Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Thursday, 24 December 2009

Shock tactics to fight Barcelona crime

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Barcelona

Cards with images of drug-dealing and gun crime
More than 500 cards like this have already been sent to city officials

Raval has been getting ready for Christmas.

Festive lights twinkle above the narrow, cobbled streets. Strings of tinsel festoon the tapas bars. And the residents and traders of this central district of Barcelona have been preparing to send traditional "season's greetings" to the city authorities.

But there is no sign of Santa or fluffy snowmen on their Christmas cards this year.

"Here are some people using the street as a toilet," says Alexia, pulling one of the cards from a pile scattered over the counter at the family shoe shop.

We want them [city officials] to feel a little guilty
Alexia, shoe-seller in Raval

"Here they are taking drugs," she continues, as her youngest daughter tugs at her skirt to go home.

"And here, people are having sex in the street."

The photo of a prostitute and her client, mid-act and mid-street, leaves very little to the imagination. It is the most graphic of a series of snapshots of daily life in Raval caught on camera by the residents. The message on the back reads "Happy Christmas!"

"We're sending them to the mayor so he can hang the pictures by his Christmas tree," Alexia's husband Luis explains.

"He always sends us cards with pretty pictures of Barcelona on them. But things happen here that aren't nearly so pretty. I want him and his family to see what we have to see," the shoe-seller adds.

Street sex

The neighbours have already delivered more than 500 cards to elected officials and to city police.

Banners on balconies "We want a dignified district!"
Raval residents say they want to live in "a dignified district"

It is not their first attempt to get the authorities' attention. In almost every other house in Raval, people have hung large white banners from their balconies with a single phrase in Catalan: "Volem un barri digne!" (We want a dignified district!)

Now they have resorted to shock tactics.

Raval has been a red-light district for many years, but the locals complain it has never been so seedy.

"I used to come and look at the girls here when I was younger," admits Jaime, who says the area's mood has been changed by an "avalanche" of foreign sex workers.

"There used to be just be a few Spanish senoras in the bars. Now everything's organised by mafias who bring women here from other countries and control them," he says.

Like other residents, Jaime believes the foreign girls who line the district's dingy backstreets are forced to earn money quickly to repay their debts. Sex outdoors keeps costs down and turnover high.

"It's not usual that everybody's getting sex on the streets, but it happens," explains Oscar Urdeitx, whose house is just a short walk from the main tourist drag of Barcelona, Las Ramblas.

"In Barcelona, we get tourists from the UK mainly who come for celebrations for the weekend and they don't care about anything. Probably that's the people finishing on the corner having sex."

Oscar believes the surge in sex workers in Raval has increased other problems. The municipality now runs a large needle exchange centre for Raval's drug addicts.

But Oscar says many choose to inject on his doorstep. Others use a nearby playground.

"I come here first to collect the condoms and syringes and clean up," one mother says, as her small children clamber over a climbing frame behind her. "The sign here clearly says this area is for young children, and if they see a condom or something on the ground, they'll pick it up and eat it!"

'Hard to ignore'

In recent months, the police have increased their presence on the streets. But there is no custodial sentence for public fornication in Spain, and an officer patrolling Raval confesses his options are limited.

A card showing drug-dealing
Handing over illegal drugs: Local residents took the photos

"I can only fine them or say put your dress on and go away. But it's complicated," says Agustin, who has not received his own Christmas card yet. He admits that fining people makes little difference.

So the Raval residents want to shock the Barcelona authorities into more effective action.

"We want them to feel a little guilty," says Alexia. "They have to know they don't do the work they have to do."

The city mayor did not want to discuss this issue in an interview. His secretary said she had not seen one of the cards yet, in his inbox.

But if a snapshot from Raval does end up nestling amongst the candles and Christmas lights on the mayor's mantelpiece this week, the images of prostitution, drugs and guns will be pretty hard to ignore.

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