A hundred pickpockets operate every day on Barcelona's metro
Theft on the public underground network accounts for a third of such crimes in the Catalan capital
Up to 100 pickpockets are at "work" every day on Barcelona's underground metro system, mainly at the busiest stations, looking to steal above all wallets and mobile phones.
The thieves might use a variety of techniques, but they always carry out their trade in small groups in which each person has a specific role.
In June alone, the Catalan transport police stopped suspected 470 pickpockets and carried out 67 arrests. In fact, 30% of theft offenses in Barcelona take place on the city's public transport system.
On a platform of Line 5 at the Diagonal station, a small group of plain clothes police officers spot a confrontation between two passengers. One accuses the other of taking his wallet. The officers intervene and the alleged victim explains that the other took his wallet containing 550 euros. As the amount is over 400 euros, the officers have no choice but to arrest the suspect and they take him to the foyer, where his details are taken. It is the 27th time he has been arrested.I
A few minutes later, two officers spot two young women acting suspiciously. They stop them and find that one of them has a warrant out for her arrest for not turning up for a court appearance to answer theft charges. They also arrest the woman, but after a search her companion is allowed to leave.
These are two examples of the types of arrests metropolitan transport police in Barcelona make every day on the metro. It is estimated that every day there are up to a hundred pickpockets plying their trade in underground system corridors, trains and escalators.
The techniques the pickpockets use are diverse. The most common is opening a bag or backpack after placing a piece of cloth over it to reduce the chances of being seen.
Another technique is to dirty a passenger with a substance, and while apologizing and helping to clean off the stain, a companion removes the unsuspecting victim's mobile or wallet from their bag.
Deputy head of the metropolitan transport police, Carles Vallès, tells the Catalan News Agency that the pickpockets are constantly refining their techniques. One of the most recent is to steal credit and identity cards to commit identity fraud by applying for small loans "that do not attract attention" in the victim's name. This also makes the pickpockets fraudsters, and they leave with "the money in their pocket" while the bank goes on to chase down the owner of the card.
Vallès explains that the modus operandi also depends on the origin of the pickpockets. For example, groups of young Bosnian men usually split up, and while two of them engage the victim, another two keep watch, while another steals the object they are after.
However, Vallès says Romanians will usually act in pairs, with one distracting the victim while the other commits the theft, while the Chileans "are more refined," working inside train carriages and communicating by mobile phone.
Tourists make up 40% of the victims, with the remaining 60% being local residents. However, the pickpockets prefer the former because they tend to be carrying more cash on them and because of their language limitations. There is also the advantage that they are less likely to appear as witnesses in any trial that might result.
That is why, says Vallès, it is important to catch the pickpockets "in the act," and there are some 130 police officers patrolling the Barcelona metro system. While those in uniform have a dissuasive effect on the thieves, the plain clothes officers can witness the act and stop the culprits.
Reoffending is a key characteristic of pickpockets. In fact, there are some who have been stopped by the police over a thousand times, a situation that has even led the police to modify their computer system, which was designed to log a maximum of 999 encounters with each suspect.
To prevent reoffending, the police say that one of the best measures are court orders preventing offenders from approaching the metro system. To do this, the police use the multiple stops and arrests to convince prosecutors that the suspect is only using the underground as a means to commit offenses. The prosecutor can then ask the court to issue an order.
Since starting to employ this strategy in 2016, some 310 orders have been issued. Vallès says it is a "very dissuasive" measure, because pickpockets have to act on a daily basis and if they contravene the order they risk being arrested again and being sent to prison.
Thefts make up almost 90% of offenses committed on the metro, and mostly take place during the day, between 7am and 8pm. Outside of these hours, the offenses tend to be violent robberies or offenses causing damage, but Vallès insists there are very few of these thanks to the widespread presence of security cameras, which allow them to be more easily investigated. There are also cases of sexual harassment and abuse, and in 2018 some 70 offenses of a sexual nature were reported on the entire network.