Five groups of scammers operate in the area—the Municipal Police have been unable to stop them. Their impunity leads tourists to think this is a legal activity.
By Camilo S. Baquero
Translated from the Spanish by Summer Fingersmith
“But… this isn’t legal?” Bewilderment flooded the Norwegian tourist’s ruddy face. Minutes before, the man in his mid-forties accompanied by his wife, Barcelona guidebook in hand, had lost his 50-euro wager right there on the Rambla—a new victim of the groups of sharpers that have taken over the middle stretch of the Rambla these days.
It is true that their presence is as old as the promenade itself, but they have long ceased to be a typical postcard of the Spanish picaresque to become organized gangs that can make off with 400 euros in a half hour by scamming tourists as El País found.
Few Spaniards are engaged in the shell game business nowadays. Those running the show today come from Eastern Europe and Italy. In the first two months of the year, the Municipal Police imposed 127 fines and made 437 arrests, mostly on the Rambla. In all of 2010, these figures came to 1,766 and 2,635 respectively.
These operations, however, do not seem to intimidate the thimbleriggers. At around ten o’clock in the morning, some five groups begin their workday. One of the groups has their office set up in the space between two metro stops, at the height of C/Pintor Fortuny. The modus operandi is always the same. One runs the game while three others, a girl included among them, pretend to be playing and act as shills. A few meters away in either direction, two of them keep watch for any approaching municipal police officers. After a small red carpet is placed on the ground, the circle of onlookers takes no time in gathering. The phony participants place their bets with counterfeit 50-euro bills. This is the amount they usually solicit from the victim, who, as is obvious, is allowed to win the first match—indeed, they themselves give him the money. Should he happen to wager less, the three shills ask him to raise his bet. The pressure of the crowd does the rest.
A sleight of hand, a second of anticipation and the player loses. If the mark complains, the two plants intimidate him and frighten him away with insults. And no sooner have the lookouts seen the fluorescent yellow vests of the Municipal Police than they give warning by mobile phone. The small group vanishes just as quickly as it came together and seeks refuge in a nearby cafe, but not before sharing the spoils. And so the scene is repeated throughout the day, despite the police being within walking distance…
“Do we want to export the image of a city that swindles the 70 million tourists who stroll down the Rambles every year?” asks Mónica Trias, president of the Bird Dealers Association of the Rambla. The problem, however, is not solely an aesthetic issue. “It is not easy for us to work with criminals here in front of us like this since many pickpockets also take advantage of the crowds,” she adds. Trias and other stall holders say they have received threats after attempting to alert visitors that they are being gulled. “They aren’t just insults—they will also run their fingers across their necks with a slitting motion so you shut up,” says a florist, who requested to remain anonymous “for safety.”
Xavier Masip, manager of the Friends of the Rambla Association, defends the policing but in his estimation, “as long as we have insufficient legislation, we will have shell men in the street.” A spokesman for the Municipal Police, in fact, affirms that until the amendment toughening the penalties for recidivism comes into force, there will be no tool for reducing petty theft.
Masip and Trias concur on one curious aspect: “We locals are so discourteous that we don’t alert tourists that this is a scam,” they agree. Perhaps this will be the memory of Barcelona that the red-faced Norwegian takes away with him.
Source: El País newspaper, 13 April 2011