BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Robberies involving violence or intimidation have spiked sharply in Barcelona, one of Europe’s most attractive summer vacation destinations, Spanish police officials said.
Officials from the regional police force for Catalonia said muggings or street robberies that include the threat of violence have increased 30% since the beginning of the year compared to the same period in 2018 in the popular Mediterranean city that draws nearly 16 million visitors a year.
Those attacks, often targeting tourists, have sometimes hit foreign officials.
This week the Afghan ambassador to Spain was knocked to the ground by a group of thieves who took his watch, injuring his leg. Also this month a FBI agent on vacation had his watch stolen in the center of Barcelona.
In June, a South Korean official died from injuries received when she was knocked to the ground when a thief riding a motorbike tried to snatch her purse.
Police director Andreu Martínez said Wednesday that police were working to halt the crime wave that had “generated a heightened perception of insecurity.”
The U.S. Embassy issued an advisory to warn alert tourists to “petty theft schemes that have included acts of violence, such as aggressive thefts of jewelry, watches, and purses.”
With its beaches, cuisine and architectural delights, Barcelona, a city with a population of 1.6 million residents, draws 12 million foreign tourists a year and another 4 million from within Spain.
Barcelona has long been considered a safe city, except for a persistent problem of pickpockets who target the large number of foreigners flooding the city each summer.
But what was once a silent hand reaching into the pocket or purse of an unsuspecting victim has now turned aggressive. It appears that thieves have begun to work in groups and use force to extract the property of victims.
Police did not say what they believe the rise in violent crime is due to.
But some locals point to the several thousand underage migrants, mostly from Morocco and Algeria, who have arrived to Spain without their parents in recent years and their fears have been a focus of right-wing parties.
Police statistics indicate that 12% of those minors have committed a crime that employed violence or the threat of violence since arriving to the region of Catalonia.
Albert Batlle, the head of security for Barcelona’s town hall, has said that these minors should be returned to their families.
But the regional chief for social affairs, Chakir el Homrani, has maintained it is more of a social problem and that “we have dehumanized the collective of unaccompanied minors” by associating them with criminality.
Police officials complain about light punishments for petty theft, where even repeat offenders are often allowed to pay a fine instead of doing jail time for thefts for of less than 400 euros (443 dollars).
Police said that arrests for violent robberies have increased by 80% this year. But that of those 1,627 arrested individuals, only 159, or 9.7%, were kept in custody until trial.