Geneva’s ex-mayor Pierre Maudet is fighting organized crime in his new role as security minister as he tackles the biggest threat to the city’s reputation since Bernard Madoff duped some of its most illustrious fund managers.
The authorities plastered Geneva last month with posters telling residents to beware of thieves, while police advocate keeping valuables in bank vaults after bag-snatching increased 28 percent and pickpocketing climbed 43 percent in 2011. Knife crime in the home of Pictet & Cie., Lombard Odier & Cie. and 130 other banks surged by more than 50 percent that same year, according to data compiled by cantonal police, who plan to release 2012 figures later this month.
“I’m determined to reverse the trend,” said Maudet, 35, who was the city’s youngest mayor and is now deploying police to crack down on criminal gangs from Lyon and Marseille in neighboring France. “Guaranteeing an image of safety for Geneva is crucial, including for international companies based here.”
Geneva’s millionaire lakeside mansions, designer boutiques and access to ski resorts such as Verbier and Megeve helped lure hedge fund managers and commodity traders, including Brevan Howard, Vitol Group and Gunvor Group. The appeal of a city where residents left their doors unlocked 30 years ago is at risk as oil trader Trafigura declares hotels in Les Paquis neighborhood off limits for visitors and local officials turn to New York for crime-fighting tips.
“It isn’t a utopia anymore,” said Edward Flaherty, a senior partner at Geneva law firm Schwab, Flaherty & Associates. “We don’t want to live in a Gestapo state with customs officers picking through our groceries, but there is a huge burglary problem and now we are also seeing mugging and other violence.”
The increase in crime follows $7 billion of losses reported by at least seven Geneva-based firms, including Union Bancaire Privee, Banco Santander SA’s Optimal Investment Services and Notz, Stucki & Cie., from Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff pleaded guilty to fraud in 2009 for cheating investors out of $20 billion in principal. He’s serving a 150-year term in federal prison in North Carolina.
Maudet, who as mayor discussed policing issues in 2011 when he met with his New York counterpart Michael Bloomberg, is boosting the number of police to deal with burglary and doubling prison capacity, the security minister’s office said. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Under the banner “adopt appropriate measures to avoid a burglary,” Geneva police are urging residents to lock their doors and windows, empty mailboxes and maintain good neighborly relations to deter thieves.
SGS SA, the world’s biggest product-inspections company, is offering free self-defense classes for about 300 employees at its headquarters on the fringes of Geneva’s red-light district in Les Paquis after at least three executives were assaulted.
“We’re saddened by the way the neighborhood is turning,” said Olivier Merkt, general counsel at SGS and a Swiss who has lived in Geneva for 20 years. “The city could do more to improve the upkeep of the place and have some more laws on loitering.”
Registered sex workers climbed more than sixfold to 5,200 in the eight years through 2012, Eric Grandjean, a spokesman for the Geneva police, said today by e-mail, adding that prostitutes may not inform the authorities when they leave the canton or cease their activity. Most come from Hungary and France, according to police figures.
SGS now holds events in safer, out-of-town areas after visiting Chinese officials had their passports stolen from a bus near the company’s office.
Criminals from Lyon and Marseille have robbed banks, post offices and jewelry stores in Geneva since 2009 when Switzerland joined the European Union’s passport-free zone and border restrictions were eased, said Nicolas Giannakopoulos, founder of the Geneva-based Organized Crime Observatory.
Residents in the village of Anieres on the outskirts of Geneva, where lakefront homes sell for more than 20 million francs ($21.2 million), hired private security company Guardian Protection SA after Swiss police failed to deter the crime syndicates from France. A local cafe and at least four homes have been burglarized during the past 18 months in the district where about 2,500 people live, according to Teresa Neciosup, a waitress at Au Petit Panier.
‘Lock the Doors’
Anieres, which backs on to the French border that encircles Geneva, is a target for gangs from Lyon as France’s second-largest city is only a two-hour drive away, said the village’s assistant mayor Pierre Chollet.
“In 1980, you could leave a property open,” Chollet said in an interview from the village hall overlooking the vineyards of La Cave de la Cote d’Or. “Now you have to lock the doors and install an alarm.”
In Geneva, the amount of graffiti blighting the city also is on the rise. Maudet, who as mayor set up a unit to curb graffiti, saw the outside walls of his office vandalized with doodles and scrawls last month.
“We have a decay in the quality of life in our city, which requires swift responses from the authorities,” said Guillaume Barazzone, a 31-year-old local politician in charge of municipal police, who also wants to rectify shortages of housing and daycare capacity.
The crime wave hasn’t hurt Geneva’s ability to attract people to work at the United Nations, said Corinne Momal-Vanian, a spokeswoman for the organization that employs 1,600 in the city.
Geneva is less dangerous than Dubai or Singapore, according to a 2011 study by New York-based Mercer LLC that ranked Vienna as the safest and Baghdad as the least safe of 221 cities surveyed. The Swiss city was the sixth-safest, while London and New York shared 68th place.
When 2012 crime statistics are published later this month, they may show a decline in some property-related offenses, including burglary, according to Laurent Forestier, a spokesman for the Geneva police.
While the city’s banks don’t see safety and quality of life as significant problems, the “aggressive” approach to solving crime and graffiti are being viewed positively, according to Steve Bernard, managing director of Geneva Financial Center, a lobby group.
“I’m not saying everything is perfect, or that we are back to the leave your door unlocked situation of the 1970s, but the Geneva population and police needed time to adjust to the new threat posed by non-domestic criminal groups,” Bernard said.