In 2019, Barcelona was in the midst of a crime wave.
Headlines splashed across local newspapers and UK papers citing the alarming rise in street robberies—including the death of a Korean diplomat during a violent mugging. Most troubling of all, of the 83,472 robberies in the first half of 2019, some 5,310 were classed as “violent”, a rise of 30.3 percent compared to the same period the previous year, according to Ara.cat.
But the crime figures for the first half of 2020 look very different.
During the national lockdown imposed to tackle to coronavirus pandemic crime rates dropped dramatically.
From March 14th to June 20th, there was a 56 percent drop in petty theft and a 38 percent drop in robberies using force, according to the official Barcelona City website.
But as the city reopened and people filtered back on to the streets, so too did the criminals.
But there was one major difference to pre-lockdown – the lack of the tourists who make for easy prey for the seasoned crime gangs.
With far fewer tourists in Barcelona—due to the travel ban on US visitors to the EU coupled with EU warnings on traveling to Spain and simply a trend by many Europeans for staycations —current victims are largely Spanish citizens.
In particular, criminals are targeting elderly people and women, according to El Periodico, and stealing jewelry, mobile phones, and wallets.
In a survey of 800 residents conducted by the Barcelona City Council during the first half of July, crime is a main concern for 17.6 percent of the respondents.
Last year The Local reported on the rise of citizen patrols where groups of crime-fighting residents would patrol some of the most notorious streets and the metro system to spot pickpockets and warn potential victims.
Eliana Guerrero has pioneered citizen patrols in Barcelona to identify pickpockets on the metro. Photo: Wikimedia
Criminals largely operate in gangs on Barcelona’s public transport, in shops, and on the street in areas in and around Ciutat Vella, the historic city center, and the Eixample district.
The vast majority are repeat offenders. The Mossos d’Esquadra, the police force of Catalonia, has currently identified 159 active multi-recidivist criminals who focus on street robberies, according to El Peridico. Of these, 11 percent have committed violent robberies.
In response, in June of this year, the Mossos launched the “Tremall” plan, aimed at fighting violent robberies by targeting repeat offenders. To date, the operation has resulted in the arrest of 360 criminals linked to 1,280 violent robberies, according to Metropoli Abierto.
On July 30, 2020, in a period of 24 hours, the Mossos arrested three men for separate violet robberies, including a 22-year-old who had stolen a watch from a victim in Ciudad Vella. The perpetrator had a dozen previous arrests for theft, according to Metropoli Abierto.
But what has long plagued the Barcelona judicial system—and why there are so many repeat offenders—is the imbalance between arrests and convictions.
As The Local reported previously people often complain that they report the crime to police, often providing photos of the perpetrators snapped hurriedly on their mobile phones, believing it should be easy enough to round up the thieves.
But even if the police did have the manpower and the will to do it, there is little they can do by law to keep them off the streets.
Under Spanish law, stealing something with a value less than €400 is considered a falta (misdemeanour), and not a delito (crime). Those caught will be liable for a fine, of probably no more than €50, but however many times you re-offend, it remains a misdemeanour and as an offence it is not cumulative.
That's why gangs of pickpockets appear so brazen, often working the same beat with no need to even hide themselves. Some people have complained that after going to the police station to file a report and returning to their hotel, they see the same people who just robbed them, in the same spot waiting for new victims.
Another issue for the more serious offences such as violent robberies is that in order for a suspected criminal to be convicted, both the suspect and the victim must be present at trial, with the victim required to identify the perpetrator in person.
If the victim is a tourist, what generally happens is that they file a complaint with the police but don’t return to Barcelona for the trial. The result is that criminals are soon released to commit the same crimes again and again.
In 2018, there were 1,627 persons arrested for violent street robberies in the city, but just 159 were sent to prison (a rate of around 10%), according to figures from Ara.cat.
But this year, there’s a definite possibility that more repeat offenders will go to prison.
Given that victims are largely locals or Spanish citizens—and thus are more likely to be present at trial—this should result in more criminal convictions and harsher penalties for repeat offenders.
This will raise hope that by the time tourists return to Barcelona en masse the streets will be safer.