By Stuart, longtime contributor to Robbed in Barcelona
It has been eight years in Barcelona, almost to the day, but I’m off back to Scotland. Not because of the atmosphere and robberies, which I’ll come to soon, but because of the economic situation.
It has been fun, though clearly this issue which really needs addressing for good is going to leave a stain on the city. I suppose every society, every culture and every city has its underbelly, and Barcelona’s is crime, just as my native Edinburgh has alcoholism and drug addiction.
I knew Barcelona well as I was brought up here, just after the head bummer from El Ferrol kicked the bucket and this country finally made strides into the 20th Century, it was the 70’s mind. Barcelona was a cosy city, lively, at the heart of not only Catalan life, but Spanish and Latin-American culture. It had the publishing houses, the advertising houses, the confidence.
It also had appalling crime. With the 80’s drug issues it had bank robberies, armed robberies and disgraceful ghettos within its heart and periphery. We knew the names of the local thieves, they were close to mythical; Juan José Moreno Cuenca “el vaquilla”, Juan Diego Redondo “el Malo Diego” an Iberian form of John Dillinger. Criminals in the broader sense of the word, part of the history of transition into democracy in Spain, part of that process which even today is so imperfect. About the same time you had mafia, (both local and Italian), Basque separatist bombs, fascist gunmen, a fascist coup d’état, left wing bombers, the country was a mess.
The Raval, Barceloneta and Poble Nou you didn’t go to. Not spoilt little rich kids like me, or my school pals. Nou de la Rambla, was at times the only road in that side of Las Ramblas without mud. Las Ramblas too, it had it all, cafes, prostitutes, drug dealers… it still has, it’s just lost the live animal stalls. The Raval still has some of the old bunch, barmen who have seen the 70’s and 80’s. The stories they tell, of chasing after junkies who had tried to assault them with a knife, later in the 90’s with syringes.
Jump to the late nineties and the post Olympic hangover. Barcelona set itself on the world stage with greater confidence, but I don’t think we Barcelonins knew where the hell we were going. The city had improved. Of that I am certain. The crime we used to endure back in the bleak all days, whether from the old dictatorial regime, or from the drug crazed 80’s was invariably violent, sometimes lethally so. But time was running against us. The country was centralising, dynamism taking the ‘puente aereo’ to Madrid. We just took an easy buck I feel, (I was already living outside Spain), and went for mass tourism (not a criticism, it was just done badly).
And crime, well it’s always been a bit of a joke here, even under that old Franco fellow. We Spaniards (I’m ½), tend to see petty acts of larceny as ‘ser listo’ ‘picaresca’. Its not a ‘crime’ as that in Spanish implies the loss of life, (therefore murder), it’s not even petty delinquency. Our legal system, maybe because we wanted a clean break from the old regime, maybe because its in our character, is ‘garantista’ that is to say, it stacks its rights heavily on the side of the accused, or the convicted criminal. So yes, arrested thieves walk away, regularly.
Of course, other societies, and this is a very globalised world have within them organised groups of people who live off such legal technicalities. By this I mean what back in the 90’s I watched on a Panorama or World in Action special, it could have been TF1, groups of ‘professional’ thieves from the Balkans, brought into Germany by mobsters to steal. I presume some, if not many still operate there. But these people however despicable are not mugs, so it follows that they would, ultimately send their damned miserable lackeys here, like some latter day Fagans. Others I presume just drift here. Essentially the legal system still thinks many people steal out of necessity, unfortunately, that is rarely so.
I lost track on the amount of pickpockets, bag-snatchers, Romany flower sellers I’ve seen plying their trade in and around La Ribera and its environs since 2004. I’ve never really given it too much thought. Naturally, and being somewhat stupid (old school concept of justice) I have chased after some of these scallywags, or in general given as much assistance as possible to the victims as was in my power. Other times it’s been a bit more personal, in February 2007 they climbed over a 9 foot wall into my patio, they took a hell of a lot of my wife’s possessions including a work laptop, (that hurt), I was luckier. Since then the Patio when we are not in looks like the outside of Carstairs or Barlinnie. Not nice, but then, security is never pretty (I remember living in Egypt).
I don’t know to what extent this is just Barcelona. Valencia is similar; I’ve seen snatchers there too. Seville, Málaga, and then there’s Madrid. More rural areas can be more relaxed (Castillian pals laugh at me in Valladolid always holding onto my coat when we are at a bar). The point I suppose is that the country still hasn’t made the full journey. We went to the other extreme. The old Spanish criminal, who was not a jovial fellow regardless of some poetic licence that is carted out, probably the result of nostalgia for that period, but he was a character firmly rooted in a more isolated Spain. Arturo Perez-Reverte, the author of the Alatriste novels, a more articulate and literate Jeremy Clarkson type polemicist, waxed lyrical on the old ‘trileros’, con artists of the old ‘shell game trick’. One had retired, and spoke to him in a bar in Barcelona. “Its not the same now, these guys come in from the East, and they just work at it like I’ve never seen before. I can’t compete with that”.
That possibly is the problem. There will always be home-grown crime, naturally. There are plenty of Spanish criminals, and though I have no figures to hand, I would suspect they still form the majority. But its this new breed, its like industrialised fishing. Barcelona is now a mecca for tourists, and people with no scruples know this. They have the fences ready, they have distribution lines prepared, and they ‘work’ at it. There are plenty of images ever so often in the press of whole tables covered in laptops, necklaces, mobiles, money, cameras, next to the ubiquitous placards with ‘Policia Nacional’, ‘Guardia Civil’, ‘Mossos d’Esquadra’ etc.
And of course there’s that ineffectual, tired, and wholly inadequate thin blue line (green if G. Civil). There are overworked and stressed bailiffs, prosecutors, some judges. A creaking understaffed, overworked, underfunded and positively demoralised legal system, who simply can`t do much more. That, more than anything else is the problem. If you doubt any of this, a Saturday night at Nou de la Rambla police station should do the trick, (they need interpreters). Friends I grew up with liked our legal system, they though back where they were from was too harsh (the USA). In recent reunions, I notice, that attitude has changed, hardened. Fine, maybe it’s just age, maybe though, it is that feeling that criminals in Spain just don’t get punished, ever.
It is the barefaced cheek of it all, certainly. Helping an Iranian couple, (scientists), back in 2011, I wonder what they made of it all. The security guard that was trying to help just told me in Spanish. “In get threatened by these thieves all the time. They say, ‘you can’t touch me. I’ll throw you on the line with a metro car passing. I make more money than you, I have good lawyers.’” I suppose that sort of sums it up.
Spain got rich quick after the regime died out. It didn’t address some vital areas, I don’t know if it ever will. Whatever it does though, and considering the loons in charge of the asylum in Madrid now, (and the Generalitat), it probably doesn’t have the money, or in the case of more high flying thieves I doubt it has the inclination to do anything about it, (in no particular order; Felix Millet, the King’s son in law and probably his daughter too, the UDC part of the ruling coalition in Catalonia, the PP in Valencia, the Junta in Andalucia are all guilty to greater or smaller degrees of fraud, nepotism and yes, out and out theft).
It’s a darn shame I would stay, Barcelona, despite it all is one of the best places in the world, if you can get a decent job mind. Good luck to you all. Stay safe and be careful.