The Rambla of the Thimbleriggers

April 23, 2011
Bookmark and Share

Shell men thronged by tourists on Barcelona's Rambla


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

Original article


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to The Rambla of the Thimbleriggers

  1. thiefhunter on April 24, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Great article. Many thanks for the translation. One problem is that the con artists, along with the pickpockets, are “fined” by the police. How are they expected to pay the fines? Back to work!

    ” ‘they work so much that it’s worthwhile to them to keep doing it and pay the occasional €200 fine.’ Some of these thieves have hundreds of arrests in their records and are released over and over again; presumably to collect cash to pay their fines. Looking at the fistful of fines Kharem showed us, this is a pretty lucrative system for the city. A stupid-tourist tax perhaps, or a licensing fee for thieves.” — 6,000 thefts per day on Barcelona visitors

    • Summer Fingersmith on April 24, 2011 at 1:34 am

      I fully agree. The fines should obviously be scrapped. Another thing is… what a shame that these folks, with their obvious creativity/ingenuity/ability to think outside the box/energy, are not using their talents in an honorable way that might even make them happier people. I wonder if anyone has considered teaching them and putting them to work.

  2. Unfortunate on September 1, 2011 at 2:32 am

    I had the unfortunate fate of reading this article after it happened to my mother and I. We were walking up La Ramblas from the beach area, and there were three of these groups set up, with no police interference, so seemed like it was legal, and just fun to watch. As I watched one game I realized a person who had just lost his money was fighting very feircly and had a gut feeling that he was cheated somehow, I had told my mom this is a scam, and I am just watching. We proceeded to the next group, and for some reason, I still do not understand the men grabbed my arm very forcefully which I still have marks from (I am a small woman) and pointed my finger at a box in the game. Then they asked me if the lady next to me was my mother, as I tried to get free, I realized two men were aggressively convincing my mother to give 50 Euros. Before we knew it, they had taken our 50 Euros and we had somehow lost a game that we didn’t even know we were playing. I was extremely confused at what just happened, and after a few minutes came back by myself and was about to take a picture when they spotted me and quickly closed shop and started moving far away from me, that was when I realized something really horrible that just happened to us. I went and asked the Police for help, but they said by the time the get there they would run away as well, and it was very frustrating the police barely could do anything or speak English! My mom also was scared they would hurt us since there were six of them in revenge. I screamed at my Mom for being so Naive and taking out the money when I had just told her this was a shady scam, but because of their aggressiveness she was helpless. I know that 50 Euros is gone down the drain just thought I would share so maybe someone will be more careful and less taken advantage of then we were. What a horrible way to end a vacation ! I hope they rot in hell seriously … If I even visit again I will make signs saying BEWARE THIEVES and march around their establishment.

    • Rob Daly on September 1, 2011 at 9:43 am

      I’m planning on making a blog post / Facebook update ( and Twitter tweet (@RiBCN) about this story.

    • Katja on September 20, 2011 at 11:07 am

      I understand your anger, but please don´t make signs saying BEWARE THIEVES and don´t march around their establishment. You might put your life at risk. Losing 50 Euros is not worth risking your health or even your life. The vast majority of these criminals originate from the former Eastern bloc, from countries like Albania, Romania, Russia, Bulgaria etc. and they are highly aggressive. These people have absolutely no morals and shouldn´t be underestimated. For your own safety it´s far better to avoid them completely than to confront them in any way. And never expect any help from the “police” in Barcelona, one of the weakest police forces in the whole wide world. IMO this joke of a police force is even a bigger shame to Barcelona than the pickpocketers, scammers etc.

  3. I.D.J. on October 20, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Now, I have to say that whoever stops to see these guys are really calling to be mugged!
    of course it is a scam! It’s one of the most famous ones!
    And to my knowledge, this is by no means exclusive to Barcelona, I’ve seen it happening in London and I’m pretty sure it happens in all major European cities.

    to Unofrtunate:Why are you so surprised that a Spanish policeman would not speak English??? Do policeman in your country speak Spanish?

  4. […] read a little more about the Trieros – or Thimbleriggers – of Barcelona, click here. Tags: barcelona, las, police, ramblas, riggers, scam, thimble, thimbleriggers, tourist, tourists, […]

Leave a Reply