Spain: Poor Jailed While Elites’ Crimes Go Unpunished

Xavier Caño Tamayo

Spain has the most overcrowded prisons in Europe. This was documented in a report from the 30th Conference of European Justice Ministers, held in Istanbul. In Spain, there are 162 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, while in Germany there are 95, in France 85 and In Portugal 121. Too many are incarcerated in Spain, more than in any other period in recent history, except for the first years of the Franco dictatorship.

Violent crime, along with the economic crisis, worsened in 2011. A few more murders, kidnappings and robberies than in 2010, according to the annual report from the country’s Attorney General’s Office, although fewer than in 2009. What is filling the jails is the increase in crimes committed by the poor, those on the bottom, especially those related in one way or another to drug trafficking.

A snapshot of this kind of crime can be seen in any provincial Spanish jail. Prisons full of the poor, the desperate, the habitually underemployed, where prisoners have served 30, 40, 50 sentences for theft, burglary, assault, gunfights, smuggling or sales of heroin, cocaine, hash and other drugs. In prison slang, they are the gremlins. Hopelessly poor, crime hasn’t helped them escape poverty; they are tied to the prison system, constantly in and out.

Sister Genoveva, an 88-year-old Catholic nun who has visited Barcelona’s jails to listen to convicts and help them for almost 70 years, has no doubt, “It’s always the poorest people who are in prison.” She knows what she’s talking about.

These are people who pay dearly for their crimes. Someone caught smuggling a kilo of cocaine gets eight or nine years in prison. But two important Spanish financiers, for example, convicted by the Supreme Court of fraud in the sale of an apartment building in Madrid, didn’t go to jail as a result of a questionable interpretation of a statute of limitations ruling by the Constitutional Court, which freed them. Although the deputy attorney general of Barcelona, José María Mena, wrote, “They are indeed swindlers and falsifiers.” Mena continued, “It’s also worth remembering the 200 million pesetas (120,000 euros) obtained by Alierta (president of the multinational Telefónica) for inside trading information, which is a crime, but for which he remains unscathed as a result of the ruling.”

It is not uncommon for the rich to escape punishment for their economic crimes with the questionable use of the statute of limitations, a law which says that after a certain amount of time, some crimes can no longer be prosecuted. Regardless of this issue, there are many crimes which harm people and are detrimental to the population, which go unpunished. The perpetuators never step foot inside a prison. What do they think this accursed economic crisis is except a series of crimes committed by different financial types, the consequences of which are paid for by citizens? Camouflaged and hidden crimes, committed with brilliant financial engineering and imaginative accounting. Thus to camouflage the de facto impunity of economic and financial criminals, great promises are made to eliminate crime from the streets, a strategy used by many countries, which only means prosecuting small-time, poor delinquents.

The fact is that the penal system is not hard on tax evasion or serious economic crimes committed by the wealthy minority. However, the system has been, and is, aggressive and intolerant when it comes to infractions committed by less favored social classes. As if that weren’t enough, in Spain today, the Partido Popular government and its allies are attempting to criminalize citizens who peacefully protest the economic system which limits and violates their rights. They want to beef up the penal code, and if the proposed changes are approved, Gandhi would go to jail in Spain. That’s the way things are and it’s not the way to reduce the prison population. As Josep M. Vallés, formerly head of the prison system in Catalonia said, “Having so many prisons, and their being full, is a failure.”

In the meantime, those responsible for economic and financial crimes, which are elaborately crafted and legally camouflaged, go about their business, to the detriment of the majority. It makes no difference that millions and millions of people are paying for the consequences.

The system is becoming less legitimate everyday, and democracy is wasting away.


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