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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

smooth criminals

Guirilandia (aka Barcelona) is a haven for petty thievery. I have seen so many robberies and cons here that I’ve actually been inspired to write a book. I even made a short movie about it, called, not surprisingly, Guirilandia.

I have seen the full gamut from good old bag snatching to out right cons of the sketchiest nature. In my current neighborhood it’s about every other day that poor befuddled middle aged tourist gets robbed. I usually see them de facto – screaming from the shock, and waving their flabby pink arms (in the past year, thankfully, the robberies have slowly migrated to other parts of the neighborhood).

I saw little Moroccan street kids that couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old sneak up behind an elderly lady and snatch her purse with such ferocity that she fell down three steps. I’ve seen pick pockets on the subway get downright indignant when one would-be victim got wise to him. He then spat on would-be victim, and accused him of racism. I’ve seen and heard about many more, and these are some of the ways they do it.

Snaky fingers

One variation is a guy selling roses. He goes up to you and offers his roses, often appealing to your sense of chivalry (if you’re a guy). For whatever reason, you decide to by the damn rose … most likely because he is really pesky and you want him off your back. You pull out your wallet. You open the change pocket, or pull out some bills. Snaky fingers decides whether to steal or not based on the type of wallet you have. For his magic fingers to work he needs you to have the standard type wallet with credit card slots and a sleeve for bills.

It works like this:

… snaky fingers has a bunch of roses which he holds over your wallet while you are haggling over the price

… with his other hand now obstructed by the bunch of roses, he slips his butter fingers into your wallet and extracts whatever bills he can

… you are annoyed with the haggling and there’s an ineffable feeling of unease about this person

… he walks off leaving you with a lousy wilted rose and a couple hundred Euros in the hole

A very similar thing happened to me when I was a foolish young backpacker with a wispy beard. I had gotten off at the Estacion Termini in Rome central and was looking for a hostel. I tried hard to be cool and look casual, but anyone knows that’s impossible when you got a Northface backpack and you’re wandering around a train station. Gringo total. It’s in those areas that the sketchiest people hang out, and it’s where, if you’re a tourist, you’re most likely to get ripped off. So I was walking trying to be cool when coming at me was a group of gypsy women. I knew they were gypsies from all the Kusterika movies I’d seen. They had mix matched garments, head scarves, and angry scowls.

So they surrounded me and the leader had a newspaper out and was supplicating for money/dollars/liras … can’t remember which one. But the technique was she would take the folded newspaper and hold it out like she wanted me to put change on it. But underneath it was her other hand which was snaking into my jacket. I was so busy fighting off the other women which were on all sides (and I feared reaching into my backpack) that I didn’t realize what was going on. I just knew it was wrong. I felt something moving in my jacket and pushed the lady with the newspaper away. I swung around and the rest scattered and then I ran to the nearest main street.

I was lucky, because I had put all my money and my IDs in a little travel pouch which I had had safely tucked into my pants. So the lady got nothing and I walked away a little wiser for the wear.

A friend of mine said he saw three drunken men in front of his apartment one night. Two of them were speaking movie* English and were saying goodbye to the third man, who spoke with an English accent. One of the guys with movie English was hugging the English guy like they were great friends, lifting him up in the air – shaking him like you would a piggy bank. His accomplice, meanwhile, rifled through the Englishman’s pockets. The guy was so drunk he didn’t realize that his new buddies had just snaked his wallet and probably his passport.

It’s easy to figure out what happened.

Drunk tourist in a bar befriends a couple locals

... he even invites them to a few drinks. He’s on vacation and he’s feeling good and why not, the drinks are way cheaper here anyway

... they appeal to his ego by laughing a lot, make him feel like an all right kind of guy, like they are all right kind of guys

... they distract him … and poof, his wallet has been ganked.

I mean, some of these scenarios are hilariously pathetic, but you’d be surprised what tourists get themselves into.

On a related note, here is an actual letter to the editor from last week’s Metro newspaper in Barcelona, 7/29 (translated by me):

The jacket thieves

A few days ago, at 11:30 in the morning, I had the pleasure of traveling on the blue line subway car (from Diagonal to Entença), with two individuals known as the jacket thieves. IT IS INCREDIBLE HOW THEY ACT WITH IMPUNITY!! AND THAT I KNOW OF THEIR EXISTENCE THROUGH ANOTHER READER OF THIS NEWSPAPER!! WHERE IS THE SECURITY?

They are two South American men, one with a plastic bag in hand and wearing sunglasses. The other wears a hat and has his jacket hanging from one of his arms, and in the other hand he carries a newspaper. Now that it clear that there is no security at all, we have to be very careful and as vigilante as possible.

S.G.


People have told me that the jacket thieves are well-dressed individuals who blend in cleverly by wearing sunglasses indoors. They distract you with a jacket or newspaper, and, because of the close proximity in the subway car they are able to reach into your pockets and steal your wallet. This has been going on for a few months now. I saw similar activity in the main train station (which connects to the airport) five years ago as well.

As far as profiling goes, it shouldn’t be said that they all fall into one category or race type. I’ve seen it all, but they do tend to stick to certain rackets based on what culture they’re from.

But they all love Guiris.

In upcoming installments: undercover cops that dress like dorky American tourists, the hide the pea con, cell phone theft techniques (and where to learn them), hot spots …

_

* movie English is something you encounter a lot traveling. It's English picked up from movies. I knew a guy who could only quote Star Wars.