2017 in the Algarve saw a series of fires started in which locals described having seen 'glowing incendiary devices'. In these cases, theories lay in the devices having been launched by a form of catapult mechanism, possibly activated from a passing car

Arsonists: PJ has profiled 700 fireraisers

Latest man arrested “gave no rational or plausible reason”: chronic alcoholic

With men and women arrested by the day for arson in Portugal, calls – openly backed by President Marcelo – have been going out for much tougher sentences.

One of the men arrested over the last 24-hours (on suspicion of starting a blaze in Freixianda, Ourém) is a re offender who refused to say anything when brought before magistrates. He, as with many others arrested this year, is awaiting trial in preventive custody.

While the tabloid press has been describing the country’s current Public Enemies No 1 as generally ‘over the age of 50’, Expresso has written today on how PJ police have compiled a list of 700 arsonists, in order to create a profile which should make it easier to investigate in future.

The arsonist behind the Freixianda fire, for example, “fits the profile to perfection”: He has “a dysfunctional family, he is an alcoholic, causes fires for futile reasons and is a re offender.

As a source told the newspaper: “He drank a few drinks and decided to set light to the forest. It’s typical. There is no financial motivation…” Indeed, this particular individual has been on the PJ’s radar for fire-raising for the last eight years. He has even been held before in prison “but the court ended up letting him go, giving him a suspended sentence”.

Now, he is one of the 700 arsonists profiled by the PJ and on a list that has been steadily gathering names and data since 2004.

Expresso explains that over the years, the profile has ‘changed’ somewhat. Whereas at the outset, the typical arsonist was “illiterate, alcoholic, with a broken home”, there are now two others: the ‘urban’ character, whose motivations are for a futile form of revenge, “very often motivated by arguments over social media”. And the “professional” – someone who is ‘well placed socially’, technically apt and yet somehow driven to cause this kind of hideous destruction.

Expresso’s source referred to two cases, not long ago highlighted by the media, of  ‘professionals’ – one an electrician, another an engineer.

The two men were able to mount ingenious ‘plots’ – the latter particularly creating explosive devices, with timers and delays that gave him water-tight alibis.

These are the kind of arsonists whose undoing relies heavily on technology – CCTV cameras, drones, etc.

The engineer – accused of destroying 65,000 hectares of forestland – gave ‘anxiety’ as his motivation. His father had died in a tractor accident which he witnessed, and he told police that his “anxiety only passed when he saw smoke…”

Says Expresso, it took five years for this particular arsonist to be caught – and what clinched it was that one of the fires he started was extinguished fast enough for the device used to start it not to have melted in the heat.

“The clues – the material used, the batteries to the bulbs – allowed police to identify the suspect…”

The trial has still not concluded. It is currently in recess awaiting psych reports on whether the defendant’s PTSD precluded him from differentiating between right and wrong.

As for ‘the electrician’, cited by the PJ as a new profile, one of these caused over a million euros of damages, and is now serving a six year jail term.

Even so, the horrendous fire in Santo Tirso two years ago – the one that killed 52 helpless dogs and cats – was never proven as his work, despite police suspicions. “It was one of the most difficult cases of my career”, the PJ source told Expresso.

“We are watching you”: Minister’s message to arsonists

System of vigilance and checking covers whole territory

Yesterday, a day when two arsonists were caught “in flagrante” by the authorities, Portugal’s interior minister José Luís Carneiro had a carefully worded message for fire raisers.

“There is a system of vigilance and checking (in place) which uses technological and human means to cover the whole territory”, he said. There is even an Air Force plane flying over the country…

“It is important that everyone is aware that these means are active, and operate day and night throughout the country to guarantee that any behaviour against legality will be sanctioned”.

People who are acting outside the law “will be observed”, the minister insisted – and authorities will act against them.

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com