Between Crime, Separatism, and Racial Tensions, Can Spain Pull Through?

The National Statistics Institute estimates that more than 50,000 Spaniards will leave the country each year for the next decade in search of employment opportunities; already last year, the level of emigration rose by 36 percent, as the unemployment rate hit 24 percent (perhaps even more worryingly, more than 50 percent of Spanish youth under the age of 25 cannot find work). Meanwhile, Spain's Muslim population is expected to double by 2030.

Will the newcomers be engulfed by radicalism? Will they simply disappear into Spain's version of the Arab street? Will they find jobs and embrace both capitalism and their new home? Are domestic rebels and activists on the verge of crossing the thin blue line to engaging in nefarious activity? Andres Zamora, a retiree who lives in the industrial city of Terrassa, about 20 miles north of Barcelona, is just one optimist amid the fog. Originally from a small commune near Sevilla, Zamora embraced communism during the fascist Franco era and attended a Marxist seminary in Romania at age 16. He then went to Nicaragua to fight for the Sandanistas; Cuba was next, to work on building Castro's communist dream.

Now, his revolution is a social and local one: He helps immigrants pay rent and obtain citizenship documents. But he remains staunchly against the system. He doesn't believe the state has any interest in helping immigrants, and he plans to set up a communal diner to help build up much-needed goodwill and community spirit in Terrassa. "You don't beat capitalism with guns," he says. "It's impossible to win. You win by being more intelligent. You learn the laws they use to control you -- then, you use those laws to control them."

Attitudes like this are prominent in Terrassa, and they keep the authorities ever-vigilant. Officially, Terrassa is home to more than 10,000 Moroccans and a few thousand West Africans. There are four Latin American barrios here (they're responsible for bringing in the drugs, according to the Moroccans interviewed for this story.) The city has a history of racial tensions: on numerous occasions, anti-xenophobia marches have resulted in beatings, arrests and even stabbings.

Terrassa is also home to the Badr Mosque, which was, until recently, headed by a radical imam from Morocco, Abdeslam Laaroussi. According to locals, Laaroussi benefited from the economic crisis, as Terrassa's Muslims were lured to the mosque for words of hope and comfort. Instead, however, they allegedly received lectures on how to beat "errant wives," and keep their women in check (using a stick, fist, or hand, so that no bones are broken and so as to draw no blood, was reportedly the imam's advice.) The authorities, who have long kept an eye on the Badr mosque, recorded the imam's speeches and in March, they hauled him in for questioning. He has so far refused to give testimony, claiming that his remarks were taken out of context, that he does not advocate violence against women, and perhaps most important, that he does not recognize the authority of the Spanish state.

As their radical imam sits before the judge, many residents of Terrassa - young and old - bide their time sitting outside the Cafeteria Soraya, smoking marijuana and conjuring up get-rich schemes or pessimistically talking about world politics and the failure of the Spanish state.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mourad Louarradi is one of the pessimists: He was deported not long ago, but he says the Moroccan authorities didn't want him because he comes from the border region with Algeria, his accent is different, and they didn't like the look of him. So they told him to go back to Spain, and he did. His eyes shift incessantly; he speaks and moves as if he hasn't told the truth in ten years. But he can still laugh, and does. He finds the fact that the authorities in Morocco, Spain, and even France apparently want nothing to do with him somewhat amusing.

His younger peers don't see it that way. It's only 9 a.m. on a Friday, and 27-year-old Fahd Touiss Larache is on his second cup of coffee; he has sold four cigarettes to passersby for two euros. He's lived in Terrassa for eight years; for three of those years, he had a job in construction. That work dried up, and now he has few options. "What do I do all day now? I get a coffee and sit for 10 hours with my coffee. What else can I do?" He's not angry, but his frustration is palpable. Forget about finding a girlfriend, or starting a family. "No work, no girlfriend," he says. At this, he and his friends find reason for a laugh.

Terrassa is a melting pot that in many ways is always near boiling point. The mosque has a new imam -- Taoufik Cheddadi -- who preaches a pleasant mix of history and harmony. "I preach a discourse of integration," he says with a laid-back smile as the faithful flow into the mosque for Friday prayers. "To be Catalan, what does that mean? It means to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Greco-Roman. I don't want to present Islam as part of immigration. It's part of the history of Catalunia."

He urges his followers to embrace their position in modern Spain. He wants them to think: "I am a Muslim, I am a citizen, I am not an immigrant. I have rights." He doesn't want Islam to separate his flock from the Spanish state. "For us, the goal is adoring Allah. For you, it is human rights."

But in troubled Terrassa, Cheddadi is faced with a serious reality. "I'm not scared of conventional racism," he says. "But I'm scared of economic racism."

There's also undoubtedly a tendency for the police in Terrassa to view residents with paranoia, and vice-versa. When a homemade molotov cocktail was thrown during a Terrassa street protest, local cops began talking about "terrorism callejero," - literally, street terrorism.

Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Younes, who moved to Terrassa from Tangiers in 1999, says the police have started to look at him differently in recent years. "The crisis, their paranoia about terrorism..." he says. "They don't speak to you the same. You feel it."

