Guest Post: Parting Wisdom. A Look Back At Eight Years of Crime in Barcelona

September 3, 2012
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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.

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4 Responses to Guest Post: Parting Wisdom. A Look Back At Eight Years of Crime in Barcelona

  1. Stevie Wonder on September 3, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Pretty good summary and well written. Doesn’t mention the fact that the police are as corrupt and violent as the criminals and that most are in cahoots with the criminals. Also the ridiculous amount of police doing nothing but collecting fines for pretty much anything the government can invent (my friend got fined for getting off his bicycle, standing to one side and taking a phone call… why? because he was holding his bike up with one hand and so still in control of a vehicle!!) So many people I talk to are leaving or have friends that are leaving. I too am making my plans. This city (and ultimately this country) is about to take a big step back a few decades and many people just don’t think the sun and filthy dog shit ridden beach are worth it anymore. Good luck in Scotland and thanks for a good article.

  2. Jose Luis on September 3, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Toda la razón, este es un pais de mierda (por educación Stuart no la ha explicitado así). Calles llenas de purria, choricillos moruzos, rumanas hurtadoras, mierda allí donde mires, un espacio público descuidado. Administraciones públicas sin criterio conocido. Y la clave del asunto que trata este artículo, el sistema jurídico-policial con un criterio de hace 25 años, buenista, más preocupado por el delincuente que por las víctimas, y que aún no asume que la persecución del delito es un bien social y parte fundamental de la democracia. No creo tanto que sea una cuestion de recursos como de valores. Aun no entiendo como es que ha venido tanto guiri a instalarse en este maldito pais.
    Gran artículo

  3. Elaine Savage on October 2, 2012 at 6:01 am

    I would never ever go back to Barcelona. I went for a holiday with my boyfriend and as we stayed in an apartment without a safe, he had all his money and cards on him in his wallet. I had mine in a money belt under my clothes. My boyfriend said his wallet would be safe as he put it in a very deep pocket in his trousers. We were walking back from Ryans Irish pub after a few drinks, on our way back to our apartment right near Jaume 1. There was nobody around, it was around 11pm. We walked into a square, and suddenly this guy came from behind and put an arm around my boyfriend and started laughing and shouting as though celebrating. He then pushed his knee behind my boyfriends’s knee, pulling him back and off balance, and the thief’s hand went straight for the pocket with the wallet and then he was gone, and all I saw was the back of him running away. My boyfriend lost 600 euros and his cards and some English money, around £70. His knee was injured. We went to the police and they took a statement but we never heard anything about them catching the guy. The thief must have watched us in the bar, when my boyfriend paid for food and drinks, as he knew exactly which pocket to go for to steal the wallet, after following us and picking his spot for the assault. My boyfriend only got £150 off the travel insurance eventually.

    The robbery happened on our first full day in Barcelona, so it ruined the rest of the holiday. Luckily, I had some money and my bank card, but we never went out again after dark and purchased food and drink from supermarkets to eat in our apartment and were too afraid to venture out for an evening meal. During the day when we walked around, we watched everybody like a hawk, and if anybody came anywhere near us we recoiled and moved rapidly out of their way. As well as my having my money in a belt under my clothes, I did also have a handbag with the usual ladies stuff. which I did not want stolen, so I hung onto my bag like grim death all of the time and kept it on the side where my boyfriend was so that nobody could get in between us to steal it. We never enjoyed a minute after the robbery, and could only relax when we were safely back in the apartment each evening. So it was not a holiday, but more like a punishment and curfew. I am still so angry about it. my boyfriend has a permanent disability in his knee due to the robbery, which happened more than 18 months ago now. If I could get my hands on the thief, I think I would kill him for the suffering he has caused.

  4. Antonia McGuane on October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I´m sorry to hear of all this misery. It matches well with the stories i´ve heard while at the consulate. I know this experience has a knock on affect that doesn´t go away easily. I was robbed at Sants Estacion a couple of weeks ago. Just asI was struggling with my big case on the stairs going down to the metro my carry -on case ws lifted . There were two thieves. Inside was everything heavy and important.. laptop, ex hard drive, camera, sketch books, notes, purse and it´s full contends of cards, passport etc. it was total. i came here to do an art project which I had bugun last october in gracia working with the Castellers. With all the referendes gone and time given to police visits , consulate etc plus the personal blow (also felt by family and friends) I know that project is a non starter. What really affected me though was hearing repeatedly that the official opinion and public opinion, including at the tourist offices is that nothing can be done, blame the tourist . haven´t you ever beenrobbed before ?. i think this is wrong thinking and that public opinion has a huge part to play in change, if it´s to happen.
    For me though….. I´ll try to do something else, still hoping to salvage something for my work from what was intended to be a very productive time.
    In the meteo tis weekend I saw a cartoon on the monitor showing a character who drops a special gift to chase afet baloons. It really showed me that the opinion is so far removed from reality.
    First most visitors are adults who cling to their posessions for dear life, not children with a poor attention span ,and second robbery isn´t a joke. A little realisn is called for.

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