a photo of police officers of Mossos d'Esquadra during an anti-terrorist operation in Barcelona, where crime has been on the rise.
Police officers of Mossos d'Esquadra carry evidence during an anti-terrorist operation in Barcelona, where crime has been on the rise. Albert Gea/Reuters

The city’s historic district, Ciutat Vella, is seeing a rise in street crime. What’s driving it?   

When Eliza left her apartment in Barcelona’s central El Born neighborhood for a trip over the recent holidays, she wasn’t sure what state she’d find her home in when she got back.

“I witness pickpocketings and break-ins several times a day in my neighborhood nowadays,” she told CityLab via email. She works as a translator, having moved from Athens eight years ago to the narrow, picturesque jumble of Barcelona’s old city, and prefers not to use her last name. She has noticed the area getting steadily more insecure. “Increasingly, thieves aren’t even trying to be stealthy. I’ve seen them just climb onto a balcony at 2 a.m. or break a bar’s window with a drainpipe. It’s got so bad that when I went away, I divided my stuff among several friends’ flats, so I had a better chance of coming home to at least some of it.”

That may sound like an extreme reaction, but Barcelona is indeed enduring an alarming spike in crime. Across the city, reported cases of crimes rose by 20.5 percent over 2018, with just over a quarter of the city’s residents becoming victims of a crime over the same period. Zoom in on the figures, however, and one area sails far ahead of the rest—the four tourist-filled neighborhoods that make up Barcelona’s Old City, called Ciutat Vella in Catalan. According to figures from the city, 36.6 percent of Ciutat Vella residents reported being victims of a crime over 2018, with the rate of robbery with violence or intimidation reported in August 2018 in the area having doubled year-on-year.

That figure should rightly sound alarming, but the idea of a Barcelonan crime wave needs to be put in perspective. Spain as a whole still has one of the lowest murder rates in the world—lower than Germany, or its neighbors France and Portugal—and Barcelona’s rates do not necessarily buck this trend. According to the Spanish publication La Vanguardia, by far the largest category of reported crimes in Barcelona’s Old City are thefts without violence, which in August 2017 constituted 74 percent of all recorded offenses; robberies with violence and intimidation constituted 5.7 percent.

This high level of theft is nonetheless cause for concern, reaching a level not seen since a heroin epidemic in 1986. The spike is also going against the general tide in Spain, where crime rates in most cities are either falling or rising mildly. Down the coast in Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, crime overall fell by 0.2 percent, and thefts by 2.2. In Seville, Spain’s fourth-largest city, the drops have been greater, with a fall in thefts of 12.2 percent.

Given that the area is at the heart of Barcelona’s booming tourist industry, the figures should at the very least get visitors to the city this year gripping their bags and wallets tighter. It is also causing deep frustration and stress among residents, some of whom took to the streets in September to protest declining conditions in the area, thanks to crime, drug dealing, and a street-based sex industry. So what exactly is going on?

A neighborhood under stress

Ciutat Vella has never had a great reputation for safety: A knotted, densely populated warren of old streets, it contains pockets of both considerable wealth and harsh poverty. Despite abundant character, beauty, and occasional grand spaces, the old city was largely shunned by the wealthy in the late 20th century for its dingy flats and narrow, malodorous alleyways. But since the 1990s, it’s been experiencing intense gentrification.

Thanks to its central location, it also attracts huge numbers of visitors. Many of its apartments have being snapped up for short-term rentals, and its famed central pedestrian promenade, La Rambla, has lately turned into a tourist treadmill.

(Photo by Martin Abegglen/Wikimedia Commons)

Pockets of deprivation nonetheless remain within minutes’ walk of this area. The El Raval area of Ciutat Vella, a mainly working class district southwest of La Rambla and close to the port, is still one of the city’s most impoverished areas. While the area now has a fashionable reputation in parts, the situation in much of El Raval has deteriorated since the 2007 financial crisis, as evictions have thinned its population and repossessed properties owned by banks have remained vacant.

This has made the area ripe for use by the drug trade, with homes along El Raval’s alleys becoming narcopisos (“narco-flats”) where drugs, usually opioids, are sold and taken. This concentrated cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of wealth and tourism with poverty and drug traffic adds up to a potent recipe for street crime.

A policing pile-up

Ciutat Vella’s problems could also describe parts of any number of heavily touristed European cities, where similar tensions exist over crime, affluence, and visitor safety. But the situation here is being exacerbated by a uniquely Barcelonan twist. The city’s policing responsibilities are divided between a municipal department and one under the control of the autonomous community of Catalonia, which has lately been vying for independent statehood. The set-up is complex, politically fraught, and not entirely joined-up. Such is the cluster of responsible bodies that a crime committed in Barcelona can, during the process of investigation, end up involving several different police forces.

The main crime-fighting force in Catalonia is called the Mossos D’Esquadra, an organization controlled by the regional government that took on Catalonia’s main policing burden between 1994 and 2008. The force it replaced—the federal Guardia Civil—still retains some powers in the region, overseeing such areas as immigration, backing up the Mossos on anti-terrorism, and serving in various emergencies. (Most notoriously: The federal police beat people attempting to vote in the Catalan independence referendum on October 1, 2017. On top of these two, there is also the Guardia Urbana, a force under city of Barcelona control that has a remit mainly limited to traffic and mobility, handing out tickets rather than pursuing major crimes. The result of this plurality is a “perfect storm” of organizational confusion, according to Gemma Galdon Clavell, an expert on security policy at the University of Barcelona.

