Mugged in Madrid

    I was face-down on the cobblestones of Calle Embajadores in Madrid, Spain, and my cheek and eyebrow hurt. I remembered the preceding seconds and became very angry. People stood or knelt around me, concerned expressions on their faces, rapid and obviously sympathetic Spanish voices directed to me and to each other.

    My wife's purse had been yanked from her shoulder on a well-populated street at 2:00 in the afternoon of June 19, 1999. An adolescent boy had dashed up to her and butted her directly in the middle of her body. He grabbed the squarish nylon purse, secured to her by a wide nylon strap that went over her shoulder. At the moment of the attack she was holding it against her side under her elbow. The attachments between the purse and the strap were plastic and must have been broken by the extremely violent yank delivered by the assailant. She was spun against a drainpipe attached to a wall, and suffered bruises to her face and wrist. The purse contained her wallet that held just over $160.00 in a combination of U.S. and Spanish bills, driver's license, military dependent ID card, Social Security card, a credit card and two check and cash cards. Other normal purse contents were also present.

    I had not seen it happen, but had been crashed into from the rear by another boy. My wife yelled "Stop, thief," at the top of her voice. I immediately, without thinking the situation through, chased after three fleeing boys, shouting "Thief! Thief!" as loudly as I could. I had had no thought of catching the thieves, I merely hoped someone else might take some action as they fled down a side street. Not the wisest thing for a 65-year-old man loaded with a backpack to do. I made it all of about sixty feet before tripping and doing a classic face-plant on the far side of the street.

    My wife and the other three members of our small traveling party moved quickly toward me. I heard my wife saying, "Anteojos, anteojos," because she had noted that my eyeglasses were not on my face and was fearful that someone might step on them. She appeared beside me and I was relieved to see that she seemed to be all right. Someone had helped me sit up, then when it was apparent that I was only scratched and bruised a bit, steadied me as I stood up. It seemed important to me to put my little white flat-hat back on, so I did. I was a bit wobbly, but not enough so that I was concerned about it. My wife said later that she was happy to see my spectacles gripped tightly in my hand. Young people gathered and grandmotherly ladies patted my shoulders and examined my scratched face and bleeding thumb knuckle. Someone kept a gentle but firm grip on my arm. The boys had long-since vanished down Calle Econmienda, the side street toward which I had been running. All I could remember about them was a flash of a white shirt and a tee shirt with broad horizontal stripes. Later it became clear to me that we would all have been better off had I moved to a position to get a look at their clothing, rather than trying to chase after them.

    A gentleman was speaking rapid Spanish into his cell phone, summoning the police and an emergency medical team. Another man, younger, stepped up and said, "I speak English and I will help you." He could and did. I reached into my pack and found a cloth, used it to blot the drops of blood from my thumb knuckle. The injury was very small tear of the skin, but it seemed to bleed more than I thought it should. The man who spoke English assured me several times that the thieves were not Spanish. He said unequivocally that all such street thieves were Africans.

    My incident seemed to slightly divert my wife from the shock of her own experience in some ways, to magnify it in others. She had not seen me fall - people or cars most likely blocked her view. Her first sight of me was while I was prone on the street, frightening her greatly. It is possible that I was unconscious for the first few seconds after my tumble. I clearly remember doing a self-inventory before moving or attempting to get up, so I stayed down longer than might have been expected. My thumb did not hurt. The upper part of my right cheek and a place above my right eye felt scratched and sore.

    In a very few moments an ambulance and police car glided silently into the scene. Their occupants' transition into the series of events was seamless and reassuring. An attractive English-speaking and very competent woman stepped from the ambulance and took me in her charge. She guided me into the ambulance, answered my protests with assurances that she and her partner did not intend to transport me to a hospital, and told me to sit on the stretcher. I did as I was told. The two policemen stayed back out of the way.

    As my wife stepped into the ambulance the EMT began to clean my face and thumb. As she did so she asked the usual questions - had I lost consciousness, was I dizzy, was my vision clear, were there any points of sharp pain, and the rest. I answered as directly as I could. She finished the first aid process, filled out a form and handed me the yellow copy, ushered us out onto the sidewalk, apologized on behalf of the Spanish people, accepted and returned my impulsive hug of thanks, and told me to be sure to show the form to the police. She and her partner got into the front seats of the ambulance and drove away. I imagine that they considered it just another very minor incident in their work day. To me, the compassionate, efficient, caring treatment I received made a lasting positive impression upon me, increasing my already high regard for the Spaniards with whom we dealt during our vacation.

