Begging to be investigated

It’s a glorious late March Sunday evening and I’m drifting along the M50 – the eastbound Madrid ring road – without a care in the world. I’ve just successfully navigated my way around the capital city, sans satellite assistance, and I’m on the road to Burgos, a shower, a beer and a decent meal.

The five lane orbital artery is almost empty, so I’m suddenly aware of a black BMW following me. I’m driving an ancient Jeep Wrangler bearing British trade-plates — a left hooker with damaged side-panels, no off-side indicators or brake lights. I’m returning this heap to the UK for a car-dealer mate of mine.

Next thing the BMW is alongside. Two guys up front: the passenger wears aviator glasses, both have slicked-back hair and leather jackets, and there’s one lumpy bloke in the rear. Aviator lowers his window and flourishes what looks like a warrant badge. My heart beats faster. We do, after all, have unmarked cop cars and plain clothed officers back home — and I am driving a vehicle which almost begs to be investigated. However, there’s something not quite right here; maybe it’s the fat guy in the back, or maybe the absence of a blue light, so I put my foot down.

Thirty seconds later, they’re alongside again; more warrant card waving and finger pointing. I shake my head; I’m not stopping. Then Aviator pulls out a gun and motions me towards the hard shoulder. My heart rate maxes out as I pathetically raise the side window as if it were bulletproof. One voice inside my head screams that plain-clothed cops just don’t pull guns for traffic offences, while another voice quietly enquires if I have the slightest idea just what colourful past this vehicle might have had.

And so I do the only thing that I can think of; unless, of course, they’re really going to use the gun: I pull out my phone and snap off a few shots of Aviator and his mates, put my foot to the floor and urge the 4L V8 to break the laws of physics. It works; they hang back and half an hour later my heart rate returns to normal.

With the holiday season almost upon us and the annual exodus to Spain, unwary motorists are sure to provide rich pickings for Spain’s “Highway Pirates” who seek out the vulnerable, the unfortunate, or the just plain stupid. The problem has reached such proportions that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have seen fit to issue advice, via their website, for motorists planning to drive through Spain.

With an economy that has shrunk by 4.6 per cent since 2007, car-jacking is Spain’s only growth industry, but not one that’s going to set the maracas clacking in the exchequer. An unnamed source at the FCO told me that last year there were 111 reported cases of road-side robbery involving British nationals; crimes in which the drivers had pulled over at the behest of the criminals. There were a further 43 incidents of attempted robbery which were reported to the Spanish police and relayed to the FCO.

Diego Pronso of the Spanish transportation police (V.G.T.) believes that many attempts at car-jacking are not reported: ‘Many more attempts fail due to the vigilance of the targets, and sometimes the bogus cops are not so convincing.’

Good cop — bad cop?

But bogus cops are not the only MO of the car-jackers. Last August, Robert Williams, from Cardiff, was driving to the Costa Blanca in his beloved “Scoobie”. His wife was at the wheel and he was dozing in the passenger seat. ‘I noticed a Silver Audi A8 4.2 going past… a couple of minutes later, I saw another one, or so I thought, but it was the same one. Then, a minute or two later, there was a huge loud bang, which jolted me upright! I immediately thought that the engine had blown up and if we stay on the motorway, the car will come to a stop and we will be stranded.’ The Silver A8 came past with the passenger waving for him to stop, as there appeared to be something wrong with the car. ‘The missus wasn’t happy, but I insisted that we get off the carriageway immediately and pull over, right behind where the Audi parked, on the hard shoulder.’ The Audi passenger came running over and motioned Robert’s wife to get out and have a look.

Robert’s beloved Scoobie with plenty of legroom

‘The guy had looked totally inoffensive,’ said Robert. ‘Middle-aged, slightly rotund; cap with glasses. Then I got out of the car and he legged it.’ But why, I ask? — Robert is 6’7” and weighs 18 stones. ‘Turns out they had used a stone fired from a catapult to strike the car and make the noise to get us to pull over.’

