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Crime casts long shadow over Athens

Greece's debt crisis, shrinking economy and surging unemployment have transformed Athens, once considered one of Europe's safest capitals, into a city of fear.

May 31, 2011|By Anthee Carassava, Los Angeles Times
  • Immigrants protest against recent racist attacks outside the Athens' City Hall. Violent crime has soared in the Greek capital, and security experts warn that it may get even worse as Greece sinks deeper into recession.
Immigrants protest against recent racist attacks outside the Athens'… (Simela Pantzartzi, EPA )

Reporting from Athens — Manolis Kandaris' wife was in labor and he wanted to get her to a hospital, fast. So he reached for the car keys, fetched the video camera and dashed out to get his clunky Citroen running.

He never made it.

As he sprinted to the car, muggers attacked him about a block from his apartment. And when he resisted their attempts to wrench the camera from him, the 44-year-old pharmaceuticals executive was stabbed to death.

His wife found him lying in a pool of blood as she hobbled to the car with the help of her mother. She was taken to a maternity ward; he was taken to the morgue.

Long prided as one of Europe's safest capitals, this ancient metropolis is cowering in the shadow of harrowing crimes and lawless rampages.

Within 24 hours of the Kandaris killing, a 21-year-old man from Bangladesh was stabbed to death in what police suspect was a revenge killing. The following day, mobs of ultranationalist youths bolted through the center of Athens, battering scores of illegal immigrants. Three days later, masked youths enraged by a police beating firebombed a precinct in downtown Athens, critically injuring two men and a 55-year-old female flower seller.

"It never used to be this way," said Ioannis Makris, president of the Athens police union. "We're seeing a lot of rage as a result of the financial crisis, a lot of desperate people resorting to fistfights, not to mention gunfire and stabbings, for trite causes."

Amid a devastating debt crisis, shrinking economy and surging unemployment, violent crime has soared here, and security experts warn that it may get even worse as Greece sinks deeper into recession.

Armed robberies were at historic lows in the capital in 2007, but the figure had more than doubled in 2009, the onset of the financial crisis, according to police data. Thefts and break-ins jumped from 26,872 recorded cases in 2007 to 47,607 two years later; homicides likewise nearly doubled in the period.

Final statistics for 2010 are not yet available, but news reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that violent crime is gaining dangerous momentum.

"Greek society as a whole is at a breaking point," criminologist Angelos Tsigris said. "Things are going from bad to worse, and crime, which mirrors the state of a society at a given time and moment, will naturally follow that course."

Athens, home to nearly half the country's population of 11 million, is reeling. Although still benefiting from European Union investment infrastructure and its Olympic glow — it hosted the 2004 Summer Games — the once-glamorous capital is fading into money-strapped dishevelment.

Rising tides of illegal immigration are adding to Athenians' sense of malaise. A fairly homogeneous society, Greece has seen its ethnic makeup change dramatically in the last decade. Immigrants, legal and not, now account for as much as 15% of the population, and most of the new arrivals have settled in Athens.

Residents fear the disorder and lawlessness gripping the capital will hamper desperately needed recovery or, worse, incite further violence, including police brutality and vigilantism.

"I'm losing my city," Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis said. "Something has to happen fast.

"It's starting to look like Beirut in the 1970s," he said, referring to a rash of killings in the Lebanese capital that preceded that country's civil war.

A recent wave of public-safety budget cuts hasn't helped.

"Only a third of the 500 motorcycles and police cars are in operation for patrols," said Makris, the police union president. "The rest are in the pits because there's no money to service them. From boots to bulletproof vests, police resources are ailing in Athens."

In an effort to restore confidence, the Greek government recently announced a series of crime-busting measures, including increased street patrols. City hall officials said they had the government's assurance that the new campaign would get top funding priority. The amount, though, remained unclear.

"It all sounds encouraging," Tsigris said. "But at this point, it's like putting a wet rag in the muffler of a rickety car. It'll blow out and rupture other parts of the car in the process."

He and other security experts have long supported a sweeping overhaul of the capital's 17,000-member police force, nearly half of whom are assigned to clerical duties such as ferrying court documents to judges.

Frustrated residents, meanwhile, are taking things into their own hands.

At an impromptu shrine that sprang up at the site of Kandaris' killing, emotions run high. Angry crowds have sealed off the area, shielding mounds of flowers, candles and prayer notes behind a makeshift wall of dumpsters donned with Greek flags.

"Enough!" cried Giorgos Lambrou, head of a newly formed neighborhood watch team. "We're reclaiming our city, and this is the first patch."

Authorities this month announced the arrest of two Afghans in the killing.

"It's a good start. But it'll take much more for us to let up our fight," said construction worker Dimitris Efstathiou, taking up position at the shrine.

"I've been shot at twice, burgled three times and lost my job — and hope — to the crisis," he said. "Would you let up that easy?"

Carassava is a special correspondent.

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