"I don't feel frustrated or angry; I just feel like I don't exist," he adds, his bicep muscles noticeably tensing up.

Terrassa is also home to tensions between North Africans and gypsies, who have been around for decades, and the arrival of Latin American drug traffickers -- who now have more economic clout than many of the older residents -- has done little to ease concerns. "The Latinos are in charge here now," says Younes. Listening to the young North Africans, one notes a distinct sense of apathy, from which only the mosque is likely to benefit, given their chances of finding solid work. "If we don't follow the imam, we won't do well in life," says Fahd Touiss Larache. "We won't have a goal in life. Without the imam, there is no end."

Like the imam, it's clear some authorities throughout Spain are trying to put the best spin possible on the current situation in a bid to avoid a calamity and offer some sense of direction for a large portion of the population that, if it's not raging in the streets, appears completely lost at sea. In Barbate, a spectacular southern port town just 30 miles from the Moroccan coast, the tourism ministry is highlighting the town's tuna industry; unfortunately, the move is depressingly similar to the central theme of the film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (a troubled town tries in vain to revive its sardine industry while a creative kid with new ideas simply finds himself coming into constant conflict with the authorities). Anyone who has studied the Spanish tourism industry's ups and downs over the past few decades knows that it is impossible to rest on one's laurels in this era of cheap air travel and countless beach options.

The mayor of Barbate has also caused controversy with his candor: last year, he effectively admitted to turning a blind eye to youths dealing drugs and told The New York Times that "a youngster has absolutely zero chance right now of finding a fixed job here... The politicians in Madrid who consider my views on youngsters occasionally dealing drugs to be those of a caveman either don't understand or don't care about how much people are struggling here." Since, the mayor has effectively placed a gag order on his staff, no longer allowing them to speak to the press. One of his aides, however, spoke on condition that her name not be used: She admitted that yes, Barbate does have drug trafficking problems, but that Sanlucar de Barrameda (located roughly 50 miles away) was worse.

Barbate is also one of Spain's most multi-cultural towns, which the authorities are starting to recognize as a draw. Barbate has a largely tranquil history -- officially known as Barbate de Franco, the town renamed all its streets in 2008 to erase all memory of the dictator -- and the police boast of a harmonious relationship between locals and immigrants, many of whom arrive by boat and often pass through immediately to other parts of Spain and Europe. But tensions do flare every so often. According to a 47-year-old Senegalese man from Dakar who sells baskets and other handmade goods along the beach with his Spanish wife, racism in Barbate is always bubbling near the surface. On one occasion, he says, he went into a bar near his stall to go to the bathroom. "You people bring your s--t in here," the owner said, pointing at his skin. The Senegalese immigrant, who goes by the name of Samba Gay, pointed to his own heart. "Inside, I'm good. Inside, you're s--t." He had come to Barbate on the recommendation of a friend; the police don't bother him as long as he doesn't bother them, he said. Other West African immigrants expressed similar sentiments: "There's no racial tension - as long as you keep to yourself," explained a man from Senegal who identified himself only as Abdullah.

Whether or not Spain's immigrants, separatists, unemployed, and other disillusioned citizens choose to avoid clashes with the state in the coming months and years remains to be seen. More than 100,000 so-called indignados (also known as the May 15 movement, or M-15), the young protesters who rose to international notoriety after inspiring the so-called occupy movements worldwide, took to the Spanish streets again last year to express a long list of grievances, at the top of which lies outrage at the political leadership. Shortly after Spain's victory in the European Championships, a group of pro-ETA thugs beat up several supporters wearing Spain soccer jerseys. Following protests in early 2012 over riot police beatings of student demonstrators, violence erupted again during the summer as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in 80 cities throughout Spain to protest Prime Minister Rajoy's latest austerity package. Protesters torched a cafe and smashed the windows of a bank in Barcelona; in Madrid, riot cops used batons, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a crowd trying to enter the Congress building. More than 100 people were injured in clashes with police and 176 were arrested; about a dozen policemen were believed to have been injured. The protests have not abated: in mid-October, several thousand angry citizens marched through the streets of Madrid banging pots and pans in protest of the austerity measures, and in early July of this year, there were further demonstrations against corruption. Spain received a gloomy economic forecast for 2013, but in mid-July, it received some positive news: the recession which began in 2011 is over; growth should resume in the second half of this year. Strong tourism numbers this year and last have also contributed to a drop in the unemployment rate, officials say.

Whether this good news will reverberate throughout Spanish streets remains to be seen. Back in Terrassa, the young men have largely skipped the protests, opting instead to sit around the cafe and talk the day away. "The world's problems are the fault of the Jews," says one. "Not at all," says another. "We're all to blame." Another suddenly jumps in, asking why the United States hasn't invaded Syria yet. Lacking answers, the conversation returns to the current crisis surrounding them.

No answers there, either.

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Malcolm Beith is a former Newsweek general editor who spent three years covering the drug war from Mexico City. 

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