EYEWITNESS: The Olive Press sent Heather Galloway to investigate San Cristobal, Madrid’s most dangerous suburb, where a machete-wielding homeless man was gunned down by police

IT doesn’t take long to find the spot where a 44-year-old African immigrant was slain by five police bullets in broad daylight.

Fittingly, on the wall of a health centre next to where Issa, from Ghana, was gunned down, two policemen stand watch as a workman in overalls paints over two large words, daubed crudely in full sight of anyone going past.

Police Oversee The Police Asesino Grafitti Painted Over
A worker paints over ‘Policia Asesinos’ graffiti as police watch.

The graffiti reads ‘Policia Asesinos’ (Police Murderers) and it only takes two coats to paint over the accusation, covering their tracks. 

It is a controversial killing, but one – given the suburb and given the victim was an immigrant – that will soon be airbrushed away into history, with little further debate.

Welcome to another week in San Cristobal, Madrid’s cheapest district, whose migrant population nudges just over 40% and where many taxi drivers and courier companies refuse to work.

It Is Estimated 80 Different Nationalities Live In The Neighbourhood
It is estimated 80 different nationalities live in the neighbourhood.

Part of the southern district of Villaverde, it has been dubbed Madrid’s ‘worst barrio’, although on my trip this week, it looks safe enough for now.

The facts of last week’s killing are unclear.

What is known is that 44-year-old Issa M was seen brandishing a machete, near the health centre at 10am on Friday, November 5. A few minutes later officers from Spain’s National Police took him down with five bullets. He was allegedly not given a warning.

Bin Against Which Issa Was Gunned Down
The bin against which Issa was gunned down.

Addled by mental health and drug problems, Issa was known to locals for his bizarre antics, including, according to the owner of a nearby stationery store.

He told me he was clearly homeless and hungry and had become known for eating the neighbourhood cats for sustenance.  “Around here, everyone just has to survive as best they can,” he explains.

But that morning Issa’s struggle for survival came to a sudden, somewhat controversial end. “It was all over in seconds,” the cleaner at the local health centre tells me. 

Preferring to remain anonymous, she was persuaded by one of the centre’s doctors, Christos Piperagkas, to describe what she saw to the Olive Press. 

“I saw him come around the side of the building swinging the knife,” she explains nervously. “When the police came up to arrest him, he pushed one of the officers, then they pushed him against a big street bin and there they shot him five times. I was shaking. Someone held me and told me they weren’t real bullets. That they had just put him to sleep.”

I am not the first reporter to come down to look into the shooting, which, unlike the US, is thankfully not all that common on the streets of Spain.

However, I was told that one TV reporter found himself insulted and physically set upon for ‘being in cahoots’ with the authorities at the weekend. He exited with a police escort.

My own trip to the barrio passes without incident, though I do feel as though I am no longer in Madrid, a city I have lived in for decades. 

The wasteland by the spanking new metro station had been occupied until September by shacks. It gives a bleak first impression, but it is only when I venture into the bowels of San Cristobal that I get why delivery workers refuse to deliver here.

Wasteland Occupied By Shacks Until September
Wasteland occupied by shacks until September

“It’s a complicated neighbourhood; there’s a lot of NGOs trying to help,” explains the stationary shop owner.

I stop to chat to a group of four young men who tell me the area has simply been forgotten. “No one works here,” says the oldest who refuses to give his name. “There’s no money. They don’t even bother to clean the streets,” he adds matter-of-factly.

Madrid's Cheapest Real Estate
Madrid’s cheapest real estate

The boys are aged 18 to 30. They are second generation migrants and none of them have jobs, not even the 30-year-old who tells me he did well at school.

The statistics are damning – there is a 50% drop out rate at secondary level in San Cristobal while 34% don’t even get through primary.

At first, they don’t want to talk. It’s a thing in the neighbourhood, they say. No one likes how journalists portray them and they are not to be trusted. At the same time, they have things they want to say and they talk in spite of themselves. 

The Group Of Lads Who Talk To Me In Spite Of Themselves
The group of lads who talk to me in spite of themselves.

They tell me that the police are already on the defensive when they drive around, yet when crimes are actually committed, nothing ever seems to get done.

“They found two girls buried in boxes under the ground just over there,” says one. “And we never heard anything more about it.”

“And someone was killed a month ago, but that’s it. Silence,” adds another. 

“Look at us! We’re harmless. Just drinking coffee. And we like to smoke a few joints and chat but if the police drove by now, they would be screeching to a halt and rushing over here to get on our case. When it comes to the bad guys, the real criminals, it’s a different story. They give them a wave as they pass them on the street.”

Unlike the boys, the officers watching the graffiti being erased cannot be persuaded to answer questions. They are polite, but firm. ‘No comment’.

Given its reputation, the neighbourhood doesn’t however, seem too threatening to me. I help a frail old lady over the road who says she’s lived here since she was married. Her sparse hair is stiffly coiffed and she has put on her war paint for her outing. But her trusting demeanour doesn’t suggest she’s expecting to be pounced upon. 

Another two middle aged women tell me they’ve lived here all their lives and never had any bother. 

But when I get to the spot of the recent killing behind the health centre, a middle-aged Moroccan man is adamant that the area is well and truly screwed. “It’s alright at this time of day,” he says. “But try coming here after midnight. It’s a jungle.”

Screenshot 2021 11 11 At 14.31.50
San Cristobal Health Centre

He tells me that many of the depressing tenements have been appropriated by drug traffickers and turned into narco flats. And where there are narco flats, there are addicts and, consequently, poor mental health and homelessness. Some of the homeless sleep behind the health centre where Issa was killed. 

A Rogue Shack; The Others Were Razed In September
A rogue shack, the others were removed in September.

“The good bits of this barrio are good but the bad are really bad,” a young Spaniard tells me, his face obscured by a tattoo. “There are some seriously evil people about. A lot of gang warfare. But there is a lot of kindness too.”

For Dr Piperagkas, Issa’s shooting is symbolic of the dysfunctional relationship between the locals and the authorities. “He was mentally ill,” he says, clearly outraged. “He needed psychological help, not bullets. But nobody alerted us even though we were right here. To me, it’s symbolic of what’s happening here in San Cristobal.”


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