A court ruling in Spain deeming a gang with roots in the Dominican Republic a "criminal organization" shows growing concern over the threat posed by Latin American gangs in the country, and also highlights the legal gray area surrounding these groups. But could this extreme categorization ultimately push low-level street thugs into the arms of transnational drug trafficking groups?
The move comes a year after a case in which seven Barcelona-based members of the "Trinitarios" gang used a kitchen knife to etch a 50 cm "X" into the back of a gang member deemed a traitor for associating with a rival gang also rooted in Latin America, El Salvador's Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). The victim was also clubbed 90 times on the back, legs and rear end, and left in need of 83 stitches.
Designating the group a "criminal organization" during the trial for the attack allowed heavier sentences to be handed out to both the perpetrators -- who received up to seven years and two months jail time each -- and the gang's leaders -- who received sentences of in excess of nine years.
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Announcing the ruling in a press release on May 12, Spain's Judiciary cited a 2010 reform to the country's penal code that created an article for "criminal organizations," which was more specific and allowed for heftier punishments than the existing "illicit association" category. The court stated the Trinitarios behavior fit under the new category in the present case -- a decision that placed them alongside major criminal groups.
The sentencing comes as Latin American gangs are high on the agenda in Spain, amidst a number of violent incidents between rival groups, including a massive brawl in Madrid between the Trinitarios and the Ñetas on the same night of the ruling that saw 26 gang members -- including 15 minors -- detained and at least two seriously injured. According to El Mundo, Madrid police have arrested 123 members of Latin American gangs so far in 2014.
In Barcelona and other major cities, the situation has caused similar concern, with police launching a major operation against the MS13 in late March. In the aftermath of that operation, MS13 members were also reported to have been processed under legal measures that place them alongside terrorists.
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The designation of the Trinitarios as a "criminal organization," putting them in the same category as major illegal groups, may be seen as a necessary response to rising disorder at the hands of Latin American gangs in Spain, but raises a host of concerns.
Perhaps most importantly, the move could set a precedent in regard to these groups -- many of which are largely composed of minors who likely have no direct ties to major organized crime. If the category is deemed to apply to other gangs, this could stigmatize the groups and potentially serve as a catalyst to the more serious criminal activity the designation is intended for.
Spain is now host to a variety of gangs carrying the same names as Latin American and US-based Latin gangs, though it is unclear whether they are genuine examples of these organizations migrating from their homelands, or just collections of youth seeking to emulate these groups.
The fact the gangs are often made up of mixed nationalities and count so many minors among their ranks suggests the latter. However, in the recent operation against the MS13, authorities reported arresting two Salvadoran ringleaders in their 40s, who they said had been attempting to open front businesses for money laundering, as well as overseeing the likes of street robberies and drug distribution, on behalf of the Salvadoran branch of the gang. This indicates that in some cases, youth recruits in Spain may be tied to larger criminal operations back home.
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The Spanish government certainly seems to believe at least some gangs are directly connected to the groups in Latin America, according to a report accessed by Spanish newspaper La Razon in mid-2013.
As suggested in that report, chapters of El Salvador's MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs apparently began arriving in Spain in order to escape the "mano dura" (iron fist) security policies of their governments at home.
This raises concerns about what effect an apparently similar reaction by Spanish authorities to the gangs could have.
One of the major criticisms of mano dura is that it leads to large numbers of gang members being incarcerated together with hardened criminals, and as a result prisons become criminal training grounds where youth imprisoned for petty crimes or gang association may make the leap into more serious offending. Prisons have also become staging grounds for drug trafficking networks and extortion rackets.
The situation in Spain is different than in Central America, both in terms of the prison resources available, and the amount of influence the gangs have in the country. Still, the idea of a more serious designation and harsher sentences for gang members does raise the specter of mass round-ups and members being put in closer contact with imprisoned members of international drug trafficking groups that are true "criminal organizations."
Links between street gangs and drug trafficking organizations in Latin America have been deepening and evolving -- a phenomenon also seen in United States border states. Placing gangs under the same legal umbrella as major drug trafficking organizations, which themselves show signs of increasing their activities in Spain, has the potential to hasten that process in Spain, meaning there is an urgent need for the Spanish government to address this legal ambiguity.