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As Spain’s Economy Falters, Bank Robberies Rise

The 52-year-old contractor was desperate to save his business. Unable to pay his workers and facing bankruptcy, Ausencio C. G., as Spanish police identify him, went to the bank — but not for a loan.

Covering his fingertips with surgical tape and wearing a ski mask and a reflective jacket to blur his image on security cameras, the contractor reportedly stole 80,000 euros from four banks before getting caught as he tried his fifth stickup near Barcelona in February.

Bank robbery
AP
Bank robbery

That is a total of about $115,000 — half of which came from his first heist, and was used to pay his workers, according to what he told the police.

Now in prison awaiting trial, the contractor, who is from Lleida, a town about 150 kilometers west of here, is reported to be part of one group that is busier than ever in this recession-battered country: bank robbers.

Indeed, with unemployment approaching 20 percent, the highest in Europe, and the overall economy expected to shrink by 4.2 percent this year, bank robberies in 2009 are running 20 percent ahead of 2007’s pace, according to the Spanish Banking Association.

“In recent months, it has become apparent that Spain is suffering from an increase in bank robberies,” said Francisco Pérez Abellán, head of the criminology department at the University of Camilo José Cela in Madrid. “We are seeing people committing offenses through necessity, first-time offenders who can no longer continue to maintain their lifestyle and so turn to crime.”

In the Barcelona area, only 7 percent of bank robbers were first-time offenders in 2008, according to José Luis Trapero, the chief of investigations for the regional police squad. That figure has jumped to 20 percent so far this year.

Though bank executives argue that there is no proven link between the falling economy and the rise in bank robberies, many Spaniards say they think the trends are more than coincidental — including the union that represents bank workers. It recently persuaded the Spanish government to classify bank robbery as an occupational hazard.

“There’s unemployment, there’s hunger and there’s money in the banks, and the three factors combine,” said José Manuel Murcia, head of health in the workplace for the financial sector of one of Spain’s largest trade unions, the CC.OO (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras). “Banks are denying credit, so companies are having problems, which creates more unemployment.”

He added, “People can’t pay their mortgages. So it’s more logical to rob a bank than a pharmacy.”

Despite the increase in novice offenders like the contractor, bank executives play down the spike in robberies, and dispute any comparisons with Depression-era America, when John Dillinger and other criminals captured the public imagination.

“It’s an urban myth,” said Eduardo Zamora, director of security for Banco Sabadell, Spain’s fourth-largest bank. “It’s possible it does have an effect on other parts of society but I’m convinced the economic crisis doesn’t have any effect on holdups.”

handcuffs
AP
handcuffs

Besides, Mr. Zamora added, bank robberies were much more common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As long as the total number of bank robberies does not exceed 500 a year, Mr. Zamora said, “it’s stable and controlled.”

All told, there were 165 holdups in the first four months of 2009, according to the Spanish Banking Association.

But Mr. Murcia said he believed the actual number of bank robberies was higher than the figures disclosed by the banking association.

In addition, he said his workers were at particular risk because of increasing automation and the proliferation of branches with just one or two employees and time-lock safes that require a 30-minute wait before they can be opened.

In fact, Ausencio C. G. stuck to banks with only one employee, usually female, and carefully watched his victim’s movements as well as the bank’s premises before he struck.

According to his statement to the Spanish police, Ausencio C. G.’s first hit was his most successful, netting 50,000 euros that he used to pay his employees. (Spanish police have not disclosed his full name because he is still awaiting trial.)

The booty from subsequent heists was earmarked for his suppliers, as well as for family expenses, including his daughter’s studies in London, according to the police.

While the typical bank robber is a Spanish-born male over the age of 35 who acts alone and strikes not far from home, according to Mr. Pérez Abellán, the Madrid criminology professor, a new wave of bandits is also emerging.

These are criminals drawn from among the millions of low-skilled workers who came here from Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere before Spain’s long construction boom went bust.

“A kind of common market has arisen, formed by people from different countries who bring new criminal skills designed to increase the level of violence and the speed of the bank robbery,” said Mr. Pérez Abellán.

For example, a four-man crew of painters from South America turned to bank robbery in March, kidnapping a bank manager and his family near Barcelona and holding them overnight before forcing the manager to open the bank vault and hand over more than 150,000 euros, nearly $215,000.

The gang of painters, who had no criminal record in Spain, originally came from Brazil and Argentina.

They were caught last month, still dressed in their painters’ uniforms and carrying a paint bucket along with shotguns, shells and pistols in the back seat of their car as they tried one final robbery before heading back to South America with their loot.

Because they lack a criminal record, apprehending reported perpetrators like Ausencio C. G. or the South American painters is trickier, Mr. Trapero said.

In 2007, 87 percent of bank robberies were solved, compared with 72 percent last year. So far in 2009, just under half have resulted in an arrest.

But Mr. Trapero, an intensely focused 19-year veteran of the force, is patient as he tracks his prey.

“It often takes months or even years to solve some cases,” he said. “There are some very clever robbers out there who take care of almost every detail but they always slip up in the end.”

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