Spanish Gypsy groups are calling for urgent action and protection after dozens of people were forced to abandon their homes in a small Andalucían town when a killing triggered a wave of racist violence.
In the early hours of Sunday 17 July, a 29-year-old pub doorman called Álvaro Soto was stabbed to death in Peal de Becerro after an argument with four members of the local Gypsy community. The alleged attackers were later arrested.
Although a peaceful demonstration calling for justice for Soto was held in the town the next day, it was followed by a racist rampage in which some residents targeted houses belonging to Gypsies, including relatives of the alleged killers. The properties were burned, looted and damaged; cars were tipped over. Some houses were also defaced with graffiti saying “killer Gypsies” and “death to Gypsies”.
According to Gypsy groups, 31 members of six families have fled Peal de Becerro because they are afraid of further reprisals against their community. They include ill, older and vulnerable people.
Two of the four men arrested were subsequently released pending trial, while the other two remain in custody.
Groups representing Spain’s Gypsy communities were quick to express their sympathies over the killing, but said nothing could justify the racist crimes that followed.
“It’s unacceptable for a group of people to take justice in their own hands, to call for the expulsion of Gypsy families from a town, and for them to burn these families’ homes and flip over their cars,” Spain’s Fundación Secretariado Gitano said in a statement.
Kamira, a federation made up of associations of Gypsy women, offered its “condolences, sympathies and solidarity” to Soto’s family, but said his death simply could not excuse the anti-Gypsy violence.
“This was meant to be a demonstration calling for peace, but some violent people whipped others up and it became something absolutely intolerable that’s shaken the social peace and coexistence of a town,” said Kamira’s president, Carmen Santiago Reyes.
“It’s really important that tempers cool, that the necessary investigations identify those responsible for the damage and the threats, and that the authorities stay on top of the comments on social media, which could represent incitement to hatred.”
Santiago Reyes said justice needed to be done and social cohesion restored as soon as possible.
“You can’t generalise over the actions of one person and force people out of their homes just because they’re related to that person,” she added. “That can’t be justified and it doesn’t belong in a society with the rule of law.”
Kamira was among the groups that have filed criminal complaints relating to the violence. On Wednesday, public prosecutors in Andalucía said they had begun investigating the events that followed Soto’s death.
The Guardian tried to contact Peal de Becerro’s mayor, David Rodríguez, but his office said he was too busy to speak. In comments reported by El País, Rodríguez described recent events as “the blackest and saddest days” in the town’s history, adding: “We will not stop until those behind the murder pay for Álvaro’s death.”
David Jiménez Castro, a lawyer representing those who have been forced to flee, said the damage done was economic, material and psychological. Many had to leave everything behind and were dependent on relatives.
“It’s not just about the uncertainty of having to abandon your home, it’s also the worry that everything you’ve worked for, struggled for and built over a lifetime has been lost,” he said.
“There was one young couple who’d just got the sofa and chairs they’d been saving up for. It was all still covered in plastic.”
Aurora Muñoz, an anti-racism activist, said that although Soto and his family deserved justice, so too did those affected by “this pogrom which was committed against the Gypsy community”. Muñoz said that while she could understand the town’s fury being directed at his alleged killers, violence had been unleashed against “families who are totally blameless and who are just being attacked because they’re Gypsies”.
She also said that this was not the first such violence. In July 1986, Gypsy families living in the Andalucían town of Martos – which, like Peal de Becerro, sits in Jaén province – were forced to flee after their homes were torched.
Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia, a lawyer and former Spanish politician who serves as president of the Union of Romani People, said the scenes witnessed in Peal de Becerro were an aberration.
“This is absolutely not normal,” he said. “I’m Gypsy and I speak from my own personal experience. Spain is not a racist country. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t racist individuals in Spain. These are the ones who are behind awful situations like the one we’ve seen in Peal de Becerro where, all of a sudden, a group of real racists attacked Gypsy citizens who had nothing to do with this.”
Two years ago, the former UN poverty expert Philip Alston called on the Spanish government to carry out an independent, comprehensive review to ensure that Roma children were “not doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty and exclusion”.
Meanwhile, thousands of Roma and north African people living in the sprawling Cañada Real shantytown near Madrid have been without power for almost two years.