    The group of people who had seen me fall was still intact and present, still concerned and supportive. The man with the cell phone accepted with graciousness our sincere thanks and went on his way. The volunteer translator remained to help with the on-site interview with the police. Most important, my wife was safely by my side and our traveling companions were with us and also safe. Our little group was intact.

    Two patrol officers were there. Our first instructions were to go on our own to the police station and file a report, then a decision was made by the officers to place us in the back seat of the unit and cruise the area, hoping to catch sight of the thieves. We could provide no descriptions, just flashes of impressions, but cooperated gratefully. After all, it was a ride to the police station, however hopeless the prospect of spotting the perpetrators enroute.

    Quite a ride it was, too, after the short and fruitless tour of small parks and tight-fitting streets. Hard fiberglass bench seat, no seat belts, the sensation of being about to slide out of the depression one was sitting in. Zooming through heavy traffic on the main thoroughfares with effortless competence, flashing through the deserted walking mall on the grounds of the old royal palace, more narrow back streets and a smooth two-step slide into an impossibly tiny parking spot. A winding guided hike through the tortuous passageways of the central police station, then arrival at the same area I had been in with our sister-in-law as a result of a separate incident described later in this article. There was a short period of waiting with other street crime victims, and then our officers reappeared with a two pairs of report forms.

    We were escorted to a counter in a hallway near the waiting room and the officers courteously and patiently helped with the forms. One of them spoke uncertain and barely adequate English, and with our few words of Spanish we communicated with only momentary glitches. The Madrid police have bilingual report forms for speakers of English, French, German, Japanese and perhaps many other languages. The forms were completed, two copies on two sides, precious carbon paper carefully arranged as a part of the process, then we were told to return to the waiting room.

    The next wait was unexpectedly short. I had not quite finished canceling one credit and two ATM cards (the international toll free numbers are posted at the almost constantly in-use pay telephone in the station hallway) when we were summoned to the desk and given our completed reports, stamped and numbered. Our personal police hosts had seen to it that we skipped the usual step of going into the interview room and enduring questioning by officers who entered information into the computer database. We had received expedited service, and did our best to express our genuine and heartfelt appreciation. We bid our escorting officers farewell and watched as they walked away, presumably back to their patrol duties.

    We questioned a somewhat grumpy desk officer regarding subway station locations. After some pointing and partially understood Spanish we learned that we had a choice of two, one uphill from the police station entrance, one downhill. From sheer habit - Madrid's sidewalks all seem to involve climbing - we selected the uphill route and trudged to one that turned up less than three blocks away.

    There is a Metro entrance about 50 yards from the front entrance of our apartment hotel. The Madrid Metro System is convenient, inexpensive, clean, and apparently well policed. We were relieved and comforted by its familiarity and enclosed safe spaces. We were even happier to get "home." We had planned a joint dinner in our studio apartment with the other travelers in our group, a welcome diversion for the evening. My scratched face and bandaged thumb were the hit of the gathering. The actual robbery, with the assault and battery upon my wife, was uppermost in my own mind at that time. I had the marks on my face and hand, but she had been the one that had been directly attacked, then had seen me on the ground and not known for a time that I was not seriously injured. The visible results of the chain of events were the more obvious upon me, upon her they were more profound and longer lasting.

    Ours was the third street crime committed against a member of our six person traveling party in a period of eight days. The first happened on our first Friday evening in the city. Our daughter, a striking blond woman in her early thirties, left the apartment to "see what happens on the Gran Via on Friday night." The Gran Via is at the center of downtown Madrid, and at 10:00 P.M. is teeming with citizens of the city who are out for dinner and shopping. Spaniards eat dinner late by American standards. The 2:30 to 5:00 siesta period is still in vogue in that nation, and most restaurants do not begin to serve the evening meal until 9:00 P.M. or so. Many shops and stores are closed in the afternoon, open until late at night.

    At about 10:30 our daughter found that she had happened into a block that had very few people present and began to hurry back to what she considered safer territory. She didn't make it in time. A cutpurse came up to her, took hold of her shoulder bag, and sliced the strap. She struggled to hold the bag for a few seconds, then the thought came to her that the man had cut the strap with a sharp knife. Wisely, she released her grip and began to yell loudly as the man dashed through heavy traffic to the other side of the busy multi-lane boulevard and down a side street.

