Lisbon—On a sunny national holiday, scores of beachgoers were stretched out in the sands at Portugal’s Carcavelos beach, when like a swarm of locusts some 500 youths descended on the relaxed crowd, stirring up panic as they robbed the stunned bathers.
Not a pretty postcard for Portuguese tourism.
But that was the scene on Friday at the beach 15km west of Lisbon, according to police.
The images flashed on Portuguese television of tensions at the normally tranquil beaches stirred concern about the social tensions in Lisbon’s poor suburbs.
The youths, from 12 to 20 years old, were apparently second-generation immigrants who organised into gangs, according to initial police reports.
“The situation is worrying,” said Vitor Filipe, president of the Portuguese Confederation of Tourism, calling for immediate security measures.
“If not we will have a sort of Rio de Janeiro here and our tourist image is going to take a knock.”
The gangs made a clean sweep of Carcavelos beach, acting aggressively and mugging the sunbathers en masse, police and witnesses said.
Panicking, the bathers fled, some losing track of their children in the confusion.
Police called for reinforcements and fired guns into the air. Five people, including two police officers, were injured and four suspects were arrested.
But confusion remains about exactly what happened and police have not definitely established that the robbery sweep at the beach was co-ordinated between the gangs in the suburbs.
The Carcavelos beach attack shows “the existence of a lost generation of young Africans, second-generation immigrants . . . who do not have roots in Africa and no satisfying future in Portugal,” Joao Maria Mendes, a professor, told the daily Publico Sunday.
“It is all a big misunderstanding,” according to Portuguese international footballer Miguel, a defender with Lisbon’s soccer giants Benfica, himself the child of African immigrants.
“There were only 10 blacks who started the incident and the violence,” he told the daily 24Horas, citing reports from friends who were at the beach and pointing out that blacks too were victims of the muggings.
Rita Silva of the Association for Immigrant Solidarity blamed the country’s housing situation which “separates and isolates people, creating ghettoes and social exclusion”, according to the newspaper Jornal de Noticias.
The Portuguese government responded by immediately bringing forward a summer security operation that includes installing surveillance cameras at the beaches and boosting the police forces.
While Carcavelos, under heightened police security, was almost deserted on Saturday, in southern Portugal’s Algarve, authorities said they broke up a group of 50 youths at Quarteira beach who were set to conduct a copycat operation.
The Algarve is the country’s top tourist region, an industry that accounts for 10% of Portugal’s gross national product (GNP).