The Elephant in the Room, Barcelona’s Petty Crime Problem

We boarded the bus to get to the beach restaurant for a final dinner in Barcelona. It tooked quite a while for the bus to arrive, its schedule interrupted by animal rights activists protesting on the streets. The bus that arrived was packed with people, but it was not too full yet, there was space at the back. We boarded the bus, and squeezed our way, as much as we could. My hands brushed accidentally past another commuters bag, I turned to apologise but was greeted with an dirty look, as if she suspected something more sinister from me.

The back of the bus was thankfully spacious, its typical passenger behaviour in any city to not move to the back of the bus. “Excuse me,” I said, lightly tapping another man as I walked to the back, and finally reached the back after negotiating my way through a few other people.

We finally stepped off the bus and I found a few from our party in conversation. “Remember the man you walked past, he tried twice to pickpocket us. The other two people you waked past were his accomplices. But they failed though, they knew we were on to them.”

This was not the first time I had witnessed pickpocketing in Barcelona. It began a few days before, wnen I first arrived. I had barely been in Barcelona 3 hours, and was still making my way to the hostel on the hill and yet I had already witnessed two attempts of pickpocketing on the Barcelona metro line (on others) and another on the bus, it seemed like only a matter of time that one of us would end up with a pickpocket story attempt. All these attempts failed, because of other more eagle eyed individuals.

Welcome to Barcelona, the pickpocket capital of the world.

This was the elephant in the room, the unfortunate aspect of Barcelona’s popular overtourism coupled with economic troubles in the country and a law that has not been updated because of political gridlock – a spate of petty theft crimes. Petty theft is something that while socially frowned upon is legally acceptable in Spain. When I say legally acceptable I mean that theft of items less than 400 Euros in value is not considered a crime but a misdemeanour according to Spanish law.

It is said that the police stations in Barcelona usually see a steady stream of tourist knocking on its doors to report thefts of property. In 2009, the Barcelona police admitted that thefts in the city were extremely high, according to this blog there are around 6000 thefts a day in Barcelona.

This as you can imagine has the result of having a demoralising effect on the police force, since even if they catch someone pickpocketing the individual will most probably only be ‘metaphorically’ slapped on the wrist with a fine and within hours they will be back on the streets free to try and pickpocket again. The bulk of theft attempts, where small groups of thieves operate in the city occur on the L3 metro line and along the stretch of beach in the city. These pickpockets are not violent criminals, to many it is a job, a way to make money in a country where unemployment is 16.2% in 2018 (down from a peak of 26.2% in 2013) and where youth unemployment is double that at 33.4% (as of Jul 2018), the punishment they face for theft is seen in a way as a tax that they pay for their job. Not all perpetrators are locals, according to this blog among the perpetrators are groups from Romania, North Africa, South America and East Europe.

These pickpockets usually target tourists, since tourists are the least cognizant of the ways of the place and therefore the easiest targets. In fact, as some of these Quora answers show, pickpockets do not target the more local and therefore less touristy areas of Barcelona (i.e. outside the Las Ramblas, Beach, Eixample area). However a tourist pickpocketed is a trip ruined and a spoiled trip to Barcelona. This ends up giving Barcelona, through word of mouth, an unsavoury reputation on top of the many wonderful things it does have, especially since the criminals (when you think about it) syndicates who have set up shop and are merely taking advantage of its touristy vibe.

So well known are these pickpockets that the police and some locals even know who they are.

Some locals are trying to stop this, one individual in particular is on a lone crusade in the metro, using her knowledge of the pickpockets to sound an alarm to the people in the metro when she spots them – a lone crusader who has a thankless job.

Still, it doesn’t mean that Barcelona cannot be enjoyed. There are a great many more people who have gone to Barcelona and enjoyed their trip without suffering a pickpockets attempt. Many articles online (here) give advice on what to do to and how to minimise your chances of falling prey to pickpockets.

I’ve called out the elephant in the room, so recognise the reality of pickpockets in Barcelona, but don’t let them spoil your experience of the city.

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One thought on “The Elephant in the Room, Barcelona’s Petty Crime Problem

  1. This is nothing new or isolated to Barcelona, it is prevalent all over Spain. In 1999 we spent ten days in Spain with a high school orchestra tour group. At every stop our guides warned us about pickpockets before letting us off our coaches. Only one student was unfortunate enough to loose his wallet but we all appreciated their warnings and advice of how to carry valuables. Our guide told us that this is a way of life for too many in Spain and some pickpockets consider this their job.

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