Rising crime rate in Barcelona prompts return of citizen patrols

Several groups are modeling themselves after the US Guardian Angels, and using social media to get organized in the face of increased insecurity

A citizen patrol in action on the Barcelona metro.Video: CRISTÓBAL CASTRO
Rebeca Carranco

With crime rates on the rise in Barcelona, some residents are taking the initiative and resorting to techniques of the past, which are now being made more effective thanks to modern technology.

Citizen patrols are back on the subway system, where members are sharing images of crimes via social media, then creating “crime maps” and calling on residents to unite.

Tito Álvarez, a man who gained public prominence during the taxi sector’s strikes over licenses, recently presented an initiative called Salvalona, which he described as a “citizen movement” to “channel” popular unhappiness with soaring crime in the city.

More violent

There were 49,300 crime reports between January and March in Barcelona, half of which were for theft. But the biggest cause for concern is the rise in violent theft (28%), representing around 40 cases a day.

"Those are committed by inexperienced people, who have not been taught how to steal," says a source at the Mossos police force. A case in point is the South Korean government official who recently died after being knocked over by a motorcyclist who had tried to make off with her handbag. There are also organized groups who gang up on tourists to take their watches.

The police say this is tied to the arrival of very young immigrants in Barcelona. “Only a minority of them perpetrate crimes, but they are highly recidivist.”

“This one’s a rat,” says David R., one of the members of Patrulla Ciudadana (Citizen Patrol), pointing at a woman. It is midday at the Paseo de Gràcia metro station, a hotspot for tourists where pickpockets have a field day, he says.

David, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, unhesitatingly approaches the woman and starts blowing on a whistle. “She’s a pickpocket! Help us get her out of here! Out, out, out!” he cries. Standing next to him, Angy S., 26, holds up a sign with the word “pickpocket” printed in seven languages. Their target, far from being intimidated, holds her ground and takes a picture of them.

A few passengers join the pair, telling the alleged thief to leave. Others say that “presumption of innocence” should be respected. The woman eventually gets off the subway car, which is the patrol’s stated goal: to kick out the pickpockets before they take someone’s valuables.

“There’s no price tag on the satisfaction of preventing a theft,” says David, who adds that by now he can spot a pickpocket in a crowd. Also patrolling with him today are Daniel S., 42, and Carlos G., 19, a math student.

The leader of the group is Eliana Guerrero, a 47-year-old woman from Colombia who began patrolling the Barcelona subway system 12 years ago, whistle in hand. She worked at it on and off, moved to Valencia for a while, and is now back at the helm of an initiative that has since gained traction.

“There’s around 40 of us and we organize through WhatsApp,” explains Guerrero, who owns a real estate company. Asked what prompts them to take this action, the answer is: “Altruism.”

There is another group that’s been patrolling the metro for months, and calls itself ROAR (Residents’ Organization Against Robbery). On a recent Wednesday, members of both groups gathered in the company of two guests from the Guardian Angels, a volunteer crime-prevention organization created in New York City in the 1980s. The Guardian Angels are the role model for Barcelona’s own volunteer crime busters.

There’s no price tag on the satisfaction of preventing a theft

David R., Patrulla Ciudadana

Both local groups collaborate on social media through accounts such as Helpers Barcelona, which defines itself as as “a collaborative citizen safety platform. Real-time mapping of assaults, drug dens, theft and other crimes.” The group asks for citizen cooperation through direct messages.

Members of this platform told this newspaper that they are residents of the downtown neighborhood of Ciutat Vella, but declined to give out their names because they say they have received threats.

Other residents in the neighborhood of Sant Antoni have launched a campaign called Vigila, which asks citizens to report any crime they see taking place. The group has given local businesses posters to put up on their premises: “If you see something odd, call 112”.

The latest initiative is the aforementioned Salvalona, created by taxi industry leader Tito Álvarez. “This is a movement that unites taxi drivers, citizen patrols, business owners, the world of private security...,” he explains in a telephone conversation.

Álvarez has met with officials from the Catalan regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, and from the municipal law enforcement agency Guardia Urbana. His short-term plan is to organize an assembly in Ciutat Vella and to create an app that will work as “a kind of 112” where citizens can sign up and send in alerts. “In September we’re going to organize a big protest,” he says.

As for funding, Guerrero says she feels bad about asking for money, while ROAR Barcelona has launched a donation campaign on Facebook. And Tito Álvarez is contacting businesses: “Each one can contribute what they can afford.”

Police reaction

The Mossos are keeping an eye on these initiatives. “Citizen cooperation is indispensable in the fight against crime. But it’s quite another thing to kick out a person with a paid ticket whom they haven’t directly witnessed in the act of stealing. That’s the police’s work,” said a source at this agency. In fact, the alleged pickpockets could in theory make a police complaint against the citizen patrols in such a case.

The Barcelona Metropolitan Transportation authority (TMB) has declined to comment on the existence of these crime-prevention groups.

English version by Susana Urra.

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