Statistics for the first quarter of 2006 showed that the crime rate generally was decreasing (down by nearly 4 per cent compared with 2005), particularly petty crime and violent robberies. The Spanish generally have a lot of respect for law and order, although ‘petty’ laws (such as illegal parking and making too much noise) are usually ignored. In villages away from the tourist areas, crime is almost unknown and windows and doors are usually left unlocked.
As in other countries, major cities have the highest crime rates and Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville and Valencia are among the worst. Many cities are notorious for ‘petty’ crime such as handbag snatching, pickpockets and thefts of and from vehicles. Stealing from cars, particularly those with foreign registrations, is endemic throughout Spain, although car theft was down by 7 per cent in 2005.
You should never leave anything on display in your car, including your stereo system, which should be removed when parking in cities and towns (in some areas it will be gone within 15 minutes). Even storing valuables in your boot (trunk) isn’t advisable, as thieves may force them open and steal the contents. In cities, it’s advisable to park in ‘guarded’ car parks, although they take no responsibility for a car’s contents.
Beware of theft!
The most common crime in Spain is theft, which embraces a multitude of forms. One of the most common is the ride-by bag snatcher on a motorbike or moped. Known as the ‘pull’ ( tirón), it involves grabbing a hand or shoulder bag (or a camera) and riding off with it, sometimes with the owner still attached (occasionally causing serious injuries). It’s advisable to carry bags on the inside of the pavement and to wear shoulder bags diagonally across your chest, although it’s better not to carry a bag at all (the strap can be cut) and wear a wrist pouch or money belt. You should also be wary of bag-snatchers in airport and other car parks, and never wear valuable jewellery and watches in high-risk areas. Motorcycle thieves also smash car windows at traffic lights to steal articles left on seats, so stow bags on the floor or behind seats.
Tourists and travellers are the targets of some of Spain’s most enterprising criminals, including highwaymen, who pose as accident or breakdown victims and rob motorists who stop to help them. Don’t leave cash or valuables unattended when swimming or leave your bags, cameras or jackets lying around on chairs in café or bars (always keep an eye on your belongings in public places). Beware of gangs of child thieves in cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, pickpockets and over-friendly strangers. Always remain vigilant in tourist haunts, queues and anywhere there are large crowds, and never tempt fate with an exposed wallet or purse or by flashing your money around. One of the most effective methods of protecting your passport, money, travellers cheques and credit cards is with an old-fashioned money belt. There has been a spate of muggings in some cities in recent years.
Housebreaking and burglary in Spain
Foreigners are often victims of housebreaking and burglary, particularly holiday homeowners, which is rife in resort areas, especially in the province of Alicante where housebreaking crimes have risen dramatically over the last few years. Always ensure that your home is secure and that your belongings are well insured, and never leave valuables lying around. It’s advisable to install a safe if you store valuables or cash in your home. Even having a guard dog may not help, as professional thieves may try to kill it and cut telephone lines to prevent owners from calling the police. In some areas, it isn’t unusual for owners to return from abroad to find their homes ransacked. Many developments and urbanisations are patrolled by security guards, although they usually have little influence on crime rates and may instil a false sense of security. It’s advisable to arrange for someone to frequently check your property when it’s left unoccupied. Petty theft by gypsies, who wander into homes when the doors are left open, is common in some parts of Spain.
Violent crime in Spain
Violent crime is still relatively rare, although armed robbery has increased considerably in the last decade or so. However, despite the fact that there’s an estimated 3m guns in Spain, they’re rarely used by crooks. Muggings at gun or knife-point are also rare in most towns, although they’re becoming more common in some areas and sexually-related crime has increased greatly in Madrid. There are no particular dangers for women travelling alone in Spain, although hitchhiking isn’t recommended. Sexual harassment is no longer a big problem, although women (particularly blondes) may be the subjects of unwanted attention in some areas. It’s advisable for lone women to use taxis rather than public transport late at night.
The most common source of violent crime in Spain comes from Euskadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA), meaning ‘Basque homeland and liberty’, the Basque terrorist organisation, which has been waging a struggle for independence since 1959. ETA’s campaign of violence has claimed over 1,000 lives in the last 30 years. In July 2006, however, the government announced the commencement of peace talks with the terrorist group, which hadn’t committed a murder for three years and had declared an indefinite ceasefire, and Spain is optimistic that an end to ETA terrorist violence is within sight, although it’s generally considered that the process will be long and difficult.
