The pungent smell of burnt trash and truck tyres enters people’s noses passing through Calle Bernàl. The kids are playing with cigarettes and rats while no mother is standing at the glassless windows, to look after her son in the infamous district of Palma-Palmilla in Màlaga.
The government of the Andalucian city, that makes 60% of its own income from tourism, keeps that hidden side of the town far away from the media stage; partly because the fear of this far-west area is fuelled by urban legends and partly because in 45 years they have never reacted to the neighbourhood’s decline.
Not only the local government but even the local police and the Li.Ma.Sa, Màlaga’s own garbage collection company, have abandoned the people living there. According to some urban legends recounting tales of “people throwing stones” or “stealing the shoes” of any foreigner who ventures in, they say it’s too dangerous to enter Palma-Palmilla so they clean only the roads nearby.
But what’s the reality beyond that? Is it really a place populated by criminals?
“Let me answer with a bit of history first”, says Cristina Garcìa Lopez, a 25-year-old social worker with four years of experience on the spot. “In the late seventies there was a huge flood which destroyed part of the city centre including Rolla Del Cuarto. Today that street is one of the richest and poshest we have, but at that time it was populated mostly by farmers and peasants. The right wing government promised new houses for them, so they built the district of Palma-Palmilla. The displaced families who moved there realised soon that their lives would have never been the same again; they were forced to live ten by ten in every 30sqm flat above their “gallineros”, the stables for the chickens. Most of those flats didn’t have (and still haven’t) electricity or glass in the windows. In these poor conditions due to the flood, loss of their goods and a collapse in their previous economy some of them turned to crime in order to survive.”
“In the same years the local and regional government started to promote Màlaga as the icing on the cake of the Costa Del Sol; to achieve that they got rid of most of the gangs in the city centre simply by offering them a home base in Palma-Palmilla. That’s how it started. The Town Hall created a ghetto for petty criminals and property-less people just to clean the centre and increase tourism, which over the years became our biggest income. These people aren’t dangerous at all. If you look at the statistics you see that in Calle Ilarios -the main road of the city- there are more crimes than here. The problem is that here there’s a huge black market due to the lack of regular jobs and, as in every other part of the city, there’s drug dealing.”
In the years after the construction of the ghetto, urban legends and anecdotes started to circulate and those stories literally took the responsibilities off of the shoulders of the Mayor and his staff, focusing on relentless criminals who were impossible to stop.
“Four years ago the government proposed a questionnaire called GAR to improve the situation in Palma-Palmilla,” adds Cristina. “It was a printed form where you had very odd questions about what you’d like to see for your district: more parking lots, more cops, more green zones and so on. But it wasn’t meant to discuss people’s problems with them; it was only a political move because the population wasn’t even allowed to see it. Only the associations working there were allowed to do so. Thinking about it now it’s very ridiculous: more parking lots? Come on, these people doesn’t even own a car! Is that what you call discuss the problems with the population?”
In Palma-Palmilla there’s also an obscure political figure linked to the Socialist Party (Pesoe) who seems to be known and admired by everybody in the neighbourhood. His name is Francisco “Paco” Vigo.
“Paco Vigo is a member of the Associaciòn De Vecinas, one of the association present on the territory. But this is only one of his guises: mainly he works for the regional section of the Pesoe and he is an important member of the Charros, the local Mafia,” Cristina continues. “His main job is to give money to the people in change of their votes for the Pesoe, the so called rate of exchange. If you vote for his party he gives you the money and running water in your house, if you don’t you can forget a huge part of your everyday life as cleaning, get a shower or cook some pasta. The worst thing is that the people like him because he represents an income for them and they don’t know that the Town Council should provide all of those goods he guarantees. Also Paco’s strongest ally happens to be the only alter-authority existing in Palma-Palmilla: the Church!”
A year ago the Zambre association, where Cristina used to work, wrote an article for the local paper to denounce his acts. The result is that he sued them for defamation.
In this jumble of responsibilities the only ones who get hurt by Palma-Palmilla’s reputation are the 40 thousands inhabitants living there. They struggle to have a normal life and when they ask for jobs, usually with cleaning companies, they get paid half the normal wage and are forced to work without a regular contract, which leads them either to commit crime or to work until the rest of their days, because no retirement will ever be given to them. There’s no second chance for these people and all because some urban legends say that “if you enter where they live they will steal your shoes” or rubbish like that.
to read the article’s Italian version click here