Crime wave leaves public in a state of panic

news: Crime wave leaves public in a state of panic

CRIME IN the Algarve is a growing problem, but sadly it has taken the death of retired Englishman, John Turner, during a robbery carried out by an armed gang at his Sobradinho de Alfeição (Loulé) villa, to put the problem at the top of the authorities’ agenda and place it in the media spotlight, both in the Algarve as well as in the UK.

In an interview given in a Portuguese national newspaper, Correio da Manhã, just days before the incident took place in Loulé, GNR chief Brás Marcos commented: “Crime in the Algarve is significantly lower in the first trimester of 2005.” He stated that crime did increase in Loulé in 2004, but, according to the GNR chief, “it is currently 20 per cent lower than last year”. This recent reduction does not, however, seem to have been noticed by local residents.

Horácio Piedade, President of Loulé’s Junta de Freguesia de S. Sebastião, has commented: “The recent death has transformed the fear and insecurity of the local population into true panic.” He went on: “Since the beginning of the year, there have been dozens of burglaries in the parish, but it is impossible to supply accurate figures because many incidents are not reported to the authorities.” For a borough that lives essentially off tourism, “these assaults could put the industry at risk and I have already heard foreigners talking about selling up here,” says Horácio.

Business owner

robbed three times

José Barros has owned a restaurant in Escanxinas, Almancil, since November 2003 and has already suffered three robberies since its opening. “I don’t know what to do; business is bad and, on top of this, these robberies have caused me serious financial problems,” he says. This former Portuguese immigrant in Venezuela, where he lived for 15 years, is inconsolable: “I left a country I loved because of the lack of security and now I see my own country, little by little, also turning into an unsafe place.” He continues: “The GNR doesn’t have enough strength nor the measures in place. The officers’ actions are limited to handing out fines for driving offences.” He concluded: “Not a day goes by here, when I don’t hear someone talking about an assault or a robbery.”

Worst crime wave ever

Mark Stephens is the managing director of Vilalgarve, a property management company based in Almancil, that is responsible for properties in that area, both inside resorts and out. The company also looks after properties in Vilamoura, Santa Bárbara de Nêxe and other areas – all of which come under the borough of Loulé.

Mark has been a business owner in the Almancil area for 20 years and declares: “This is the worst three or four months of crime I’ve ever seen.” He has first-hand knowledge of several incidents that have happened at properties his company is responsible for: “There have been five robberies over the past three or four months and we don’t normally encounter that many in a whole year,” he says. “I am also aware of another five or six robberies that have taken place at the homes of my clients’ friends and neighbours.” He went on to say that he feels the criminals involved are no longer opportunists. “We seem to be dealing with a group of professionals who use disguises, specialist tools and a great deal of force.”

Almancil statistics flawed

Many believe the number of police deployed by the authorities in the Almancil area seem to be organised according to inaccurate statistics such as the electoral roll. “There are probably only about 3,000 people registered on the electoral roll for Almancil, while there are actually about 15,000 people living here all year round. This number can rise to up to 50,000 people during the summer months,” says Mark. He also pointed out that there has been an agreement between all the Algarve câmaras to extend the beach season and, therefore, the number of people in the area could increase further.

Evidence of a discrepancy between services and the population in the area could be ascertained just by reading some recent news stories that have been reported in The Resident. Such stories as “Dedicated ambulance service for Almancil” (April 15) – only two weeks ago, after years of dangerously insufficient support, has this become a reality; and, “Almancil demands another pharmacy” (April 8) – only one pharmacy exists in the area, forcing many residents and holidaymakers to travel to Quarteira, Vilamoura and Faro to get their medicine. After many complaints, this particular problem still has not been solved.

But the lack of police has always been a main concern. “We have campaigned long and hard for more GNR officers. And now the situation seems worse than ever. The visible presence of guards seems to have disappeared in recent months,” says Mark. However, he continues: “It’s all about prevention. Even with more GNR officers patrolling the area, you can never stamp it out completely. Therefore, it is necessary to improve your home security.”

Organised crime on the increase

Meanwhile, a source from Prosecom, a leading Algarve security company, comments: “Organised crime is definitely on the increase. Sadly, this seems to have a link with the increased number of illegal immigrants on very low wages or with a lack of work. Now that there is no registration of people crossing the borders, it is hard to keep a check on the movement of individuals. I believe there should be surprise checks made at Algarve businesses and building sites to crack down on illegal immigrants.” He is unsure, though, if these would prove effective: “The problem is, they could find around 60 illegal immigrants a week, but then the country would not have the funds to deal with the people they would need to deport.” The source also spoke about home security and emphasised that alarms and panic buttons are essential nowadays.

Luxury resorts are not immune

Robberies are not only limited to villas in remote areas. Despite often having their own security guards, Loulé’s luxury resorts are not immune, it seems, to the growing problem of robberies. The Resident was contacted again this week by a property owner from Quinta do Lago, who has informed the paper of a number of serious robberies that have taken place in the resort, at which times “residents have been tied up and beaten”. However, this property owner, who asked not to be named, is too scared to even provide further details about the incidents.

The number of robberies taking place in Loulé’s luxury resorts, like Vilamoura, Quinta do Lago, Pinheiros Altos and Vale do Lobo, are rarely revealed by their management for fear of the negative effect it could have on property sales – a natural reaction in order to protect their businesses. However, if the true statistics are not reported, the authorities could be excused for not taking action and deploying more police in Loulé.

Local trade bodies speak out

The Resident spoke to Elidérico Viegas, president of Associação de Hotéis e Empreendimentos Turísticos do Algarve (AHETA), the Algarve hotel and resorts association, to find out his views on the worrying increase in crime in the Algarve’s most popular borough for tourists.

