The Gypsies Trying to Keep Drugs and Crime Out of the 'Las Vegas' of Spain

They call themselves the "Victors," and they're providing essential services in a historically tough barrio.

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Jan 31 2017, 5:43am

There's a group of high-rises in the southwestern Spanish city of Seville nicknamed "Las Vegas," but it's no casino district. Instead, the area is a tough barrio where gangs of drug traffickers are said to control entire apartment buildings, poverty is high, and illiteracy exceeds 25 percent. As you might expect, stories by major news outlets tend to depict overwhelming despair.

But for the past eight years, a cultural association of Gypsies named La Asociación Cultural Gitana Vencedores or simply Los Vencedores—the "Victors"—has been fighting for the neighborhood it calls home. The weapons of choice? Dumbbells, dictionaries, and soccer balls. It's a determined, peaceful form of activism geared toward normalizing services in an area where critics say the government has fallen woefully short.

Founder Pedro Manuel Molina Montaño, a bristly haired man known fondly by residents as "Uncle Pedro," is a lifelong resident of Tres Mil Viviendas—the neighborhood of which Las Vegas comprises one component part. He says he started the Victors as a soccer club for his son, Bernardo, and other neighborhood kids, to keep them off the streets. When first getting started, Molina notes, it was important that they welcome all the local outcasts.

"The dud, the fighter, the clown, the bottom of the barrel—I took them all," he says.

But Molina's determination to help the poor wasn't satisfied by little-league soccer. Over the years, he expanded Los Vencedores into a full-fledged neighborhood cultural association in Tres Mil. Today, they run a food bank, deliver pre-made meals to the elderly, offer boxing and capoeira classes, and perform neighborhood interventions. A few years ago, they cleared out a space next to a heroin den in the heart of Las Vegas and refashioned it into a gym. Once it was complete, María del Carmen Utrera Santiago, Molina's wife, began using one of the gym's rooms to teach women to read and write.

Gradually, in a neighborhood where cynicism has long reigned, Los Vencedores began to turn heads.

That cynicism was, of course, understandable. There have been five previous efforts by the Junta de Andalucía—the regional government—and other agencies to help the area. All failed to make significant changes, critics say; when asked where all the public funds went, Molina laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

The broader Tres Mil area, officially called Polígono Sur, was born from official cruelty and neglect, according to David Lagunas Arias, a professor of anthropology at La Universidad de Sevilla who studies Roma culture. Construction of Tres Mil began in the 1970s under Franco's rule; it was located on the periphery of the city as a place to concentrate Seville's poor and ethnic groups—primarily Gypsies—and free up the city center for urban speculation.

"The construction of this Polígono is an example of social segregation," Arias explains. What's more, he says, it's an example of a type of racism called anti-gitanismo, or anti-Gypsyism, which depicts the Roma as primitive, unreliable, thieving people. (Most of the locals I spoke to referred to themselves as gitanos, or Gypsies.)

Those looking to feed anti-Gypsy prejudice may have found that sordid task easier once Tres Mil was built. Left with a paucity of government services, the crosswalks wore away, stoplights broke, and kids drove without shoes or licenses. Eventually, city-cleaning services stopped reaching the neighborhood. "You walked on the waste, there were areas where you could not see the ground," resident Rafael Pedanieldrtegal told El Español. "Drugs entered and control was lost."

Today, Tres Mil is in the midst of rescue plan number six: Plan Integral del Polígono Sur. Initially launched in 2005 as a combined effort between local and regional officials and the federal government, the initiative lurched ahead in 2013 after public outrage erupted over a stray bullet from a gang fight piercing the lung of a seven-year-old girl having dinner with her family.

Toward the end of 2014, the government formed closer ties with Los Vencedores. But initial collaboration, bogged down by red tape, tried Molina's patience, he says. When the regional government said there was no funding, Los Vencedores would proceed on their own. The gym in Las Vegas was financed with cash from members, relatives, and neighbors, according to Molina. Even now, "when the funding for a certain project runs out, the work continues," he insists.

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Borja González Pereira, a civil servant with Junta de Andalucía who helps oversee development in struggling areas like Tres Mil, admits "public administration is very slow—the bureaucracy, the paperwork—and the neighborhood needs more immediate action. We've been trying to lower the amount of paperwork that's needed to make it easier for [Los Vencedores] to get what they need."

One tangible sign of that progress is in the emergence of some public services here.

"It's important to highlight that public services today enter all parts of the neighborhood: Police presence is like in any other neighborhood, there is postal service, city cleaning service (Lipasam), and bus service (Tussam) has again begun entering the neighborhood," noted one Plan Integral report last November.

Iria Comesaña of the commissioner's office for Polígono Sur adds that officials "try to make everything more agile in general for all entities [working in the area.]"

These days, Molina sees himself as a bridge between the government and people on the streets who live by word-of-mouth and handshakes. And it seems like the government is OK with that role. "Where the Junta can't go, Los Vencedores intervene," Pereira says.

Las Vegas is one of those places.

Even as the rest of Tres Mil has seen gradual improvements in the past ten years, Las Vegas seems to be stuck behind. The drug dealing is "more tranquil, more controlled," than it used to be, Molina concedes. But even Los Vencedores can't walk with complete freedom, and boundaries have to be respected. Photography is especially sensitive in the Las Vegas area. "Some may be running from the law," Molina tells me. "And in the past, the press has treated this neighborhood very badly."

Defiantly proud of his neighborhood, Molina bemoans how the reputation of Tres Mil rests on its most lurid pockets of danger. To demonstrate, he draws a black dot on the blank side of a page. "What do you see?"

"A black dot," I respond.

"And what about the white all around it?"

In part thanks to Los Vencedores, that white space has been growing. For their work in Tres Mil, the association received recognition from on high in the form of Spain's Medalla de Oro de Cuzo Roja—Red Cross Medal of Gold—presented last May by Queen Letizia Ortiz.

Molina is adamant that decisive change is possible in Tres Mil, even as he admits it will likely be trans-generational. Disadvantaged neighborhoods are constantly at risk of losing their best and brightest, who might be inclined to take their chances elsewhere. For lasting change, the next generation—like Molina and the other Vencedores—may have to gamble by staying put.

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