But John and Amanda Hart, from Londonderry, were not so lucky. Travelling from Barcelona to Santander in early March, they left their car and caravan in the car park of a motorway services while they ate lunch. ‘I even put a wheel clamp on one of the ‘van’s wheels,’ said John, 67, a retired security consultant, ‘and I put a crook-lock on the steering wheel. I’d heard about people having their ‘vans towed away at rest areas’. John needn’t have bothered; the highway pirates punctured one of his car’s rear tyres, followed at a discreet distance when John and Amanda left, and waved them over as John became aware that he had a tyre problem. ‘Thinking about it now, it was quite obvious, but at the time you just focus on the problem with the vehicle.’

John and Amanda were left standing on the hard shoulder thirty miles from Logrono, while the thieves drove off with their money, passports, and phones — and, of course, their caravan. Their car was later recovered near Logrono but police were unable to trace the caravan.

Pronso believes that most car-jackers aren’t interested in the vehicles. ‘There are two types of MO for this crime,’ he says, ‘most are after the contents: passports, money, and phones – anything of value they can readily sell. And then there are the organised gangs. They are mostly Romanian or Bulgarian, sometimes Arabs. They move the cars quickly to Eastern Europe and sell them through a network for cash. If the theft is reported to us rapidly, we sometimes catch them, but the problem occurs when the victims are abandoned on empty stretches of road with no phones.’

Leading criminologist Professor Allan Brimicombe, Head of the Centre for Geo-Information Studies at the University of East London, has been tracking the rise of Spanish car-jacking for some time. He concurs with Pronso’s findings: ‘The organised gangs tend to be Romanians and Bulgarians – in fact Roma with networks for the disposal of the cars back home, and elsewhere in Europe.  One needs a method of disposing of the vehicles for money abroad or else the authorities would notice the number plate or change of ownership.’

While car-jacking may cause huge inconvenience and distress to the victims, Brimicombe points out that — thus far — no one has actually been hurt. ‘It would appear,’ he says, ‘that if the victim stands up to them, or the choreographing of the crime takes too long, the perpetrators will back off. Just like any scam, the victim must believe that they are all singing from the hymn sheet until they’re onto the last chorus.’

I ask him about the gun which Aviator pointed at me: ‘… almost certainly a replica,’ he replies, ‘armed robbery in Spain still carries a sufficiently lengthy sentence to deter all but the most hardened of criminals, one of the few positive legacies of the Franco era’.

But for how long will this remain the case? With rising unemployment and little prospect of a reversal of its shrinking economic growth, those who turn to car crime in Spain for a living are getting more and more desperate. Add to this the slashing of prison sentences, and surely it is only a matter of time before roadside piracy ends in tragedy?

Geoffrey Coggins is the Madrid-based European manager of Datawatch, a company which analyses political, social and economic trends. ‘Unemployment hit 4.75 million in Spain last month – easily the highest rate in Europe, and 40% of those are aged under 25. There are a huge number of immigrants who came to work but now have none — many from Bulgaria and Romania — and the police are not always too active.

The economy is forecast to contract by 1.7 per cent this year. All this means that people are becoming desperate and three square meals and a bed in prison isn’t such a bad prospect to many.’

Coggins added that Spain is not a violent country and pointed to data presented by the UN – the United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (CTS), 2010, which placed Spain outside the top ten of European countries. ‘Per 100,000 of population, crime – and here I refer to crimes of violence, theft and burglary – Spain is one of the lowest with fewer than 500 incidences.’ And guess who is top of that ‘league of shame’? Give up? Britain of course, with a staggering 2,034 per 100,000 residents and over one million violent crimes reported each year compared to fewer than 320,000 in Spain. Coggins adds: ‘It’s not so much the frequency [of car-jacking] — thankfully they still have a fairly low strike rate — as the nature of the crime. It’s really unpleasant to be stuck on a highway with nothing but the clothes you stand up in. But it is preventable.’

And to help with this, the FCO have published advice on their website

…and meet senoritas by the score…

And so this year, if you’re off to sunny Spain, not catching the Costa Brava plane, to meet senoritas by the score, or even, perhaps a matador… keep your wits about you and practice what is usually second nature to us British: treating all foreigners with the upmost suspicion.



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