- Groups of Romanians recruit pickpockets in their country and teach them to steal
- They commit robberies on the train platforms and in tourist areas and travel to other cities
- The bulk of the robberies take place on line 3 of the metro
By Adrià Gala
Translated from the Catalan by Nicki Easy
Groups of Romanian pickpockets (the most prevalent in the metro) are enlisting Eastern Europeans to teach them how to commit theft on the train platforms and increase membership in their gangs, made up of between six and eight people. The growth in group membership has two consequences: firstly, perfection of the gangs’ modus operandi and secondly, illegal activity in more stops and stations in Barcelona according to the Catalan police.
It is estimated that over a million people pass through the Barcelona metro daily. Among them are some thirty-odd groups of pickpockets, most of them Romanians who operate on lines 1 and 3 in the city center (between Passeig de Gràcia and Poble Sec), though they are increasingly moving to line 5, especially the Sagrada Família station following the public opening of the corridor that connects the blue and green lines at the Diagonal station.
Despite attracting new members, the Mossos d’Esquadra say that the number of pickpockets “working” every day in the metro (around 150) has remained stable over the last five years, due in large part to increased police pressure compelling the groups to travel to other European cities (especially Valencia, Madrid and Paris) to continue their unlawful activities.
“We find groups of Romanian pickpockets made up of veteran repeat offenders and individuals we have never seen before,” explains deputy inspector Carles Vallès, head of the Mossos’ urban transport investigation unit for the regional area (ARTU), the Catalan police unit leading the fight against crime in suburban Barcelona. Undercover officers identify over a hundred pickpockets daily, some of them five or six times, although it is more and more difficult to catch them in the act. “We check whether they have any court orders pending and kick them out of the station,” says the deputy inspector.
Experts in the Law
“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” notes Carles Vallès, describing the daily patrols of the metro. But not everyone has the same chips for the “match.” The police are chasing “mice” who know perfectly well what to do and how to do it in order to win almost every time. Over the years and with the recruitment of new members, the gangs have perfected their operation when it comes to committing the robberies.
The usual modus operandi continues to be crowding entry to the trains, but now more thieves are assigned to keep an eye on the platforms to avoid being detected by the police. Of late there has also been an increase in robberies at the turnstiles and above all on the escalators; one pickpocket stops them, two or more watch the area and the rest take advantage of the crowding to rob their victim, and this victim is not chosen at random. “They bet on the fact that if the victim is foreign it will be very difficult for them to appear in court. And if there is no witness to the crime, the judge shelves the case,” says Vallès.
The aim of the Catalan police is to catch the thieves red-handed so the officers can testify. This is an extraordinarily difficult task, however, since the pickpockets communicate by phone, travel separately and are well acquainted with all of the undercover police officers. “When they see us they stay put,” explained a corporal to this newspaper during an afternoon patrolling the metro.” They know that an escalation of violence can lead to a sentence with more severe penalties,” adds ARTU’s head of investigation. Patrolling is established day after day based on the location of incidents (reports and robbery attempts) collected by the metro security services, with which the police have a “very good relationship,” they say. In addition to this scheduling, the undercover agents receive instructions from a fellow agent assigned to the control room who observes all of the goings on in the metro live thanks to the security cameras.
During the hours on patrol with journalists from this newspaper the pair of undercover officers identified two groups of Romanians and a North African operating “alone” on the platforms of the Drassanes and Passeig de Gràcia stations. None was caught in the act, but in one of the groups the Mossos d’Equadra identified a Romanian man who had recently arrived from Italy to “work” in the Barcelona metro as one pickpocket confessed to the Mossos.
“We have few tools to put a stop to this problem. Where you have crowds you will have robbery―it’s inherent.”
-Carles Vallès, Deputy inspector of the urban transport investigation unit (ARTU)
They Observe You Entering Your PIN Number and Steal Your Credit Card
A recent operation allowed a major Bosnian network that had been working in the metro for two years to be forced out of action. Despite the success of the initiative, the police don’t want to tell “lies.” “It would be misleading to say that we have solved the problem. Stealing is their job; what we have been able to do is move them somewhere else,” says Carles Vallès, head of the urban transport investigation unit for the regional area, aware of the legal and law enforcement limitations when taking action against the robberies.
Cameras are the great weapon for combating the pickpockets—in fact, through what has been caught on tape it has been determined that some groups go beyond robbery.
The thieves watch tourists entering their PIN numbers when buying metro tickets and follow them down the platforms until they manage to steal their cards. “Then they go to ATMs and withdraw money,” says Vallès.
Source: Avui newspaper, Monday 28 March 2011