    As in our case, almost immediately a helpful man equipped with a cell phone stepped up to her and called for police assistance. She was, understandably and probably properly, mildly hysterical. The gentleman stayed by her side until a police patrol unit arrived. He assured her several times that the thief could not have been Spanish, that he, like all these thugs, was a South American. As they waited for the officers to come our daughter thought she recognized a man standing across the street as the one who had taken the purse. She was not certain enough to take any action, however.

    Our daughter speaks fluent Spanish, a skill that our group took full advantage of during our visit to central Spain, and which made her crime reporting ordeal easier to deal with. Despite her ability to communicate freely with the police officers, she had an extremely difficult time getting help in her efforts to call her mother and me at the apartment hotel. She said to us the next day that she had gotten frustrated enough to start crying, and that the tears seemed to be the key to obtaining the help she so desperately needed. Still, it was after 2:00 in the morning before she was able to return to the apartment. Hers was the first police report we carefully stashed away.

    The purse was found near the crime scene by the police and returned to her before she left the station. Missing was a credit card, a lipstick, a pair of sunglasses, and a tube of toothpaste. Madrid police were assumed to be searching for a male in his twenties wearing a pair of cool lady's shades, a great shade of lipstick, and having very clean teeth. All the cash in the purse was still present, as well as all identification documents and other items. No charges had been made against the credit card at the time it was blocked.

    Since hers was the first of the street crime incidents that happened to a member of our traveling group, it was the most unnerving, especially so with our daughter. She lives in a major city, Boston, and walks about 45 minutes to and from work. She is aware of possible street confrontations, deals with minor ones often, but had never experienced one like this purse-cutting. She, her mother, and I were all angry and more than a little nervous during the stay in the city from that moment on. There were times when we almost let the incident interrupt our planned agenda, but in the end we went forward, being quite a bit more careful and aware of our immediate surroundings.

    Our second police encounter occurred a week later, June 18th. This series of events began when our sister-in-law discovered that her wallet was missing from her backpack. She had bought a large item at a well-known central city department store, El Corte Ingles, and had not been able to bury her wallet deeply into the pack because she was using both hands to hold her purchase. This was, we assume, noted by a pickpocket working the store, and the wallet presumably was removed from the pack soon after the purchase was made. It was not until she got back to her room that she experienced the emptiness and gut-wrenching sensation of helplessness that goes with discovering that her wallet was not in the backpack.

    She soon came to our studio apartment, told my wife and me of the situation, and I accompanied her to the station to make the report. The first step was to try to find out where the nearest police station was. Our desk clerk, very concerned and helpful but limited in English language skills, wrote an address on a card and gave it to us. We got into a taxi, gave the driver the card, and when we got to address found the station closed. The driver then zipped us to the city's central police station and the reporting process started.

    That experience was frustrating in the extreme. Neither of us spoke useful Spanish, none of the officers we dealt with spoke English, my daughter was in Lisbon visiting a former housemate. Almost first-off I was told to go through a door, or I thought that was what I was required to do. I did, and was promptly repulsed by loudly spoken commands. Shortly afterward the two of us found ourselves at a counter by the station entrance, report forms and ball-point in my sister-in-law's hand. We worked together on the report and when it was completed we were directed to the already well populated waiting room. No further instructions or information was offered by anyone. Some of our twelve or more fellow waiting victims had forms like ours, others did not. We did not know whether our presence had been recorded, did not know what was next or when it might happen. Nor, apparently , did anyone else in the waiting room. If information sheets outlining the normal procedure and presented in a variety of languages were made available to the constant stream of street crime victims, they and the police would be relieved of much frustration and confrontation. Not knowing what the process consists of and how long it is expected to take is an unnecessarily stressful addition to the already helpless anger still hanging on from being attacked, robbed, or both.

    At one side of the room an English-speaking officer and a charming and very pretty young French woman, also fluent in English, were conducting an interview. I got close enough to listen, learned that the young woman and her male companion (present but in the background) had just arrived in Madrid and checked into a hotel. They went almost immediately to a café for dinner, and her backpack had been taken from beside her chair. The pack contained their passports, airline tickets, rental car keys, French identity cards, travelers' checks, and other items. Somehow she received very quick service, was finished and gone from the station in a very short time. Charm, beauty, and apparent helplessness often are awarded with special handling of problems.

