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Crime wave threatens to dent Barcelona's image

By Earle Gale in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-08-22 18:19

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. [Photo/VCG]

An eruption of serious crime in the Spanish city of Barcelona is threatening to tarnish the popular tourism hotspot's reputation.

The city's problems came to the fore on the weekend when Afghanistan's ambassador to Spain, Masood Khalili, was robbed by a gang of attackers who threw him to the floor and stole his watch. A 91-year-old French woman was also targeted on the same day, suffering head injuries when she was assaulted for her necklace. The incidents, along with the violent robbery of a German tourist two days earlier, prompted Barcelona's deputy mayor, Albert Batlle, to describe the situation as "a crime crisis".

The incidents follow the death of a South Korean woman in June who had been with a visiting government delegation and who had fallen and struck her head when a thief grabbed her purse.

The bad publicity from the incidents has cast a shadow over the city, which is known for its sunshine, beaches, bars, and historic culture.

Luis Sans, president of a central Barcelona business group, told the BBC the situation "is out of control" while Andres Maluelda, from the law firm Molins, told El Periodico newspaper: "The legislative and judicial powers are not managing to provide a response to a specific problem in our society: repeated theft."

He said a 2015 reform of the penal code means courts rarely sentence first-time petty criminals to jail time, and repeat offenders get the option of paying a fine instead of doing time if they are charged with stealing items worth less than 400 euros ($444). Much of the crime blighting the city is being blamed locally on unaccompanied children who migrated to the city, mainly from Morocco.

Official figures show the crime wave is more than anecdotal. Crime increased overall by 9 percent during the first six months of 2019 compared to the previous year, and violent crime spiked by 31 percent in comparison to 2018. It has gone up by 60 percent during the last three years.

To combat the problem and better protect Barcelona's 1.6 million residents and its 16 million annual tourists, the regional government has pledged 300 more police officers and additional patrols. Barcelona's mayor, Ada Colau, has also increased spending on law and order, by 16 percent last year and by a further 11 percent this year.

But the problem is large. Britain's Sun newspaper said the city had 115,014 reported crimes between January and June, including murders, sex attacks, gang fights, and a spree of thefts on the metro transportation system.

Spanish newspaper El Pais said the tally included seven violent deaths in a 40-day period and 11 so far for the year.

The apparent breakdown of law and order prompted warnings to be posted in seven languages around the city's famous Sagrada Familia cathedral, highlighting cuts in police funding and warning people that their safety could not be guaranteed.

The Express newspaper quoted Batlle, as saying: "Homicides worry us, but … Barcelona continues to be a safe city compared with Paris, London or Rome."

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