Proof is what we need

Wondering how and what Portugal is beyond my personal experiences, I do a little research and stumble onto all sorts of statistics that surprise me. Not that I have a high opinion of statistics. “Statistics, statistics… one should not associate with statisticians,” wrote W.H. Auden. And the first president of the Indonesian Republic, the Dutch-educated “Bung” Sukarno, once said: “Numbers and statistics… who cares? Proof is what we need.”

Sukarno said more that is worth remembering, for instance after successfully concluding trade negotiations in Cairo with the then Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, when he exclaimed happily (for he was a happy man): “Well, we did a good job, haven’t we? Now, where are the lovely girls?” In those days a politician could say things such as these without receiving a storm of protest. Sukarno’s lightness of approach of economic problems and other weighty things in life have helped to prohibit me, then a high-school student in The Hague, of taking too many things others deem important for serious, including the numbers statisticians produce as regularly as sneezing attacks (although a recent survey showing that three out of four people make up 75% of the population appears to be correct). What follows are some numbers I collected, recognizing they were based on different collecting and counting methods and even on different years. I am not delivering hard proof or measured comparisons—I am just trying to get me, and to give you, an idea of what is going on.

Portugal. In the 1½ year since I arrived to resettle in Portugal I have become aware of little criminal activity. Crimes and even misdemeanors stayed out of sight. I have to confess, though, that after having lived undisturbed for more than twenty years in the boondocks of the US, in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico and in Chase County in Kansas, in places where we never locked our doors and at all times kept our car keys in the ignition, shortly after arriving in “the big city”, Lisbon, we were robbed by pickpockets at a Metro entrance. Lost a wallet with cash, credit cards, driver’s license, US Permanent Residence Card, US Social Security Card and more—all gone. I will not dwell on the problems we met trying to block cards or replace documents; but I can confirm that the Portuguese bureaucracy is even worse to deal with than the American system.

No wonder I wanted to know more about crime in Portugal. One of my first discoveries was: there is a Pickpocket Gallery in Lisbon close to Santa Opolónia, the train station close to the place where the robbery took place. The gallery specializes in photography and film. The place is not trustworthy insofar one never knows if the owners  will be there; the doors to the exhibition or installation may be found locked at any time, for in Portugal unlike the US it is not a criminal offense to close a business at odd times just to have a coffee or wine break, or to go fishing. But how is real crime in Portugal? Below are a few statistics I grabbed; comparisons are made between Portugal, the Netherlands and the United States. These are just indications. The lower in ranking, the better—which means: the lower the number, the worse.

Portugal – (Netherlands) (US) Of >100 countries
Yearly number Per 100.000  Ranking 
Murder 90 – (120) (14.000) 0,9 – (0,7) (4,4) 78 – (81) (31)
Vehicle theft 14.000 – (19.000) (686.000) 131 – (115) (215) 14 – (17) (6)
Burglary 34.500 – (254.000) (1.713.000) 330 – (1.510) (565) 27 – (1) (19)
Violence 540 – (50.300) (731.000) 5,2 – (295) (230) 80 – (11) (16)
Kidnapping 380 – (405) (13.700) 3,6 – (2,4) (4,2) 9 – (12) (7)
Rape 375 – (1.180) (118.000) 3,6 – (7,0) (370) 51 – (29) (4)
Robbery 15.590 – (10.500) (322.000) 149 – (61) (101) 15 – (29) (20)

I have a hard time understanding all I see above, such as the extraordinary low number of burglary occurrences in Portugal compared to the Netherlands. This crazy figure must have to do with the police registration or the lack of it. Nevertheless, the overall image that shows up is that of a country low on crime. Knowing that most criminal activity takes place in the greater Lisbon, Porto and Setubal areas and some places on the warm but tourist-infested Algarve coast, I conclude I am quite safe living in peaceful Central Portugal.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up “mass shooting” statistics as published in 2016 by VICE. I add a fourth figure to Portugal – (Netherlands) (US) namely: (Europe) but I hasten to mention that this includes mass shootings in Russia and Ukraine; disregard these two nations and Europe’s total is more than halved; and don’t forget that Europe counts 200 million more people than the US. By the way, war deaths by guns, suicide and “simple” shootings are not included in the numbers—and the 2017 figures, not yet published, will be worse for the US, think of Las Vegas.

