Is it safe for women to walk the Camino de Santiago alone?
Authorities have been playing down risks of pilgrimage route in wake of US tourist’s murder
The arrest earlier this month of Miguel Ángel Muñoz Blas over the murder of Denise Thiem, who went missing in April while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in northern Spain, has highlighted the growing number of attacks against women, most of them from overseas, traveling one of the country’s best-known tourist routes.
There have been at least 15 reports of sexual assaults against women in areas through which the Camino and other associated pilgrimage routes pass. Most of them, unlike the death of Thiem, were only mentioned in local newspapers, if at all.
Thieves made off with cash and valuables after using pepper spray in a dormitory in a hostel in Lugo
In 2013, a man was arrested and later confessed to raping at least three women along a stretch of the Camino de Santiago running between Palencia and León.
In 2014 a Pakistani national was sentenced to 10 years in jail for robbing, beating and then forcing a Swedish woman to perform oral sex on him in the Basque Country province of Gipuzkoa. The same year, the Civil Guard arrested an Irish pilgrim in Portomarín, in Lugo province, in Galicia, on suspicion of having raped a German woman.
DNA evidence confirms body is that of Denise Thiem
Spanish police say that DNA testing has confirmed that the body found in a garden close to the town of Astorga, in León, on September 11 is that of US national Denise Pikka Thiem, who went missing while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in April.
The body of the 41-year-old was found on private land in the village of Castillo de los Polvazares after the arrest of Miguel Ángel Muñoz Blas, who has since confessed to the killing.
Muñoz Blas allegedly cut off the hands and an arm to avoid identification of the body. Thiem was attacked on a stretch of the Camino de Santiago close to Astorga. Blas is presumed to have taken her body first to woodland nearby, and then to private property, where it was hidden under branches. "Once he realized she was dead, he moved the body and buried it. This is an area where there are many wild animals," said Blas's lawyer, Vicente Prieto.
Investigators have discovered a small piece of bone from a human hand, which they say belonged to the victim.
In 2011, a man from Pontevedra was arrested following an attack on an Estonian woman passing through the Galician city. The previous year, in Santoña, a seaside town in Cantabria, which sits on the northern route of the Camino, police arrested a man suspected of trying to rape a 25-year-old Korean woman.
And only this month, a 73-year-old man was detained for allegedly sexually assaulting three women along a stretch of the Camino that passes through the town of Villaviciosa, in Asturias.
And it appears that ordinary criminals are also turning their attention to the Camino. In 2011, police in Navarre arrested two Moroccan men who had repeatedly stolen property from pilgrims staying in hostels along the route. In September 2014, a man from the city of León was caught red-handed in Boadilla del Camino, Palencia province, where he had already carried out at least 20 other robberies. The same month, thieves made off with several thousand euros of cash and valuable items after using pepper spray in a dormitory in a hostel in Lugo where several people were sleeping.
But Spanish authorities say that bearing in mind that more than 200,000 people travel the different stages of the route each year, crime levels are “well below the average.” Santiago Pérez, the dean of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, says “the route is totally, or almost totally safe.”
Nava Castro, the head of Galicia’s tourism agency insists that there are no safety issues, while a spokesman for the board points out that the Civil Guard regularly patrols the routes. But a senior Civil Guard officer based in Galicia says that this summer, the number of officers available to patrol the Camino de Santiago was cut, with units instead sent to the region’s most popular locations on the coast.
Last week, the central government’s delegate in the Galicia region, Santiago Villanueva, said pilgrims’ safety was “absolutely guaranteed,” while at the same time promising to “reinforce it.”
A few days before, South Korean ambassador to Spain, Park Hee-kwon, had expressed his concerns about safety on the Camino de Santiago. The Galician tourism board quickly issued a statement saying that the comments were the result of “misinterpretation,” and that the ambassador had “no doubts” about safety, and had been merely commenting on the notable increase in South Korean visitors. But, speaking shortly after the disappearance of Denise Thiem, the president of the Korean Association of Friends of the Camino, Diego Yoon said that many Korean women were “afraid” about traveling the route alone.
Last year, around 237,000 people completed the final stage of the route, which ends in Santiago de Compostela, more than half of them from overseas – the majority are Italians, Germans, Portuguese and Americans. This year looks set to top that figure. Rafael Sánchez Bargiela, the head of Plan Xacobeo, which is responsible for the route, insists that “crime on the route and in the villages along the way is far below the average.”
Conchi Alonso, the owner of the hostel where Denise Thiem spent her last night, says most of the travelers arriving there are unaware about what happened. “The Camino is a kind of bubble. People are still heading out at five in the morning, many of them alone,” she says.
A valuable asset
The Catholic Church authorities in Santiago de Compostela say they have no detailed accounts of how much money it makes from the Camino, noting only that “of the average €60 every pilgrim spends per day, barely 50 cents” goes to the Church. The Galician government admits that it has no “exact” figures on the impact of the different branches of the pilgrimage routes on the 120 regional towns and villages they pass through.
But the chamber of commerce in León province has put together some figures, saying that in 2014, pilgrims spent around €12 million there. “All the pilgrims leave money,” says a restaurant owner along the route.
The question now is how the murder of Denise Thiem, which has received international coverage, will impact on visitor numbers. “If there is a security and safety issue, then it will have to be tackled,” says a spokesman for the association that represents hotel, bar and restaurant owners in Santiago de Compostela. “The Camino has been slow to take new initiatives, and now finds itself at a critical point. The guidebooks warn people to look after their belongings, or that there are bed bugs in some of the hotels. But now we need to look at things from the perspective of women traveling the route,” he adds.