“We don’t have a very clear division of labor between police forces,” she told CityLab by telephone, “and that causes problems and conflicts. It also adds bureaucracy to everything, because if a member of the local police [the Guardia Urbana] arrests someone, they need to transfer that person to regional police [the Mossos D’Esquadra] for them to be processed.”

In recent years, this unwieldy situation has come under particular strain. The drug trafficking boom is only part of the problem. The Mossos D’Esquadra have been handed new and substantial anti-terrorism responsibilities in the wake of the incident in La Rambla in August 2017, when Islamist terrorists killed 13 in a vehicle attack. Under this pressure, the force now say that the agreement distributing powers between them and other police forces has become “obsolete,” although they were given leave to recruit 750 more officers in the fall.

No crimes, just misdemeanors

There’s another complication in the Barcelonan crime issue. When police do catch perpetrators of petty thefts, there isn’t necessarily much the law can do to stop them offending again. That’s because, according to Spain’s national law, theft of anything worth less than €400 ($459) is not a crime, but a misdemeanor. Being caught typically means a small fine, but multiple offenses are not cumulatively recognized as adding up to a more serious charge. So the thieves working in gangs tend to treat the risk of being caught and fined as something more like a routine occupational hazard, or just part of their overall operating expenses.

Indeed, one particular feature of Spanish criminality that the law has partly induced is that, after a theft of high value items, gangs will immediately break their haul into parcels worth less than €400, to avoid the chance of a criminal penalty.

Pointing the finger

Some feel the city’s government should also bear some responsibility for the problems. Under the leadership of Mayor Ada Colau (who still has a narrow majority approval rating), the Guardia Urbana have backpedaled a little on their previous function as agents of public order. Colau’s left-leaning political grouping, Barcelona en Comú, evolved in part from an anti-eviction activist network, and as a result may tend to be skeptical about any form of heavy-handed police deployment. Former police assistant director and current Catalan Green Party politician Jaume Bosch, one of the officials responsible for creating the Mossos D’Esquadra’s role in its present form, noted in a magazine interview that City Hall had “a somewhat hippy idea, according to which they understood that everything could be solved with social mechanisms, and that the police were not really their thing.”

While the city is currently enlarging the Guardia Urbana, there may be some truth in this. But although this force could have a deterrent effect, Galdon Clavell notes, it would still need to hand any arrestees over to the Catalonian police for processing. It is thus the region rather than the mayor who has control over the force most empowered to improve the situation. But thanks to recent political turmoil in Catalonia, those regional authorities are facing serious struggles elsewhere.

A strife-ridden independence debate

Making this complex policing machine run smoothly isn’t easy for a region that’s also grappling with wider political chaos. Catalonia’s failed independence referendum of 2017 sent shockwaves across Spain that have yet to subside. Since national courts judged the organization of the vote by key political figures in the region to have been illegal, many have left the country or been imprisoned. This, Gemma Galdon Clavell says, is hardly a recipe for decisive political action.

“The region hasn’t been able to focus on policy because much of our government’s energy and time has been co-opted by the political demand for independence,” she said. “Some of the people who took positions of responsibility are now behind bars or have left the country. It’s not just that energy has been diverted. The cabinet has changed three or four times since the referendum.”

What makes the situation more fraught is that policing is interpreted through the prism of the independence debate. Criticism of the regionally controlled Mossos, pro-independence Catalonians fear, might be a possible preliminary to a power grab from the national government, one that could dilute Catalonia’s own limited powers to rule itself.

This all makes Ciutat Vella’s crime rate rises difficult to unpack, furthering the area’s reputation as the place where Barcelona’s problems are often thrashed out in public—and where residents must grin and bear rather a lot. But will crime fears hurt the city’s critical tourist industry? Probably not. Catalonia’s visitor numbers dropped five percent from summer 2017 to summer 2018. But the tourist traffic from the 2016 and 2017 seasons was so enormous—8.8 million overnight visitors clogged the city in 2017—the throngs of visitors placed the city and region under some strain.

Plus, the largest fall in numbers in fact came from domestic Spanish visitors, perhaps put off as much by the ongoing strife between Catalonia and the nation-state as by crime figures. And as city policies designed to rein in the excesses of the tourist industry start to bite, the area may, somewhat perversely, become a more pleasant place to visit.

Still, the crime spree does risk tarnishing the city’s image. Since its rebranding following the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has successfully conveyed an image as a city continually on the rise: self-confident, livable, vibrant, and increasingly prosperous. It’s also increasingly known as a leader in progressive, pedestrian-first urban planning. That rebrand helped fuel a tourist boom—one that’s been so resounding that there are few people left in the city that don’t feel at least a little ambivalent about it.

Barcelona still offers those visitors the impression of highly-functioning and often beautiful place. But its stubborn inability to control nuisance-level crime reveals another side to its international image of success: as a place where wealth and poverty clash with increasing garishness, where both the tourist and drug trade evade control, and where political turmoil elsewhere complicates the management of everyday life.

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