The virus that has turned crime upside down

Drug trafficking and scams, among the few to escape unprecedented pandemic decline

3 min
Operation against drug trafficking in the Raval in October last year.

BarcelonaNo one would have imagined that a year after the summer in which there was talk of a "security crisis" in Barcelona, crime would fall by 28% in Catalonia and more than 40% in the Catalan capital. The unexpected covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on crime, which, once the first year of the pandemic has concluded, has left a balance that is unlikely to be repeated. As in all areas, the most decisive factor in 2020 has been home lockdown, although another of the effects of the virus is that "life has been lost in the streets", recalls the president of the College of Criminologists of Catalonia, Daniel Limones. This has reduced the "opportunities" to carry out some of the most common crimes.

Thirty-nine percent of the complaints received by the police in 2019 were for thefts. In contrast, in 2020 thefts have accounted for 31% of all crimes. Although they maintain a weight in the delinquency of Catalonia, in the last year about 80,000 less have been reported. "Thefts are based on two things: being busy or absent-minded and a lack of surveillance supervision. Now if someone approaches us we are more alert than before, because they cannot touch us, and thefts lived on this in crowded areas", defines criminologist Helena Mulero. As for the thieves who committed them, Limones believes that a part would correspond to organized crime, which is international and would have "gone to another market".

However, not all crimes are down. Among the few that have escaped the red numbers is drug trafficking. The rise is not so much linked to the fact that there has been more consumption - in a year in which nightlife has been closed - but to the effects of the restrictions by covid, such as lockdown and curfew, because "any movement is more easily detected by the police or the public". In addition, "social control has been on the rise, with eyes on the street", says Limones, as well as complaints from neighbours about the inconvenience caused by the narcopisos ('drug flats') because they are more at home.In fact, the Mossos took advantage of the situation to raid the drug flats while the traffickers delivered the drugs to the users' homes by means of food deliverers.

On the squatting of real estate, which has increased, Limones recalls that this does not mean that they have actually been carried out, since the police data does not differentiate the squattings from the attempts and attributes the increase to the fact that neighbours, as they do not leave their homes so much, immediately realise when something happens. Scams are another exception: in the first year of the pandemic they are on the rise, and experts link this without a doubt to cybercrime. "It will continue to rise because habits have changed," predicts security specialist Montse Iglesias-Lucía, because people are spending more hours in front of a screen. But the spokesman for the Mossos, commissioner Joan Carles Molinero, also admitted Thursday concern about the scams linked to the coronavirus, mostly with calls.

In the balance made by the Mossos, Molinero highlighted the fall of thefts and violent robberies on the streets as well as shoplifting. Crimes of disobedience, resistance and assault on law enforcement officers, however, have also increased; which is attributed to police intervention on the covid-19 restrictions.

What may come next

How long will the effects of the pandemic on crime last? It is difficult to make a forecast with a virus that has brought many surprises. But Limones says that one of the factors to take into account is tourism, which has proven to have "a great impact". "If we start to open the doors now and we have the same tourism as before, there will be an increase with the same trend as before", warns the president of the College of Criminologists. Apart from tourists, he ventures that crimes against property - thefts and robberies - will enter "a stabilisation" that will probably be closer to the data of two years ago than to the figures for 2020. He also calls on administrations to address the social inequality that causes people to turn to crime.

Pending the publication of victimization surveys - which measure crime from the perception of the victims - that collect the effects of covid, insecurity continues to be a concern despite the last year's decline. In Barcelona, the December barometer still placed insecurity as the main problem, but with less strength than before. "It is a city that is paying for the burden it has been carrying", considers Limones, after two summers ago insecurity was the focus of the debate coinciding with a concentration of homicides. 2020 has been the opposite, because there have been 48 homicides and murders throughout Catalonia, 10 less than during 2019.

Sonia Andolz, professor of international security at the Universitat Ramon Llull, suggests that the concept of security should be broader and not only refer to the physical situation on the street. "At a time of crisis and uncertainty, one tends to have a more biased perception", she explains, also due to the influence of the management of the virus. Andolz points out that the lack of police to enforce covid measures can be related to the feeling of insecurity.