Deaths                                  0 – (0) (392) (53)
Wounded                            10 – (0) (1,502) (169)

Criminal offenses in general are on the way down after a crime wave first hit Portugal in the early 1990s. After the Soviet Union broke apart and the Berlin Wall was taken down, the EU including Portugal came to deal with a tsunami of citizens from former East Bloc countries moving west. No few of these migrants were linked to freshly-developed criminal organizations—the joys of capitalism beckoned. Portugal also had to cope with an influx of people from its former African colonies Angola, Mozambique and Guinee-Bissau. Train travelers were robbed, so were gas stations and banks, and pickpockets became a national plague. In the end, the crime rate returned to its previous stable level—although, with Portugal becoming a most important tourist destination, pickpockets continued to infest the attractive coastal areas and the old city centers. What kept on growing with the ensuing globalization, though, was white color crime: corporate crime, financial crimes including money laundering, and corruption in many of its uncountable forms. Today these do attract ample media attention; alas, investigative journalism is less vigilant in Portugal than elsewhere and their publications or video reports often lack the substance needed to rise above rumor, gossip and back clap; they too easily follow cliché trails. As a consequence, the public interest wanes. The lists that link the names of business moguls with those of elected politicians and appointed government officials are rather predictable; they point out connections and associations that as such do not indicate other relationships than are considered normal in today’s global business world.

Which does not mean all hands are clean in Portugal. For instance, not long ago Portugal’s public prosecutor Orlando Figueira was fired to become accused of accepting a $900,000 bribe from the CEO of Angola’s oil giant Sonangol, who at the same time was the country’s vice-president, Manuel Vicente. Figueira was moreover offered a top position at an Angolan bank. His court case in Lisbon will never end in a serious conviction; the involvement of an Angolan politician creates an unsolvable problem. The Angolan government refuses any collaboration and angrily waves away the extradition order the Portuguese government imposed on its main witness, Vicente. Now Portugal has to issue an international arrest warrant for Vicente. Which angers the Angolans even more. And this case isn’t the only one. Over time, scores of Angolans have laundered ill-gotten gains through Portuguese financial institutions and real estate. Portugal has a hard time with handling any of these suspected corruption cases; a much needed understanding that bilateral relationships cannot interfere with judicial processes is not in sight. It falls the Portuguese hard to bring the shady deals so common in the past to an end; many Angolans see them as their historic right—and there are always Portuguese eager to profit from the pickings.

It is now almost twenty years ago that the Portuguese decided to decriminalize drug use. Drugs are not legal, but small users and dealers are left alone; it is the big traders and traffickers and associated criminal elements that are hunted and prosecuted; they are considered to be the bad guys. This approach helps to prevent the prison system from being overloaded: many cells remain empty. It also opens up time for the police forces to pay more attention to crime sectors that really form a danger to society. Meanwhile the small-time users do not face ostracism but help. The Portuguese national health service is approachable for any drug addict, soft or hard, in need of finding relief and support, but on the condition they enter rehabilitation programs and keep collaborating with efforts to break their habit; they are assisted with finding jobs as well. As a result, the drug scene is not much of a criminal hazard; drug related diseases do not play up; and drug abuse in Portugal is one-tenth of that in neighboring Spain and one-fifth of that in France. Imagine how many prison cells could be emptied if a comparable system were introduced in the US… It would be the end of the private sector finding prison management a most lucrative opportunity to suck up public funds, of course, and of politicians distributing this kind of pork; for on both sides the rewards would be reduced to mere pennies on the dollar—so, dream on, it won’t happen.

