The Lavapiés riots: One year on, has anything really changed?

One year ago a Senegalese migrant street hawker died after being chased by police. Riots ensued and the streets of Lavapiés were filled with the acrid stench of burning rubber. On the first anniversary of Mame Mbaye's death, Leah Pattem, a resident of the Madrid barrio, asks has anything really changed?

The Lavapiés riots: One year on, has anything really changed?
Riots broke out in Lavapiés on the night of March 15th 2018. Photo: Olmo Calvo / AFP

I’m getting used to the sound of hovering helicopters but what can I expect, living in Lavapiés? I live in a barrio so routinely pushed to the edge that, every now and then, the pressure becomes too much and its people crack.


We followed the sound of hovering helicopters until we hit an advancing police front line moving down Calle Mesón de Paredes. The troubles were on the other side of the flashing blue lights, just 50 metres away, and the debris was hot beneath our feet as we stepped over burning motorbikes, melted bins, bricks and shards of glass. The streets smelled of burning rubber and looked like a war zone.

Photo: Olmo Calvo / AFP



Hours earlier, Senegalese migrant Mame Mbaye suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. The police said they found him lying outside his home and tried to resuscitate him, but his friends claim the officers had chased him down, causing him to suffer a heart attack – this was the version that sparked off the riots.

Scores of migrants quickly gathered and created a human blockade on either side of Calle del Oso, preventing the police from taking the body of Mame Mbaye away. His friends and comrades wanted answers before the scene of the crime was dismantled and swept away forever.

Prolific humanitarian photographer Olmo Calvo grabbed his camera and made a beeline for the riots. His photographs would go on to provide a first-hand account of what happened that night.

Police beat a protestor to the ground. Photo: Olmo Calvo / AFP

Photo: Olmo Calvo / AFP

Photo: Olmo Calvo / AFP

There was a surge in the crowd, and suddenly paint and eggs started flying. It was total chaos. People were really angry.

The advancing front line of police engulfed a bystander clinging to a lamppost in fear, who was beaten unconscious by a policeman. The man was hospitalised and has recovered, but eyewitness accounts and video recordings are shocking.


Mame Mbaye had arrived in Madrid in 2004, and was just 35 when his pre-existing heart condition finally killed him. He had never been treated because he had never visited a doctor here. He couldn’t because he wasn’t “legal”. After 14 years living and working in Madrid, he was still sin papeles (undocumented). How could that be?

A mural honouring Mame Mbaye in Lavapiés. Photo: Leah Pattem 

Mame wasn’t alone in fearing the authorities. During his life in Madrid, he kept a low profile – something many migrants do after entering the country illegally by boat or by jumping the fences into border cities Melilla and Ceuta. There’s a community-wide fear that even if you’re supposedly allowed to claim residency here, you might be denied it; and then you’re in the hands of the authorities, who don’t always treat people fairly.

This ongoing tension between Madrid’s “illegal” migrants and the Spanish authorities had been bubbling away for years, and it’s undeniable that Mame Mbaye’s death was linked.


This is the fastest I’ve ever seen a protest pull together. Within less than 24 hours, thousands had gathered on Plaza de Nelson Mandela and the surrounding streets. The uniformed police had retreated, aware that their presence was raising tensions.

¡Ningún ser humano / es ilegal! (No human being is illegal!)

…the crowd chanted, drowning out the menacing drone of helicopters hovering above.

Photo: Oscar del Pozo / AFP

And, just around the corner, burning candles, hand-written messages and fresh flowers lay around the doorway of Mame’s former home, in the place where he passed away.

Photo: Leah Pattem 


This week, the conservative People’s Party (PP) proposed a policy that would temporarily spare pregnant undocumented migrants in Spain from deportation if they agreed to give up their child for adoption once it was born.

Newly childless, if these mothers were picked up in a raid, or were citizens of countries with which the government has repatriation agreements, they would be sent back to their country of origin. But their adopted children would remain in Spain, presumably either in an orphanage or with their adoptive parents. With policy proposals such as this, it’s hard to see any kind of governmental improvement in migrant rights.

In the private rented sector too, investors are still being allowed to run wild and force evictions, adding another dimension to the daily nightmare that migrants face in Madrid.

Time Out’s article about the world’s coolest neighbourhoods – in which Lavapiés was named number one – has hugely benefited property speculators by increasing the attractiveness of, and therefore prices in, the neighbourhoods they’re currently invading.

READ MORE: Meet Madrid's anti-eviction warriors

Photo: Leah Pattem 

The picture above shows an eviction that took place on Calle Argumosa 11, on one of the “coolest streets in the world”.

What has changed, however, is the voice of the people who are suffering. Mame Mbaye was a mantero (“blanket man”), named after the white blankets filled with counterfeit merchandise, and manteros are speaking out louder than ever before.

Associations of manteros are raising awareness of the difficulties they face, through campaigns, protests and by creating their own fashion label called Top Manta – an ironic middle-finger to the authorities that are constantly chasing them down and confiscating their goods.


Manteros sell knock-off designer handbags in Retiro park. Archive photo: AFP

Where further change lies is also in the country’s awareness of their struggles. A year may have passed since Lavapiés made global news, but the pressure that caused the riots never went away. Walk through the streets of Lavapiés and you can still feel the tension, as can the police, who keep a constant presence.

Until there is real improvement in migrants’ rights, this neighbourhood shrouded in street art, pockmarked with trendy cafes and invaded by investors is going to remain on the edge, until one day the people will inevitably crack again.

There will be a demonstration this evening (March 15th) at 6 pm on Plaza de Nelson Mandela in memory of Mame Mbaye. Will the helicopters be hovering? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Leah Pattem is the founder of Madrid No Frills, a blog that celebrates those overlooked corners of Madrid untouched by the gentrification and modernization that has transformed the city in recent decades.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her on the Madrid No Frills blog, on Facebook and in Instagram.

READ ALSO: From Mauritania to the Jarama valley: Meet Usman, the alternative organic veg farmer

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.