They move stealthily, alert for any sign of movement. While the city sleeps, the Gotham Group in Malaga goes about its businesses, looking for criminals who operate under the cover of darkness to avoid any witnesses.
The group is named after the fictitious city in which Batman fights villains and uncontrolled crime, and this National Police squad specialises in preventing and solving crimes that take place at night. They are plain clothes officers, driving an unmarked vehicle so that they don't raise suspicions. They may not have superpowers, but they do have an almost superhuman instinct when it comes to spotting and hunting down the bad guys.
According to Inspector Javier Pérez, who is also one of the force's two local specialist negotiators, experience is the greatest strength of this nocturnal unit. The members of the Gotham Group know the streets inside out thanks to the years that they have spent working on them.
"There are 17 of us, from different units which are all related to what we do here; I was in charge of investigating holdups for four years. Others have worked on robberies, plain clothes operations, public safety and judicial investigation," says Inspector Pérez. They expect to arrest around 400 suspects in a normal year.
Pérez explains that the Gotham Group in Malaga does its homework before starting each shift. "We don't just go and drive around the streets to see what we find," he says.
All the incidents that occur during the night are analysed and set out in a report the next day, and this information helps the officers to track down offenders and plan new strategies.
"With this information we know where there are problems, whether they are related to previous crimes and whether any witnesses have come forward who might be able to help us identify the offenders," he explains.
The unit mainly focuses on crimes against property, but the officers are always ready to intervene in anything that occurs at night, which could be a brawl, sexual assault or a stabbing.
Fabián Serrano and Alejandro Monfrino work as a pair, and SUR went with them on one of their shifts. They drive with the windows down and their senses heightened. If anything raises their suspicions, they take immediate action.
"Good evening," they say, then show their police badges and ask for identification. They verify the data and check what the suspect is carrying. They are polite, and start a conversation to find out what they are doing on the street at that time of night, whether they work and where they live.
"When you have been in the police for years and you talk to someone, there are a lot of ways of telling whether they could be hiding something or not. We consider their attitude, whether they are calm, aggressive or unusually nervous; we look for contradictions in what they say and whether what they tell us is coherent," says Serrano. Their instinct doesn't often let them down. Of the 30 people he and Monfrino questioned on this shift, most had a police record or had spent time in prison.
Tonight, they are investigating two cases of robbery in a store and thefts from vehicles. Other things also come up over the course of the shift, such as coming across a group of eight youths walking along a deserted street at 2am on a weekday.
They are all wearing black clothes and are from a town in La Axarquía. They tell the officers they are just taking a stroll. The police discover that they all have extensive police records, and when they check their cars they find an extendable truncheon, some cable ties and binoculars in one of them. The police confiscate the items.
"This has all the appearance of them trying to pull off a violent robbery, and it is probably drug-related," say the officers.
The identifications have a dual purpose. The proximity means the police can see if their appearance matches that of someone they are looking for and whether they are in possession of illegal goods.
"It means we also have their names, we know what they are wearing and we have ascertained that they are in a certain area on this day at this time. If a crime is committed and the description matches theirs, we already have a clue about who it could have been," they say.
The Gotham Group also provides important support for uniformed officers on patrol. They continually monitor warnings from the 091 phone service: a man has produced a gun during a fight, a witness has seen someone breaking into a vehicle, someone reports a forced entry into their neighbour's home... in a matter of seconds, Serrano puts the siren on the roof of the car and tells HQ that they are on their way.
Monfrino presses the accelerator like a rally driver, speeding through the city districts and arriving on the scene within minutes. He only slows down as we are approaching the place in question, turning off the siren and blue light so there is no warning of our arrival. "In these sorts of cases we go ahead of our uniformed colleagues to stop the criminals escaping," they say.
Day is dawning now, and the officers from the Gotham Group head back to the police headquarters. They are convinced that people who have committed crimes during the night will be caught, sooner or later. As Serrano says, "Their job is to carry on offending, and ours is to not stop until we have them under arrest".