Domestic violence is one of the problems the Portuguese police have to deal with more and more; roughly 20,000 cases (20 per 10,000 inhabitants) are reported each year and this number is rising. Of course this does not per se mean that domestic violence is on the rise (as in the White House); as is the case all over the world, more victims dare to come forward. Definitely not on the rise are ethnic conflicts; they hardly exist in Portugal, and if they occur they are most often related to socio-economic differences within local communities. Quite remarkable is the conclusion that keeps showing up in many a research organization’s report, that the two-million Portuguese living at or under the poverty level (on a population of ten million) produce no more, rather less, criminal elements than citizens in nations with less economic divides. Personally I still believe the Portuguese are aware that much worse situations existed during the days of the fascist dictatorship, which lasted more than forty years. Even the younger Portuguese are educated to understand the improvements made since 1974, the year the country, now a social democracy, began to climb slowly out of the deep abyss; they appear to be more content with the situation as is and to expect continuation of improvement, and are not motivated to rebel in whatever extreme way, criminally or politically. Or maybe it is just in the Portuguese genes to behave well and not engage with crime and excess, whatever the circumstances. Maybe they believe in their democracy and trust their elected representatives. But if I put the question to someone, they always shake their head and, although with a smile, tell me how awful things are, how bad government is. For many, I hear, America is still the promised land as of old. I have a hard time explaining why they may be wrong; old images slowly die.

For in Portugal there aren’t even Mafiosi. There is no Mob. Yes, sometime ago there was a “Mafia da Noite” trying to impose their exclusive ownership rights on Lisbon’s night scene, and a similar organization, “Passerelle”, operated in Leiria not far from Tomar; but they all lost their sharpest edges after their leaders Alredo Morais, Paulo Baptista and Vitor Trindade were arrested. Portugal may have an enormous Atlantic Coast line and be close to North-Africa to boot, the influence of international crime organizations is minimal, even if being situated so nicely in a secluded corner of the western part of the EU is an open invitation to big-time smugglers. Indeed, Portugal has become a conduit; the smuggled goods pass through fast, and some ill-gains are laundered within its borders, though only a fraction of the amounts white-washed in neighboring Spain. Of course, a country as popular with expats and tourists as Portugal also attracts retiring criminals; scores of them try to find a comfortable and peaceful existence under the Portuguese sun, far away from the scenes of their crimes. ‘Ndrangheta boss Domenico Giorgi, leader of the Pelle Voltari clan, chose Coimbra, while Giovanni Capone Perna of the Camorra’s Pagnozzi clan decided Oliveira do Hospital was the place to be; and Mario Ivona disappeared to Cascais after having faked his own death in Italy. Not many Mafiosi appear to find a permanent happy home in Portugal, though; it is not so much the police that catch up with them as their old buddies, envious, or old enemies, seeking revenge, who are putting spokes in their wheels. Funny, quite a few Italian, Brazilian and Ukrainian crime kings and princes getting arrested elsewhere on earth appear to carry Portuguese issue passports and other IDs…

The Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer says that one in four people on earth are experiencing corruption since they have to pay bribes and grease palms to receive government services. As a consequence, not many believe their governments and elected representatives do their utmost to fight corruption, in fact on average 60% do not trust their governments at all. Not so the Portuguese, says the Barometer: they may utter complaints in private conversations, yet 82% of the surveyed express as their opinion that their government listens if they demand tighter controls–a beautiful score. Another great score: according to the Australian institute that annually publishes the Global Peace Index last year Portugal ended third place, after Iceland and New Zealand; the Dutch came 19th, the Americans were not even close to the first twenty-five most peaceful countries in the world, and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa scored 100th at best. Therefore it is even less comprehensible that the Global Happiness Index when ranking more than one-hundred countries puts Portugal at the 89th place. How come? How can this be, knowing that so many other statistics point to a general satisfaction; and personally experiencing that so many Portuguese people I meet or observe show a true lightness of being; and then, experiencing my own happy feelings with being in their country? It must be their inbred sense of melancholy called “saudade” that the researchers do not know how to deal with and let influence the score negatively. The Dutch people manage to occupy the 6th spot on the happiness scale, after of course the Scandinavians. The Netherlands: 6 – Portugal: 89? I can’t believe it. President Sukarno was só right when he said: statistics, who cares… what we need is proof.