By Craig Scott
WELL, well… I’ve only been back in Spain for three weeks and some fool has already tried to burn it down with a fag lighter! As if it wasn’t hot enough without some bright spark doing a Guy Fawkes impression on half of Calahonda!
For me, the combination of smouldering smoke and airborne ash made me perspire like a nun in Anne Summers. Of course, most English people are dehydrated and pasty when they first come to Spain. However, as an Irish-blooded Northerner, I was translucent as I glided through Malaga’s departure lounge – like a mono-browed, knuckle-dragging apparition. Honestly, us Lancastrians have to sit in the sun for a month just to get white!
On a serious note though, something needs to be done about this arson epidemic that’s spreading like wildfire across Spain. Arson now accounts for 85% of Spanish fires and destroys some 200,000 hectares of land every year. It also strips billions from Spain’s already battered economy.
On Sunday evening, the sight of flames ripping through a hillside urbanisation was a depressingly familiar one. On Monday morning, I watched in awe as dozens of heroic, low-flying tanker planes daringly attempted to extinguish the blaze. Although four families have been left homeless by this latest attack, looking at the gutted, charred remains of those buildings, it’s a miracle that nobody died.
Whilst shootings, stabbings and rapes continue to dominate the headlines, it’s arsonists who rank among the world’s worst serial killers. For example, in 1981, a British serial arsonist named Peter Dinsdale confessed to killing 26 people. Although this exceeds the death tally of the Washington Sniper by 16 and the Moors Murderers by 21, the media refuses to demonise arsonists like it does axe-killers and gunmen. But why? Is having your face melted anymore tolerable than say… being bludgeoned with a baseball bat or blasted with an AK-47? It just doesn’t make sense.
This year, Spain’s arson woes have increased significantly. In April, 2011, the Spanish public were left reeling when Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Church, one of the country’s most celebrated landmarks, was torched by fire-loving vandals. Then, last month (August 14th), two firemen died in Galicia as they fought to quell a deliberate inferno. Closer to home, two urbanisations were evacuated and 200 hectares ravaged when arsonists started a blaze near San Roque, Andalucia, on 13 July, 2011.
Unfortunately, arson is a difficult crime to crack, yet cheap and effortless to commit. Despite carrying a lengthy sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment in Spain, there’s little sign of arson being eradicated as current conviction rates are extremely low (just 2.5% of arsonists are currently caught and sentenced).
As the Guardia Civil chain-smoke and scratch their heads in puzzlement, I’ve gone all Cracker and CSI by conducting my own research into why people maliciously start fires. I met up with a criminologist pal who provided access to a range of arsonist case files. The studies also revealed common themes among arsonists, including family breakdown, pyromania and low IQ. Another recurring theme was arsonists as loners – shunned by society and driven to start fires for power and control.
Other studies claim motives range from mental health problems to revenge. Some leading psychologists have even suggested that arsonists may receive sexual kicks from starting fires (which gives a whole new dimension to the term ‘getting hot and bothered’).
Unsurprisingly in the ‘Costa del Crime’, many arson attacks are committed for financial gain. The ‘Hired torch’ is a term coined to describe a career criminal who is offered a juicy cut of a fat insurance cheque to burn down properties, businesses or land. On 9 March, 2011, a radar installation in Velez-Malaga was targeted by professional arsonists in ski masks. These gigantic radar systems are Spain’s number one defence against drug trafficking and monitor all sea traffic along the Costa del Sol. The radars were sabotaged by desperate drug-pushers who vanished before cops could arrive. Consequently, with this radar out of action, drug gangs have been peppering the beaches with profitable drug parcels.
What can be done?
Although many aspects of Spanish life seem superior to “The British way”, I do think we could learn something from the Mother Land’s approach to stubbing out arson. For example, in the UK, fire services now run practical workshops in schools which educate about fire and its dangers. There are also schemes in which individual arsonists (dobbed in by their parents, schools, etc) are dealt with on a one-to-one basis.
Here in Andalucía, I think we need to get the bomberos out into schools and make arson a hot topic. Having contacted the Heads of local international schools, I understand that no such service currently exists. Students could be shown graphic and harrowing images and video clips which hammer home the effects and consequences of fire, including those in which people perish. Immediately, some parents will object to this and demand their little cherub is excused from class. But trust me, hard-hitting scenes have a habit of sticking in the mind. Would you still fancy a sly, backseat fag if you’d seen a burnt out school bus? Maybe, but probably not.
Any youths caught playing with fire should also be forced to meet with arson victims, visit firestarters in prison and shadow the brave Bomberos on routine patrols. I also think a greater focus on circumstantial evidence is required when investigating insurance-claim fires. For example, if a bar mysteriously burns down, investigators need to study the books, interview staff and customers and unearth any financial problems or irregularities. Of course, accidents will always happen, and some claims will be genuine. However, how many times have we seen once-thriving establishments go up in smoke, shortly after a rival competitor has entered the market?
Whether you agree or disagree with these suggestions, we all should unite together and demand change. 2.5% is a nowhere near good enough conviction rate for arson and none of us will sleep easy in our beds until new measures are put in place.