Sunday, December 24, 2006

It's always interesting to see how other countries handle gangs and street violence. While going through some downloaded news stories this week, this interesting piece of information left me a little puzzled. Apparently Spain is starting to have a street gang problem as a result of immigration from Central and South America. This is their conclusion, not mine.

Young people are forming pandillas, their word for gangs, comprised of people from the same home country. So they've got Salvadoran and Guatamalan gangs and, of all things, the Latin Kings. The Kings started in the U.S. primarily as a Puerto Rican gang so how they ended up with official chapters in Spain is a story that's probably worth looking into.

While some areas in Spain are using conventional methods to suppress gang activity, others are trying to buy off gangs to get them to stop capering. The way it works is, if your gang swears off violence and drug dealing, the government will "charter" you as a legitimate organization and give you money and benefits. It was unclear from the story what the benefits are but the upshot seems to be that you can get paid in Spain for being a reformed gangster. Depending on how this works out, this can be a brilliant idea or a totally absurd one.

On the one hand, getting paid to be a reformed gangster sounds great for a gangster. Free government money and whatever benefits. And you don't have to risk your hide regulating the neighborhood. But if you're going to be off violence and dope, what's the point of joining in the first place. You might as well join the YMCA or the Boy Scouts or whatever the Spanish equivalent is. So on the face of it, it sounds like a neat idea. Forget the gang, I'm joining the church soccer team.

But as history has shown, there's the little matter of the unintended consequence. Way back in the 1960s, New York City tried a similar approach using the squeaky wheel concept to apportion resources and money. The biggest and most violent New York gangs were flooded with social workers, free clubhouses, meetings with politicians, jobs with the city on gang intervention programs and the like. Smaller, less violent gangs who weren't getting any of these benefits decided they wanted some of that too. But the only way to get the city to pay attention to them was to make some noise and kick up dust. Which they did. And New York found itself in the unhappy position of actually encouraging more violence. It was good idea gone sideways when it hit the realities of the street and the law of unintended consequences.

You have to wonder if Spain is going to run into the same problem. For instance, why join what is essentially a government sponsored non-violent gang making a little bit of money when you can sling dope and make a lot of it. One could see a situation arising where the chartered gangs may decide that they're not getting enough resources from the taxpayers. Human nature being what it is, once you start getting free stuff, you start wondering if there isn't some more to be gotten. This is the argument that activists and gang intervention people in the U.S. have made for years. As in, why would a kid work at MacDonald's flipping burgers for $10 an hour when he could make ten times that slinging crack? The call here has been to get more money into people's pockets to keep them from capering. So who gets to decide how much is enough to get the Latin Kings or the MS to stop capering? You can only imagine what the negotiating sessions are like.
Govt: "For five bills a week each, you must stop all illegal activities."
LKs: "No way. For five we'll stop BFMVs and home invasions, but we reserve the right to sell dope. If you want us out of the dope business, that'll cost you another five a week."
Govt: "We'll go two fifty. Not a penny more."
LKs: "For that we'll stay out of coke but we're still in the chronic business."
Govt: "Done. Here are the papers. Have you lawyers call our lawyers."

You could see where this starts being more of an extortion racket than social welfare.

The Spanish model seems even more puzzling when you consider that Spain is often held up as a shining Socialist model. Like England, France and Germany, Spain has a cradle-to-grave benefit system. Spanish citizens get near universal health care, free education, generous welfare payments for the unemployed, nearly free housing, six weeks guaranteed vacation every year, a mandated 35-hour work week, generous maternity leave, almost unlimited sick leave and it's almost impossible to fire a worker for poor job performance. If, as many claim, that the seeds of gangsterism are sown in the fertile soil of poverty, then Spain shouldn't have a gang problem to begin with. Go figure.