Two weeks ago, when residents of Madrid's El Gallinero slum were shoveling mud out of their cardboard and zinc homes amid some of the worst flooding Spain has seen in recent years, a Roman Catholic charity in the neighborhood thought it might be a good idea to use the occasion as media fodder, showcasing the plight of the 420 residents in that urban ghetto.
Father Paco Pascual, of the San Carlos Borromeo parish -- a church which has been active in working with the desperately poor residents of the shantytown -- told the press how the village was being covered in "mud, muck, and more mud," and asked fellow Spaniards to help secure second-hand tarps for several huts whose roofs had been blown away.
While it's not known if the priest received the requested donations, what is known is no one from the government reached out to offer the roofing materials. Instead, they came with bulldozers.
This week, in a continuation of a policy that had been dormant since March, the municipal government of Madrid went into one of Europe's most notorious slums in the early hours of the morning and began tearing down shacks. Activists say that, in violation of the Spanish constitution which holds one's domicile as sacrosanct, the government demolished two structures that were still occupied by families, forcing school-age children to watch as heavy construction equipment crushed their former homes. A shack residents say was used as an evangelical Christian temple was also torn down.
It's a continuation of what many see as a war on the slum-dwellers, Rumanian immigrants marginalized as gypsies -- most of whom are children -- who have been continually harassed by official interventions since at least 2010. In March, there was something of a dust-up after the government demolished 10 houses, officially the result of a technical foul-up by the police who were told to "evacuate" but not destroy the properties.
Spain's deep recession, and the austerity cuts the government has taken, have also made matters difficult for the community. Earlier this month, many children who were receiving free school lunches were told that, as part of nationwide education budget slashing, they would no longer be eligible. And those were the lucky ones. Community advocates say the elimination of a school bus route at the beginning of October means the number of children who need public transportation to and from school now exceeds the supply. On any given day, about 30 children get left behind at the bus stop.
Attention to the plight of the 96 families living in El Gallinero, most of whom moved in back in 2008, intensified this year after Madrid Mayor Ana Botella visited the slum and, after being photographed greeting a few children, said she would proceed to tear it down. Since then, the Madrid press, which had mainly reported on the place as the hub of a copper wire theft ring before, has been carrying horrifying stories of the squalor and social poverty there. It's almost always the children who lead the tales of human misery: weeks-old babies showing up at the hospital to be treated for rat bites, toddlers electrocuted due to jury-rigged wiring systems, pre-adolescents being coopted into the dangerous drug trade.
In an incident that scandalized the country's conservative core, not exactly a group prone to feel empathy for the immigrant poor, a child was caught by TV cameras as he was addressed by the visiting Archbishop of Madrid and asked if he know who baby Jesus was.
"Sure," the child answered. "It's Lucia's son."
All that has done little to change the municipal government's stance. A plan presented by the community to relocate most families to a nearby housing project has been ignored, people involved in the matter told Spanish media.
Thursday, two days after the latest bulldozing, city hall reportedly invited a collection of non-profit groups that had been working with residents in the slum, including the Red Cross and various Catholic charities, to a meeting where the expected future of the community was discussed.
"They're trying to take us by the hair," Father Javier Baeza, of the San Carlos Borromeo parish, told news outlets, using an untranslateable Spanish phrase to indicate the government was "messing with them."
Following the meeting, the government said demolitions would continue.