Crime in Geneva is fast becoming out of hand, as gangs from the French city of Lyon come across the border in search of easy pickings. The understaffed border guard service is struggling to cope with the tide, as criminals become more organised.
Last year over 1,300 vehicles were stolen in Geneva, many of them by gangs from Lyon and elsewhere in France.
The Geneva border guard service is no doubt about the seriousness of the problem. "To them Switzerland, and especially the Geneva area, is like a supermarket," says Salvatore Mirata, spokesman for the border guards and head of the anti-drug unit in French-speaking Switzerland. "They can get big cars, there are shops selling luxury goods. They can help themselves.
"It's a phenomenon we started to notice about five of six years ago. At first, these young people from the suburbs of Lyon were coming to Geneva and committing minor offences, like shoplifting. "Gradually, they began to steal cars and motorbikes, and now we even see hold-ups. It's mainly committed by juveniles, but they're getting more organised. These are real criminals."
The rising crime has highlighted growing problems at the heart of the border guard service in the Geneva area. It simply does not have enough personnel. There are over 100 crossing points along the 106 km of border between France and canton Geneva. Of the 34 customs posts, only four are manned around the clock.
A recent study showed that the border guards are the worst rewarded of all federal civil servants. The Finance Minister, Kaspar Villiger, is expected to announce shortly what extra help he's prepared to offer. In the meantime, the guards must make do.
"We're faced with three main problems," says Captain Claude Thuler, head of Sector II of the Geneva region. "We don't have enough men. We have been given soldiers to help us out, but they can only carry out security tasks, not the checks or customs duties.
"Secondly, the work conditions have become increasingly difficult, and the wages are poor. Thirdly, we don't have the means to carry out our job. We've received bullet-proof vests and security sprays, but we're still waiting for other equipment that would help us do our job more effectively."
Thuler has two mobile units in his sector. They consist of 40 men who have to monitor 50 roads. Most of the time these routes are unattended - enabling criminals to come and go as they please.
"There's a lot of traffic on these roads in the late afternoon," says Thuler. "They're used by local people, of course, but also by people linked to criminal activities. Incredibly, these roads are known by people who come from a long way away - Lyon, Portugal and even Turkey - especially those transporting drugs or stolen goods, but also people who smuggle illegal immigrants."
A border guard was killed in a hit and run incident last November. Another officer in a mobile unit told me how difficult the job had become: "A lot of this crime is committed by young people who've got nothing to lose. If you're standing in the road, they'll try and run you down. I was hit by a person I tried to stop. She broke four of my teeth - for no reason. She had no papers and she lost her cool. That kind of incident happens nearly every day. We're not respected any more."
The role of the border guards has changed enormously in recent years. Where ten years ago, 80 per cent of a border guard's work would be taken up with customs duties and 20 per cent with police matters, it's now the other way around. Their bosses at the finance ministry, not used to having to deal with law and order matters, have taken a while to catch up.
Another area for improvement is in cooperation with the French police and customs. There have been a few joint operations, but on a day to day basis, this cooperation is not as well established as that between the Swiss and German police and customs.
"Cooperation with the French could be improved. We'd like to see them take the initiative to collaborate with us more often. At the moment it's always us suggests cooperation," Salvatore Mirata told swissinfo.
Another stumbling block is the lack of cross-border cooperation between the French and Swiss governments. A bilateral agreement giving police the right to pursue suspects across the border was signed in 1998, but it has yet to be approved by the French National Assembly.
by Roy Probert