RURAL SAFETY

Spain’s lawless towns

Thousands of small communities lack a police presence and live in constant fear of crime

La Vall d’Alcalá Mayor Pablo Martínez in the local church.
La Vall d’Alcalá Mayor Pablo Martínez in the local church.Pepe Olivares

La Vall d’Alcalà is one of the 3,880 communities in Spain with fewer than 500 inhabitants and no police or Civil Guard presence. It takes law enforcement authorities at least 35 minutes to reach this isolated valley about 50 kilometers inland from the resort town of Denia, Alicante province, where there are just 14 Civil Guards to cover an area of 170 square kilometers. As a result, La Vall d’Alcalà has become an increasingly easy target for thieves. The bar in the sports center has been burgled five times in the last three years, and three weeks ago the campsite was robbed for the third time in five months. In August, during the annual summer festivities, crooks broke into the town hall just hours after a local historian had presented a book on the banditry that plagued the area in the 19th century.

This isn’t working, this is suffering, you feel so unsafe all the time” La Vall d’Alcalà resident

The thieves entered the town hall in the early hours of that morning, taking around €300, along with the safe, which weighs 300 kilograms. “They used a trailer, which they had stolen from a garage, but the safe was so heavy that it fell off when they were going round a bend and they had to leave it,” says Pablo Martínez, La Vall d’Alcalà’s Socialist mayor. The safe, which contained €500 and a rare book from the 18th century, was found by a local resident the next morning.

This was not the first time the town hall had been robbed. In 2013, thieves stole the mayor’s computer. “We are in the hands of God,” says Francisco Verdú, who runs the bar in the sports center, and says he no longer feels safe in the community. “Every time I open up the place in the mornings I’m worried. This isn’t working, this is just suffering: you feel unsafe the whole time.”

Amparo Alemany, who runs the local retirees association, agrees: “Thieves have broken into several homes here. One lady, who has since died, was in her own home when they broke in. The thieves threatened reprisals if she reported them to the police. She was terrified and couldn’t sleep.”

Former military base left to rot

A 40-minute drive from La Vall d’Alcalà is the former Aitana US military base, which has been abandoned for the last eight years. Most of the buildings in the complex are now beyond repair, a situation that Francisco Miguel Fenollar, the mayor of nearby Alcolega, says symbolizes the neglectfulness of successive Spanish governments toward the country’s rural interior. When the Defense Ministry was dismantling the base, Fenollar suggested opening a retirement home there or a small hotel to encourage tourism in the area, and that in turn might create badly needed jobs. “There was no reply, and now there is nothing to be done,” he says, pointing out that the site has been repeatedly ransacked and vandalized. “The local and central government stood by and did nothing, despite the potential the place had for public use,” he says.

La Vall d’Alcalà is reached by a narrow mountain road that winds through the Foradá hills. Most of its 183 inhabitants are retired, and live in two communities: Alcalà de la Jovada, the largest, and Beniaia, which is home to just 10 families, among them that of Vicente Badía, who says that thieves recently stole a kilometer of telephone cable, leaving the village incommunicado for a month.

“We have been totally abandoned by politicians and the authorities,” says another local resident. “An ambulance takes 90 minutes to get here; a few years ago they opened a bus stop and I think just one has arrived since then… And there is no security. Every time you call the Civil Guard, they take an hour or two to arrive, and sometimes they just don’t bother. This isn’t working, this is suffering, you feel so unsafe all the time.”

The nearest Civil Guard barracks is in Pego, and is responsible for eight villages in the area with a total population of 13,000 – around 10,500 in Pego itself with the rest scattered among communities such as La Vall d’Alcalà. Local police admit that they cannot cover the whole area properly, and that they are kept busy just dealing with what comes up in Pego. They add that there is more crime in the larger communities.

“One thing is the subjective perception that somebody might have who has been robbed and their feeling of insecurity, and another is the reality: Spain is one of the safest countries in Europe,” says a spokesman for the Civil Guard.

According to Valencia regional government data, more than 200 communities in its three provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellón lack a police presence. There are 8,122 municipalities in the whole of Spain, almost half of which have fewer than 500 inhabitants; 14 percent have under 100 people living in them. The Civil Guard has 1,969 posts throughout the country to deal with areas under its jurisdiction, covering 83.14 percent of the territory. “This isn’t just about security and safety and the lack of public transportation or ambulances. The doctor is only available for two hours a day. It’s no wonder people are leaving the countryside for the towns if the government doesn’t bother investing in these villages in the interior,” says Mayor Martínez.

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Francisco Miguel Fenollar, the mayor of nearby Alcolega, population 200, agrees. “Two years ago a house was broken into and the owner was found dead the next morning, tied to a chair. The crooks took everything they wanted, with total impunity,” he says.

He goes further: “As there is no public order, people do what they want. These are basically communities where there is no law. One day, a lorry turned up and dumped 400 used tires here, as though the village were a garbage dump, and nobody did anything about it.”

Fenollar and Martínez say they are working to improve services in the area, as well as to develop rural tourism. “We need to create new sources of wealth generation so that people want to stay in these communities,” argues Martínez, who is now considering teaming up with other municipalities to fund private security patrols. Meanwhile, for the moment, the safe has been relocated, embedded deep in the walls of the church.