back because he was the black friday and the victim recognized them and called the police. “At first you feel a lot of adrenaline, but after a few times you feel less and less nervous when you steal,” she notes.

Ramiro, more of the same: “My mother has suffered a lot because she couldn’t do anything. She has come to my grandmother to look for me in the dungeon. I just told them not to give me the badge.”

Fernando is the director of the juvenile center where the two boys are and reflects: “A boy of 12 or 13 years does not anticipate the consequences.” From his experience, he assures that the reasons why they enter are always the same: need for protection, search for an identity and belonging to a group. “I’ll give you an example: a very common profile of these boys is the typical one who was chubby when he was little and they messed with him,” he explains. “Suddenly the gang appears and they realize that they are losing weight, they protect them and on top of that it is he who starts doing the same thing they did to him”.

Manuel (not his real name), another minor in a reintegration center awaiting trial for robbery.
Manuel (not his real name), another minor in a reintegration center awaiting trial for robbery.MOEH ATITAR

The learning

“Do you want me to tell you the story of the Trinitarians and the DDP?” asks Ramiro. Next, he makes a brief theoretical exposition of the beginning of both bands and the reason for their historical confrontation. At first he —he does not specify what moment he is talking about— were all Trinitarians, he explains, but some members rebelled and founded the DDP. He does not give many details of the reason for this split, but he does maintain that reconciliation between the two groups is impossible. As his speech progresses, his accent and Latin expressions increase. “In truth, almost all the rules are the same,” he acknowledges. Thus, with a kind of founding legend, it is how they lay the foundations for irrational hatred between opposites.

This teenager soon learned that breaking the rules brought consequences. Every week he had to give his eldest seven euros. If he didn’t get them from his parents, he got them by stealing. And when he didn’t arrive on time, the punishment was blows to the ribs with a board. “They taught me like this: if you do something wrong, your family hits you, right?” He explains, touching the area where the blows fell.

In this time he has seen friends of his lose limbs due to a blow from a machete or katana, another who lost mobility in his hand due to a cut in the tendons…

“And you weren’t considering stopping and walking away from all that?”

—No, what I thought was that he had to be tougher, the toughest on the street, owning all of Madrid. If I was afraid I wouldn’t have been what I am.

Although Manuel, the other boy, insists that he never officially joined the gang, he does say that he has been involved in many fights for supposed loyalty to those he considered friends. In addition, because of his hair and his clothing, gang members have stopped him to rebuke him and until they have checked his networks to see that he does not go out with his rivals in them, they have not let him go.

Fernando, the director of the center, assures that he is always learning and training on how the gangs work, “although we are always behind the boys”, he acknowledges. After a decade at the head of the juvenile center where 60 people work, he has lived through the evolution of these violent groups. “Now they have learned, they no longer wear the clothing and identification necklaces of before,” he clarifies.

The range

Rank is earned through quests. Some of them may be going to the “block” of armed opponents or getting money to pay lawyers for a partner. The block is all that meeting point of a chorus: a park, a club, a court… “If you leave without having obtained a rank, they will laugh at you. But I have already earned everything that I had to earn,” says Ramiro, who belongs to a majority gang. The missions are decided in periodic meetings that they hold in their blocks and in which they mark a kind of weekly or monthly roadmap.

Ramiro's hand.
Ramiro’s hand. MOEH ATITAR

“They taught me that I went out into the street and had to give cats to the contrary or to stab without fear of the consequences. Although I never did. Now I don’t think like that anymore, I don’t want to leave any mother without her child, ”she reflects. She explains that now nationalities no longer matter when it comes to accepting new members. He is Spanish. “Now they want whatever it takes to be bigger and for there to be more action, more gangsters“, summarizes. Fernando, the center’s director, confirms: “The identity component has lost a lot of weight: before it was impossible to see a Latin King who was not Ecuadorian, that doesn’t matter now.”

For Manuel, any boy of 13 or 14 years old knows everything about gangs. Their members, their codes and their songs are available to any of these teenagers with a simple click: “You see everything on Instagram. It’s fashionable.” He was careful not to appear with his friends in social media posts so they wouldn’t take him as an official member and might go after him if they saw him alone. “Now they are growing more because they appear on TV, because they gain followers and because of the songs they record. They think they are famous”, he maintains without hesitation.

But fighting for rank isn’t always easy. Manuel says that many of his friends who did belong to the gang told him that they felt “extorted.” “I saw them badly, they told me that if they wanted to leave they had to give a lot of money,” he says.

The exit

To leave the band, you have to formally request it. With a letter or a meeting in which you ask your eldest to “stop running.” “Surely they ask you for one last mission, the fat one,” specifies Ramiro. This boy assures that he already wants another life, to earn money working in construction and that he will leave Madrid if necessary. He has been sorry that none of his colleagues have contacted him since his arrest. “Here no letter has arrived, nor have they approached my mother to ask if he is okay,” he complains. Manuel, for his part, assures that he wants to study. “Make an electronics module,” he says.

Manuel's hand.
Manuel’s hand. MOEH ATITAR

“In the past we have gone to the last steps to get them out. I remember once that I mediated directly with the head of the Latin King in Madrid so that they would let a boy leave. They were very strongly hierarchical. With today’s bands that’s impossible, you don’t know who to turn to, or it’s not that easy to find that figure of authority”, details Fernando.

The director of the center recalls one success story among many others. He says that one of the positive reinforcements they sought for the minor was a sports team. For nine months he attended training and official matches. When they saw that things were working, they negotiated a job for the young man with the owner of the team, who is a businessman. He paid the minor for the driver’s license course and promised to hire him as soon as he got it. “It can be many other things: contact with youth associations, with the social services of your City Council, soccer or basketball teams, addiction care centers in the neighborhoods… Anything that helps them resist pressure and strengthens them. once we disappear”, he details.

It is impossible to know if their visit to the center will achieve the definitive separation of these two teenagers from the gangs. “We are very successful in reinsertion, but it is not always possible”, admits Fernando.

Ramiro continues counting down the days on the calendar to return to his family and Manuel savors his team’s recent victory in the Champions League while his trial arrives. What happens outside depends on them.

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