By Simon Bradley
A spate of violent armed robberies in Geneva by French gangs has raised the question of whether the Swiss set aside sufficient resources to police their borders.
The Swiss government recently announced the recruitment of additional border guards for Geneva for the next two years. But the border guards union and certain politicians say the numbers are inadequate to deal with cross-border crime.
Geneva, alongside Basel, is a hotspot for cross-border crime, admits Jürg Noth, head of the Swiss border guards.
“The recent extremely violent armed attacks in the Geneva region face us with a major challenge,” Noth told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
The region has witnessed a series of armed attacks by criminals allegedly crossing into Switzerland from Lyon, Grenoble and other parts of the Rhône- Alpes region immediately over the border in France.
In November 2010 a gang carried out a spectacular attack on a Migros Bank in Thônex using machine guns and explosives. A similar hold-up was reported in December in Collonge-Bellerive.
The security situation is seen as particularly delicate given the chronic border guard understaffing problems in Geneva over the past few years.
In response to lobbying and pressure, Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf gave the green light last week for the recruitment of 24 additional guards. They will follow 11 new guards who started in January, which should swell the ranks to 340 by 2013.
But for the border guard union, Garanto, although this measure “goes in the right direction”, it is not enough.
It says 200 additional guards are needed, 60 of them for the Geneva region.
“The government does not take seriously proposals made in parliament and ignores motions that were accepted,” Garanto Central Secretary André Eicher told swissinfo.ch.
The union is supported by Maria Roth-Bernasconi, a Social Democrat parliamentarian from Geneva and Hans Fehr, a Swiss People’s Party politician from Zurich, who filed motions calling for additional resources.
The government meanwhile says it will “continue to deal with requests for posts in a restrictive fashion” due to budgetary constraints.
Rudolf Dietrich, head of the Customs Office, defended his superiors.
“It’s not for me to put pressure on the government,” he told the journalists. “When the cabinet makes available 4,500 staff [working for the Federal Customs Office] that cost SFr450 million ($469 million) I can’t go every day crying that I don’t have enough resources. I need to work with what I’ve got and improve training.”
Dietrich added that Geneva had not been forgotten.
“There are more border guards in the region than ten years ago,” he noted.
Of the 300 currently available, 124 are deployed at Geneva airport carrying out controls on passengers crossing the external Schengen border.
Since December 12, 2008 when Switzerland joined the Schengen zone, systematic border checks on individuals coming into Switzerland from Schengen countries were abolished and cooperation was increased in the fight against cross-border crime.
Naive, rich Swiss
A recent “Temps Present” documentary by the Swiss national television channel TSR highlighted problems created by Lyon-based gangs operating in French-speaking Switzerland.
“Switzerland’s like a wonderland; there is everything and less security than in France. The Swiss are naive and everyone is rich,” a gang member told the programme.
The documentary claimed that the deployment of border guards at the airport had caused a serious shortfall among mobile border patrols in the region.
“We no longer dare go in if we don’t have reinforcements; you can’t fight those gangs,” a border guard recounted anonymously.
Claude Meylan, the commander in charge of Geneva border guards, admitted the figure of seven mobile border guards on duty at night cited by the programme was correct.
“But that was for 2008-2009; today we have 10 to 17 colleagues in 5-6 patrols,” he claimed.
For Isabel Rochat, head of the police department in the Geneva cantonal government, the best response for dealing with these criminals involves closer cooperation with French colleagues.
“In 2010 several crimes were prevented thanks to the exchange of information. Such collaboration allows us to anticipate attacks and track networks,” she told Le Temps newspaper.
Our problem is that we idealise the past, said Olivier Guéniat, head of the Neuchâtel judiciary police force.
“Not all border posts used to be guarded [before Schengen],” he told Temps Present. “Criminals used to cross the border and there were quite a few hold-ups in Zurich, Geneva and Neuchâtel with mafias from Corsica, Marseille or Lyon. We never had an Israeli or US-Mexican style border.”
“Switzerland is a huge sieve and the moment police or border guards are no longer visible people seem to feel traumatised, frightened and frustrated. In the past criminals never stopped at the borders – it’s absurd to say or imagine that they did.”