    Fortunately for us there was another kind and helpful local citizen present, an actor who was trying to reclaim his stolen car that the police had found and towed to a secure area. He spoke excellent English, was entertaining and sympathetic, and stayed with us throughout the almost all of the reporting and waiting processes. He assured us that the thief was absolutely not Spanish, but was certainly a North African.

    After what seemed an eternity a Spanish gentleman, also a crime victim, engaged a policeman who was passing through the waiting in a loud and apparently directly worded series of questions. The officer stayed calm and appeared to be answering the questions as they were presented. The interchange lasted for several minutes, the officer continued on his way, and I asked the general population of the room what had happened. As I recall my question was worded, "Would someone please decode that conversation for us? I believe that it was about the very things that we need to know." Our actor acquaintance and a jolly white-mustachioed native of Puerto Rico confirmed that indeed the gentleman had been asking about procedures and what the estimated waiting time might be.

    He had been told, our translators said, that there were two lines of people being interviewed, and that no time estimate could be given. I tried to find out what criteria were being used to divide us into the two lines. A fruitless effort. No one knew, nor did anyone seem to care. Not that it mattered. We were to wait until we were called, and that was that. In fact, it was only a few minutes before we were invited through the door into the next room and seated in front of a desk. The police required our actor-translator to come along, and an officer began questioning my sister-in-law. The actor translated.

    The facts recorded on the report form were verified and entered into the computer database. The officer then spent quite a lot of time and effort in obtaining and providing to us the telephone number of the American Consulate in Madrid, explaining that if the wallet was found at some future date it would be sent there for return to its owner upon request. Unless, that is, the wallet turned up before our departure date. If that happened we would be informed at our hotel and could come to the station and retrieve it.

    Upon leaving the station we were directed to a taxi rank about a half block away. It was deserted, so we moved back to a position very near the police station entrance and hailed a passing taxi that took us to the apartment hotel. We arrived some time after 11:00 P.M., as I recall.

    Upon her return to the United States our sister-in-law learned that about $2,250.00 worth of clothing and electronic equipment had been charged against the card. Under the terms of her card contract, however, none of that amount was charged to her.

    Six of us in the party, in central Spain 13 days. Three were robbed, one violently. One other slightly injured in a vain attempt to stop the thieves' escape. My most noticeable souvenir of the trip was a wonderful shiner. My wife brought back a very sore cheek and wrist, neither of which showed visible evidence, but which troubled her for a number of days after our return to the United States. All of us returned with a different. more cynical view of the world in general, Madrid in particular. Would I recommend that others visit Madrid, Toledo, and Segovia? Without hesitation, but only after issuing a strong warning that there is an element of risk that our party was not aware of, and that we were not prepared for.

    When you do travel to Madrid, an under-the-clothing device to carry money, credit and cash cards, and ID is a good thing to use. Our practice was to leave our passports and tickets in the care of the hotel except when they were absolutely required to be on our persons. This proved to be wise.

    What to do, what to see, where to go? There is more than enough of every kind of thing for anyone. Unexcelled art museums, historical sites, palaces, cathedrals, churches, markets, theaters, restaurants, cafes, bars, and more. Friendly and hospitable people everywhere, great food, marvelous weather, stunning scenery.

    But keep a tight grip on your wallet or purse, carry only the needed amount of cash on outings, leave unneeded cards and documents at your hotel. Make sure that all members of your party have the international toll free telephone numbers for blocking your credit and cash cards, and, if the group relationships are of the kind that allow sharing the information, the card numbers. Learn your PINs, don't record them on anything that is in the same place as your ATM or check cards, know the procedures for blocking use of each of your cards and accounts. Perhaps most important, if you are accosted or mugged, stand in place as the thief or thieves escape, try to take note of identifying features of the robbers, make as much noise as possible, and do not resist an armed assailant.

    Bon voyage!

    © Copyright 1999, Crossroads Consulting. Permission is granted for reproduction for official government reporting purposes and also by those persons directly involved in the described incident. All other rights reserved. For permission to publish or reproduce send email to wcomer@NMSU.Edu.