Thursday, 16 June 2011
Violent Crime Soars in Athens

By NIKI KITSANTONIS

ATHENS — As the Greek government struggles to save its debt-racked economy from collapse, another crisis is growing in the capital: A sharp increase in violent crime is stirring unrest among a public already demoralized by unending economic hardship.

Once a rarity in Athens, long proclaimed one of the safest European capitals, crime has grown uglier. Knifings are no longer unusual and assault rifles have been used in armed raids on street kiosks and jewelry shops.

According to police statistics for 2010, the most recent available, street robberies in the capital doubled compared with 2009, robberies of taxi drivers nearly quadrupled and homicides were up 50 percent. The figures are stark compared with those in other Greek cities where increases are mostly in the single digits.

“Crime has not just increased — it has become more complex and more violent, particularly organized crime,” said Thanassis Kokkalakis, a police spokesman.

Some offenses are broadly attributed to the growing desperation of drug addicts — thousands are on a waiting list for rehabilitation at state clinics — and a rising population of illegal immigrants, most of whom end up in Athens after crossing overland into mainland Greece from Turkey or by vessels to Greek islands.

Much of the crime, however, is attributed to Greeks or migrants from Balkan countries like Albania and Bulgaria, who, according to the police, exploit impoverished arrivals from Africa and Asia.

An attempted crackdown on organized crime has had limited success, provoking several shootouts. Two police officers were killed in March, and several more have been wounded.

Illicit trade and crime have created a no-go zone, splitting the heart of Athens in half. Commercial and archaeological sites frequented by tourists are largely unaffected. But dingy streets and plazas behind Omonia Square have become a haven for the drug and sex trades and the scene of frequent armed clashes between migrant groups wrestling for control of this trade. As tolerance wears down, migrants have been singled out in a wave of brutal attacks linked to far-right groups.

Residents and shopkeepers have had enough. Most of those who can have moved away, said Vassiliki Nikolakopoulou, 57, who heads a residents’ committee and has been robbed twice by people she perceived to be immigrants wielding knives.

“We were warning this would happen five years ago,” she said. “Now it’s a jungle.”

Ioanna Katseli, who manages a street kiosk near the city center, has been robbed several times by people she said were immigrants and drug addicts and said her husband, a taxi driver, had been threatened at knife-point by thieves.

Ms. Katseli, 58, stopped wearing jewelry after the murder of a 45-year-old owner of a kiosk in February, a few blocks away, by men wielding Kalashnikov rifles. “I’m not surprised my old customers stay away,” she said, adding that her efforts to find work elsewhere had failed.

Public anger peaked on May 10 when a 44-year-old Greek man was knifed to death on a street corner while his wife was going into labor. The assailants snatched the video camera with which the man had planned to film the birth.

After rumors that the killers were immigrants, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi man was stabbed to death. Two Afghan citizens have since been charged with the Greek man’s murder while the Bangladeshi’s killers remain at large.

A public demonstration protesting the Greek’s killing was hijacked by far-rightists who chased immigrants and beat them with clubs. Since then, a small crowd guards a makeshift shrine at the scene where the Greek man was stabbed, closing the road at night with a metal barrier draped in a Greek flag.

After the stabbings, Prime Minister George Papandreou called on his ministers to act, warning that “Athens will sink if it descends into violence.”

The city’s mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, conceded that the situation was out of control.

“The economic crisis, combined with extreme criminality, renders the risk of the city collapsing a clear possibility,” he said, naming drug addicts and illegal immigrants as the biggest problems.

In recent weeks, police have increased patrols and hundreds of illegal immigrants have been evacuated from squats. The authorities have created several facilities, outside Athens, for detention of immigrants facing deportation. There are plans to move drug rehabilitation clinics from the city center.

Many migrants argue they are being punished for the wrongdoing of a few. “Most of us just want to work,” said Salim, 28, who came to Athens from Afghanistan in 2006 and manages a convenience store near Victoria Square. He declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals; his store windows have been smashed twice in two weeks.

The police say half of all crime suspects are immigrants.

“The security problems in the city center are largely linked to the problem of illegal immigration,” said Mr. Kokkalakis, the police spokesman. “Many migrants resort to petty crime, thefts, burglaries, prostitution and drug dealing to survive and pay off their supposed benefactors” — smugglers who bring migrants for a fee.

Yiannis Panousis, a professor of criminology at the University of Athens, said the problem could not be attributed to immigrants or drugs. Police raids should be more focused, he said.

“If organized crime is broken, the cover-ups will be exposed,” he said, noting that migrants resorting to crime are protected by the people who exploit them.

The economic crisis and 16 percent official unemployment are not the cause of the increased crime, said Yiannis Panousis, a professor of criminology at the University of Athens. “You don’t start mugging because you’ve lost your job," he said, but tolerance had been eroded.

Vassiliki Papoulia, 46, an employee at a public company near Koumoudourou Square, where dozens of migrants sleep at night, said: “I was never a racist but I’ve become one. Why can’t we send them all home?”

Others are more understanding. Aliki Katsikari, 63, manages a restaurant in the trendy district of Psyrri and employs a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani in her kitchen. Her street has been the site of brawls between gangs of Asian and African immigrants and is a hangout for drug addicts.

“It’s not their fault,” she said. “It’s the neglect of the state.”

Since far-right parties made gains in local elections in November, vigilante groups have patrolled city squares.

“An elderly citizen who sees a man on a motorbike hit an immigrant with a club may applaud the attacker,” said Mr. Panousis, the criminologist, adding that the cause was not racism, but fear.

For Mr. Panousis, the murder on May 10 was a turning point.

“People identified with him,” he said of the Greek man with the pregnant wife. “He wasn’t a taxi driver or a night-shift security guard. He was just a regular guy going to his car.”

Source: New York Times

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