Barcelona Crisis And The Clash Between Politicians And Vigilantes

In recent weeks, a gripping story has seeped out of Barcelona’s sweltering subway system. Its heroes are a group of vigilantes clad in sports clothes, have-a-go heroes hunting the pickpockets who pilfer from unsuspecting tourists. The story paints a vivid picture of a city on the edge, whose politicians can no longer be trusted to protect their people.

These vigilantes have been patrolling the underground network for a decade, picking off the thieves in relative obscurity. But they’ve finally been dragged out of the shadows by Barcelona’s security crisis, which shows no sign of abating. With over 25 crimes being committed every hour, a city renowned for its golden serenity is now being portrayed as a melting pot of crime and unrest.

In a desperate attempt to seize the narrative, Barcelona’s politicians have finally announced a crackdown. But no-one seems particularly convinced it will make any difference.

Boiling point

The Catalan capital has always had its shadier areas, of course. The multicultural barrio of Raval, popular with boozy tourists, has long attracted police scrutiny for its ethnic tensions. But Barcelona has never had no-go zones, places that visitors are warned to avoid at all costs. Over recent months, however, things have turned decidedly ugly.

Seven people have been murdered since the start of summer, the latest a 26-year-old man who was stabbed at a disco in the Port Olimpic neighbourhood last week, after a dispute over a stolen mobile phone. As if these bloody feuds weren’t bad enough for the city’s reputation, the brutal attacks on two foreign diplomats – one of which proved fatal – have generated uncomfortable headlines around the world. The latest reports show that robberies are up 30%, and at least one sexual assault is committed every day. Street scuffles are now so common that no-one can keep count. 

As the people of Barcelona search for scapegoats, the spotlight has fallen on two prominent figures. One is the regional interior minister Miquel Buch, reviled by local security forces for failing to give them adequate resources. The other is Barcelona’s left-wing mayor Ada Colau, who stands accused of denuding local security forces and allowing criminals to act with impunity. Colau continues to claim that Barcelona is among the most secure cities in the world, but her opponents accuse her creating “disaster and chaos.”

Now, finally, it appears the politicians are ready to act. A new plan, backed by Buch and Colau, is in the works. Headlined Barcelona Secure City, it promises hundreds of new police units as well as a brand-new command centre near the central Placa Catalunya neighbourhood, which will allow the two primary police forces – the municipal Guardia Urbana and the regional Mossos d’Esquadra – to liaise with one another. The plan’s working committee has also demanded the modification of the Spanish penal code to ensure that repeat thieves face jail time, rather than fines.

Cynical response

However, many remain unconvinced. The plan won’t be finalized for several weeks, but already the unions of both the Guardia Urbana and Mossos d’Esquadra have spoken out in condemnation, saying they don’t have the resources to provide the increased security presence.

A spokesperson for the Mossos union, Uspac, told InsideOver that Buch and his fellow politicians are guilty of “neglect” in the way they have allowed the security situation to escalate, and pointed out that Mossos officers are paid less for over-time than for regular hours – a situation which makes many reluctant to work the extra shifts that will be necessary under the plan.

“If they want to put extra officers in one area, they’ll have to take them from another,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t think that’s the best way forward.”  

The reaction from the Guardia Urbana’s union, Sapol, was even more emphatic. Their spokesperson told us that Colau and her allies have “tried to dismantle our control structure”, removing judicial assistance from the officers while giving it to those arrested, and accused them of running a campaign of “persecution” against the agency which has allowed mafias to insinuate themselves.

Just like the Mossos, the Guardia Urbana believes that “you can’t take officers from one place and put them in another — if you do that, the problem will get even bigger.” The problem will only be solved, the spokesperson says, by paying the officers properly and giving them the necessary support to run a 24-hour service.

“We’ll carry on”

Perhaps the most troubling reaction of all comes from the vigilantes, the ones who’ve been patrolling the underground for years and have risen to stardom at the worst possible time for Barcelona’s leaders.

The group’s figurehead is Eliana Guerrero, who has been running the patrols since the beginning. She told InsideOver that Barcelona’s security situation will only be resolved if the authorities are willing to take proper action – something which she believes they have no intention of doing.

“They’re going to do a quick fix,” Guerrero said. “They’ll rush through, like we’ve seen before [with previous legislative changes]. They’re going to muddle through with a botched job, a patch-up, and it’ll be a case of ‘ok, we’ve fixed everything.’ It won’t be the case.”

Although Guerrero is a leftist herself, she told us that Colau and her supporters have allowed their ideology to blur their approach to administration.  

“They see the police as the enemy, and there’s certainly resentment from the law enforcement bodies. And we’ve seen her give plenty of scope to certain groups – yes they are human beings and we have to find solutions, but you can’t give them so much free rein that things spiral out of control, as we’re seeing now.”

In light of the recent response the vigilantes have received, the politicians would doubtless love them to stop their patrols. However, Guerrero told us she had no intention of calling a halt, vowing “to keep undertaking these patrols until I see a real change.”

No doubt the politicians will continue their charm offensive over the coming weeks, before their security blueprint is finally ready for roll-out. They’ll make further lavish promises of increased security, better coordination, and a clean-up of those now-infamous no-go areas.

But for now, at least, Barcelona continues to simmer. The frenzied summer tourist season may be drawing to a close, but few people believe things will cool down any time soon.