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Spray paint squares mark the spots

Citizen activists have begun highlighting the holes in the capital's streets

When Danny DeVito visited the Spanish capital in 2001, he famously noted: "Madrid is very beautiful, but it will be even better when they find the treasure." The diminutive entertainer was referring to the capital's penchant - particularly during the summer months - for digging up many of its thoroughfares.

An offshoot of the 15-M Movement has recently taken up arms - spray cans, maps and digital cameras - against the potholes that pepper Madrid's streets. It does not take long before the 20 or so assembled volunteers give up trying to count them.

"There is a deterioration going on in the neighborhood," says Francisco de Haro, a 24-year-old student who lives in the city's Usera district. De Haro is one of the activists who has taken on the task of drawing the eyes of City Hall to street level. Madrid's public spaces, the group says, are falling into disrepair.

As Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón launches a third attempt to bring the Olympic Games to Madrid, he would do well to remember that the International Paralympics come with it. For Pedro Maroto Sánchez, the parlous state of the asphalt means an Olympic-size detour every time he encounters a pothole: "Sometimes I have to backtrack 200 meters to be able to get around it," he says.

The volunteer group has been set up nine months after City Hall inaugurated a service to patch up Madrid's scarred streets. Consisting of 29 staff members, 27 vehicles and a budget of 1.2 million euros, it was created to serve the districts of Usera, Latina, Carabanchel and Villaverde and promised to attend to around 200 complaints a day. "We haven't seen hide nor hair of this service," says Esperanza Martínez, 58. "Some of the holes stop senior citizens, with crutches or walking frames, from getting about," she says.

As dusk settles on Usera, the volunteers pause to admire their work. They have photographed the holes and spray-painted around the parts of the sidewalk that need repair, to make them visible.