Sneak School—Makeshift
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Barcelona’s pickpockets learn to spot weaknesses in the crowd and train to take advantage of them

— Sneak School

07. Crowds Dispatches

If you take the subway in Barcelona during the summer, beware of three elegant women from Valladolid. The first one will lift your wallet and pass it to the second, who will quickly forward it to the third, who will take the money and dispose of the wallet. The roles played by this bill-lifting trinity represent increasing levels of ability one must possess to become a master snatcher in Barcelona.

The city is an ideal laboratory to understand how sneak-thief gangs organize. It hosts few violent crimes, but pickpocketing is widespread—reflected in Facebook groups like “I know someone who got robbed in Barcelona” and webpages like Manguilandia (“Thievesland”). About 30,000 snatches are reported to the police each year in downtown Ciutat Vella, which hosts 80 percent of reports.

Police have made efforts to fight pickpockets: the 30 members of the Urban Crime Group focus on this issue full-time. Since the team’s creation in December 2011, reports have waned by 17 percent. For one anonymous member of the Catalonia Police Union (SPC), understanding the pickpocket is key.

The first step of a pickpocket’s career, he says, is recruitment. “If you want to become a pickpocket, there is no such place where you knock on the door and ask to learn.”

“The craft is transmitted in families from one generation to another or among friends,” explains Pedro Torrente, a professor of Criminology at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, who does research on youth gangs. Pickpocketing is often associated with immigration in Barcelona, and in fact experts say that immigrants who face economic difficulties—mainly from Romania, Morocco, or Latin America—are more frequently tempted to enter the trade.

“People brought illegally from abroad with a promise of a legal contract can be forced into pickpocketing,” says Benito Granados, inspector of the City Police in Ciutat Vella, who is involved in the Urban Crime Group. But pickpockets —especially the more skilled— can come from any country, including Spain.

“Pickpocketing challenges the classical theories of crime,” says Torrente. Poor economic background, illegal immigration, family influence, and peer pressure explain only a piece of the phenomenon. “A crucial element that triggers this behavior is opportunity.” An abundance of valuable objects and concentration of vulnerable people make bag snatching attractive.

The SPC spokesperson says Barcelona offers the perfect mix. “There are plenty of tourists bringing cash, cameras, and mobiles, with a lowered control on the environment because they are not familiar with it and because they are sightseeing.”

Core to the pickpocket’s strategy is the tourist’s “Gnu route”, named for the common antelope prey. It starts at the cruise ship dock, continues in the main subway stations of Ciutat Vella, and ends at Montjuïc’s fountains, where the large crowds convene for evening water and light shows.

The three women from Valladolid —a now-famous and uniquely well-dressed trifecta of thieves amongst the throngs of pickpockets— are among those known to come to Barcelona in summer, at the height of the tourist flux.

A budding pickpocket usually starts with the third role of the pickpocketing trinity: ditching the wallet. As they gain experience, they escalate to the real sleight-of-hand.“First, they just watch, then they get involved in less risky activities, then they make tests without actually stealing,” Torrente explains. At the beginning, they may even take simpler roles: a lookout for security agents or joining the “cap”—an artificially created jam of people at a train’s door that facilitates the skilled pickpocket’s job.

But the three-step wallet lift is just one strategy. Watch out for maps and folders used to obstruct your view. Or an accidental spill of fake bird poop (a mix of makeup, mayonnaise, and mustard) designed to distract. Thieves become so specialized in their techniques that one was reported to protest recent subway restrictions because she was “unable to steal in other places”.

“Each technique is adapted to a specific environment: we have caught couples of middle-aged, well-dressed Latin Americans entering hotels early in the morning and getting hold of the luggage,” says the SPC spokesperson. “Sometimes, they obtain a pass for a conference or a fair and act there, where people feel more confident,” says Granados.

The Urban Crime Group tracks pickpocketing using Comstac, a program that allows them to geolocate criminal episodes and focus on hotspots of activity. But sometimes this is hard to forecast. “We have found that some of the top-level pickpockets are specialists in following Formula 1 races throughout Europe: an ideal setting, with a lot of people with cameras and money distracted by the race,” says the SPC spokesperson.

Gang organizations are often simple, and the less professional can act as solitary wolves. The standard group comprises a few peers sharing basic rules. For example, the one who lifts the goods takes the lion’s share. “Usually, all members of the group are involved in the act of stealing,” explains Granados. “The only organizations in which this does not happen are those that exploit illegal immigrants for pickpocketing. In this case, the boss stays home and takes the money.”

Coordination among gangs is very loose. “They know each other, they try to share the territory to maximize gains, and they meet in bars in the neighborhood of Poble Sec,” says the SPC spokesperson. But gangs do couple with more sophisticated organizations. “For example, Moroccan and Algerian groups quickly forward stolen mobiles and cameras to illegal exportation networks that ship them to their home countries,” says Granados.

“Pickpockets see their activity as a stable job, with rules and costs,” says the SPC spokesperson. “They know they will be caught once every 10 or 20 attempts. One of them told me that the fines were equivalent to paying self-employment taxes.”

Experts disagree on deterrents. The SPC spokesperson advocates for harsher penalties. But Torrente wants to make sure snatchers are caught more often. With tight budgets in a weak economy, strategy will be paramount. He says the Urban Crime Group, in operation now for over five years, has proven its model, and recurring fines have put some of the best-known pickpockets out of work.

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