Open borders and wealth lure thieves to Geneva

By Raphael Minder, NYT Global Edition, 2 Feb 2012

GENEVA — Gone are the days when diplomats and bankers could stroll around Geneva without worrying about having their briefcases stolen. Reported cases of property theft — including everything from wallets to cars — rose 23 percent in 2011, to about 61,000.

But in fact, the belongings of the Geneva region’s 450,000 inhabitants may not be any safer locked up at home. The number of break-ins climbed 20 percent last year to about 8,200 — an average of over 22 a day — according to figures provided by the Swiss city’s police chief, Monica Bonfanti.

The crime surge has been such that last summer the city’s tourism office removed from its advertising any mention of Geneva as a safe destination. Depicting Geneva as the secure and tranquil lakeside city that it once was would have been “misleading, if not actually a lie,” said Bernard Cazaban, spokesman for the tourism office.

Under pressure to halt the crime wave, the city authorities recently announced changes at the police department, notably requiring officers to spend more time patrolling the streets rather than handling paperwork back in the office. But the changes have run into opposition from the police officers’ powerful union, which last month started a partial strike, refusing to issue fines for traffic offenses, amid concerns that the overhaul would worsen their employment conditions rather than improve efficiency.

Ms. Bonfanti, the police chief, showed understanding for the discontent among her troops. “I don’t believe that we ever had to work under such pressure,” she said. In addition to crime, she argued, the police have also been overstretched by a doubling in the number of street protests last year, mostly held near the grounds of the United Nations in connection with the Arab Spring upheaval.

Besides pushing for the proposed overhaul, she suggested her 1,300-strong police force should also add 200 officers. But she said fighting crime also required “behavioral changes” in a city where people never had to show much vigilance. “Many people here still go out without locking their front door or leave their bag at the restaurant table when they go to the restroom,” she said.

As a private banking hub and one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, Geneva is arguably an obvious target for criminals. But other factors also explain why Geneva has become Switzerland’s most dangerous city, ahead of the larger Zurich.

High on that list is Geneva’s geography. Apart from sitting on the shores of the eponymous lake, Geneva is surrounded by a 105-kilometer, or about 65-mile, border with France. With the removal of border controls under the Schengen agreement, which Switzerland joined in December 2008, international crime gangs have taken full advantage of the easier access. Some gangs, which previously operated mainly in French cities like Lyon and Marseille, have instead switched to Geneva, often spending only the time there needed to commit their crime before escaping back to France and its separate jurisdiction.

Police and judicial cooperation between Switzerland and its neighbors has been tightened — but within limits. For instance, under a bilateral agreement with France, the police gained the power to pursue criminals into each other’s territory. But any cross-border car chase must be abandoned as soon as the pursued vehicle falls out of direct sight of the police car, Ms. Bonfanti said, restricting such cross-border interventions to five last year.

Meanwhile, the police in Geneva are concerned that changes made last year to the procedures under the Swiss penal code have paradoxically placed additional hurdles in their path, notably when dealing with first-time offenders. “When we arrest criminals who come from France, some actually tell us upfront that they expect greater clemency in Switzerland than in France,” Ms. Bonfanti said.

Yves Bertossa, a public prosecutor, noted that the revised code made it significantly tougher to justify holding suspects in preventive detention. The legal change, he added, was “designed with small and quiet Swiss towns in mind, not a city like Geneva.”

Geneva’s crime problem has also raised concern in Bern, the Swiss capital. The Geneva residence of the Swiss ambassador to the United Nations was among about 20 diplomatic buildings that were broken into last summer. Since September, the Geneva and federal government authorities have been negotiating over who should pay for additional security. While Geneva wants the Swiss government to raise its annual contribution of 16.5 million Swiss francs, or about $18 million, to the cost of guaranteeing security for the 40,000 residents linked to the United Nations and other international organizations, Bern has questioned whether Geneva efficiently spent past subsidies.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiation, Olivier Coutau, who handles issues relating to international organizations on behalf of the Geneva government, argued that the security problem “should not be dramatized.”

Despite some recent armed robberies of bank branches, post offices and gas stations, only a fraction of crimes had involved physical violence. Meanwhile, the most recent police survey among Geneva-based foreigners, published in April of 2010, showed 92 percent of respondents would recommend moving to Geneva to family and friends. “There’s no point denying the problem, but we haven’t reached a level where expats feel that it’s become horrible to live here because of crime,” Mr. Coutau said.

Echoing such a view, Christian Dunant, a Swiss ambassador who is the director of the Geneva Welcome Center, which helps foreign civil servants and others settle in the city, argued the crime problem was probably less worrying for such expatriates than the recent rise of the Swiss franc against the euro and the dollar, the currencies in which most are paid. Still, he said that he personally deplored “having to avoid at night some neighborhoods that used to be perfectly pleasant.”

Some prominent Geneva residents have voiced their concerns more forcefully, however. George Koukis, founder of Temenos, a Geneva-based provider of banking software with about €379 million, or $500 million, in annual revenues, recently warned that he was considering moving to another city after having two suitcases snatched from him as he stepped out of a taxi. Mr. Koukis told Bilan, a Swiss publication, that several colleagues had also recently been robbed or assaulted. “Are businessmen meant to hire a bodyguard when they move around Geneva?” he said.

Guy Mettan, a former president of Geneva’s cantonal Parliament, said it would probably take two to three years to see any significant improvement because “our politicians were unfortunately slow to recognize the extent of the crime problem.” Still, he predicted that the changes in law enforcement would eventually improve the situation.

“In terms of crime, Geneva is now unfortunately on par, if not actually below, some otherwise comparable cities,” he said, “but this doesn’t mean that the situation is completely out of control and that this place is on its way to becoming like Baghdad.”

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