Referring to the death of John Turner, Viegas comments: “I sincerely hope that this terrible incident was an isolated case. The Algarve cannot afford to lose its current image of a secure and safe holiday destination – this is something we have always had over other places.” He continued: “It is true that last year, against previous records, crime did increase, particularly petty crime such as pick-pocketing, car crime, and burglaries at villas and apartments.”

He went on to say: “AHETA has been fighting together with other entities for police reinforcements to be reviewed and not just during the summer months. We need reinforcements permanently because the Algarve is an all-year-round holiday destination. More police during the months of July through to September is not good enough; we need a higher police presence at least from April through to October.”

He then explained the current situation: “We have asked for a meeting with the new government and await an answer. A case study was carried out together with the Minister for Internal Affairs, the police, Loulé Câmara and the Secretary of State for Tourism from the previous government concerning what security is needed. The reports are already made and the recommendations just need to be implemented. We hope we will have the meeting as soon as possible.”

AEA to meet with Algarve‘s GNR

Commander this week

Meanwhile, Aníbal Moreno, president of the Associação Empresarial de Almancil (AEA), the Almancil business association, also commented on the subject of crime in the borough: “We have been complaining for a long time that there are not enough police to cover the Almancil area. This may not stop crime taking place, but it is the minimum the authorities should do to prevent the situation.” He went on to lament: “The GNR team that exists in Almancil is excellent; they do a professional job, but more manpower is needed for regular patrols to be made. At the moment, there are around 17 or 18 guards – the minimum needed to cover basics, like manning the office and controlling traffic.” But, he continued, “summer reinforcements are not enough, we need more police 12 months a year”.

Aníbal Moreno confirmed that he is due to have a meeting with the GNR Commander of the Algarve, Lieutenant Colonel Caio, this week. “People feel more confident when there is a GNR presence and one possibility is to install cameras on the main roads so that offenders can be easily identified. This would be a good preventative measure.” He concluded: “Crime is bad for business and tourism, but this area is by no means the worst in Portugal. We can still feel safe, but we must not be complacent. Houses should be alarmed. We must not think that it is the same as it was 50 years ago, when even keys were not needed. Precautions must be taken.”

President of Loulé Câmara comments

The Resident also talked to Rita Pina, PR at Loulé Câmara, who spoke with President Seruca Emídio about the issue. “The President is very concerned about the insecurity in Loulé, especially since the tragic incident that took place in Sobradinho de Alfeição.” So what is going to be done to halt the worrying increase in crime?

The Resident has learned that Seruca Emídio has asked for an urgent meeting with the Secretaries of State for Tourism and Internal Affairs to discuss the problem. Rita Pina also confirmed that, from May onwards, there will be an increase in the number of GNR officers deployed in the Loulé area. However, from the President’s point of view, “this is not enough”, since he believes the problem is not only due to a lack of GNR officers, but a poor overall system which “allows criminals to leave jail without making any provision for their reintegration in society. This is a situation that is causing a cycle of re-offending”. The Resident was also told that Seruca Emídio has had several meetings with the GNR Commander of the Faro District, in order to solve the many problems in the Quarteira area that took place at the end of last year. Rita Pina was also eager to confirm that Loulé is creating a pilot commission for matters of tourism security and this is an agreement that has been signed between Loulé and Cascais Câmaras. Concrete measures are being taken to reinforce security measures and increase the number of police during peak season to protect national and foreign tourists. Rita ended by saying: “The President will not give up until the situation is improved, but society also needs to help.”

Bureaucracy prevents creation of

municipal police force

The day after the incident took place at Casa da Paz in Sobradinho de Alfeição, three dozen local residents attended a monthly public meeting at Loulé Câmara to complain about the lack of security in the area. Apparently, one of the measures suggested at the meeting was the creation of a dedicated municipal police force for Loulé. This has long been a dream for Loulé Câmara and, according to a source at the câmara, this has been on the table since before Vítor Aleixo was Câmara President and it is bureaucracy that is to blame. If a municipal police force was successfully created, Loulé’s GNR could concentrate on controlling crime and the municipal police could control traffic and take care of other routine tasks.

Residents’ views

The Resident spoke to a number of Loulé residents about the crime issue. Gerry Sanderson, a business owner in Almancil, said: “I often wonder if the reason more police are not sent to the Algarve coastal areas is political, because there is large proportion of non-voters here.” Helen Jackson, a property owner in the Loulé area, said: “We all know there are many break-ins in the Loulé borough and the amount is hushed up by the authorities.” A German resident in Almancil, who asked not to be named, said: “Foreign residents in the Algarve have to start paying their taxes and become legal here. They can’t expect to have public services, such as efficient police and good health care, if they don’t contribute anything towards them. Foreign investors can be good for the Algarve, but only if the increased population is all paying its way, otherwise how can the state be expected to cope with the requirements of the increased numbers? It is a sore subject and people don’t want to admit that they are partly to blame for this problem.”

Improvements need concerted effort

In the same interview to Correio da Manhã, GNR chief Brás Marcos informed that “30 to 40 per cent more police will be deployed in the Algarve in the summer to patrol the beach areas and try to prevent forest fire outbreaks” – the very same temporary measure that has been criticised by Elidérico Viegas of AHETA and Aníbal Moreno of the AEA. He did confirm, though, that two new police stations are being built in Lagoa and Armação de Pêra, but that new stations are also needed in Quarteira, Almancil and Olhão. However, if pressure continues to mount by the public, local authorities and entities, not to mention the media, further measures may be taken and more quickly. Watch this space…