Crime on the Costa del sol
The Costa del Sol has earned an unsavoury reputation as a refuge for criminals and fugitives from justice, hence its nickname the ‘Costa del Crime’, although in recent years the Costa Blanca and Costa Brava have also attracted the wrong sort of tourists. Spain previously had no extradition treaty with most other European countries, although this changed with Spain’s entry into the European Union (EU). A new threat in recent years has come from foreign organised crime syndicates, who take advantage of open frontiers and use Spain as a safe haven from the law in their home countries. Much organised crime (particularly money laundering and drug trafficking) on the Costa del Sol is centred on Marbella and mostly involves foreigners, including the Russian Mafia (the police have identified around 20 different criminal organisations or ‘gangs’ on the Costa del Sol in recent years).
Crimes committed by foreigners
One of the biggest dangers to most foreigners in Spain isn’t from the Spanish, but from their own countrymen and other foreigners. It’s common for expatriate ‘businessmen’ to run up huge debts, through dishonesty or incompetence, and cut and run owing their clients and suppliers thousands of euros. In resort areas, confidence tricksters, swindlers, cheats and fraudsters lie in wait around every corner and newcomers must constantly be on their guard (particularly when buying a business). Fraud of every conceivable kind is a fine art in Spain. Always be wary of someone who offers to do you a favour or show you the ropes or anyone claiming to know how to ‘beat the system’. If anything sounds too good to be true, you can bet it almost certainly is. It’s a sad fact of life, but you should generally be more wary of doing business with your fellow countrymen in Spain than with the Spanish.
Although the increase in crime in Spain isn’t encouraging, the crime rate remains relatively low, particularly violent crime. This means that you can usually safely walk almost anywhere at any time of day or night, and there’s absolutely no need for anxiety or paranoia about crime. However, you should be ‘street-wise’ and take certain elementary precautions. These include avoiding high-risk areas, particularly those frequented by drug addicts, prostitutes and pickpockets. When you’re in an unfamiliar city, ask a tourist office, policeman, taxi driver or local person whether there are any unsafe neighbourhoods – and avoid them! You can safely travel on public transport in Spanish cities at night. As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure. This is particularly true when it comes to crime prevention in Spain, where only a small percentage of crimes are solved and the legal process is agonisingly slow. It’s also important to have adequate insurance for your possessions. Report all crimes to the police, but don’t expect them to take any interest in your case.
Domestic violence is an ever increasing problem in Spain, where hardly a day seems to go by without a woman being murdered or injured by her partner or husband. In many cases, the woman has reported the man to the police on several occasions, but little has been done to protect her or the man has violated a court order. Urgent measures, including mobile phones connected to a police ‘hotline’ for high-risk victims, faster court cases and increased police vigilance have been introduced. Further information about what to do if you’re a victim of domestic violence or feel threatened by your partner is available from the Woman’s Institute (Instituto de la Mujer, 900-191 010). Calls are free and lines are open 24-hours a day.
Drugs are often behind the motivation for most crime in Spain’s major cities. Drug addiction is a huge and growing problem throughout Spain, and drug addicts (and prostitutes) are a common sight in many towns and cities. Spain is the major gateway for cocaine and hashish into Europe and drugs are easy to obtain, particularly in the cities. It’s an offence to possess soft drugs such as hashish, although the law tends to turn a blind eye to its use and it’s openly smoked in many bars and clubs. However, the possession and use of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine is strictly prohibited. Spain is particularly harsh in its treatment of foreign drug dealers (of whom there are many), who can be held on remand for years without trial (much of the organised crime in Spain such as drugs and prostitution is run by foreigners). Foreigners travelling to and from Spain in private or commercial vehicles must take particular care when exporting goods or freight from Spain, as cargoes are frequently found to contain hidden drugs.
There are conflicting reports about the treatment of prisoners, some claiming it to be inhumane and others exemplary. While conditions in Spanish prisons vary considerably, most are no worse than those in other European countries; the ‘family modules’ housing women and children under three are considered to be among the ‘best’ in the world. Spain houses over 13,400 foreigners in its jails (nearly a quarter of its prisoners), half of whom are from the EU and a large percentage serving sentences for drug offences.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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