It's every traveler's nightmare -- getting your wallet and valuables snatched in an unfamiliar city. Yet petty theft has become such a given in Europe's favorite tourist hubs that police warnings
to visitors and locals come as regularly as the weather forecast. Meanwhile, travel websites offer a stream of fresh anecdotes from crestfallen tourists to feed the growing concern.
According to crime statistics, Barcelona wins the unfortunate honor of being one of the worst places in the world for pickpocketing. The Huffington Post named the Mediterranean city No. 1 worldwide for pickpockets in 2010, and TripAdvisor's index of places where you're most likely to get your belongings stolen also put the city first globally (based on complaints from travelers).
Even the BBC tapped the city in 2012, just before the London Olympics, sending a reporter to interview Barcelona-based thieves heading to the summer games to do some "dipping" in the anticipated crowds. It's not the kind of "first" any city government wants to earn.
Barcelona took its reputation to heart in July 2011 when it launched Operation Xarxa (or Net). The initiative was aimed specifically at thefts on the metro. It was jointly run by the Guardia Urbana (Barcelona's local police) and the Mossos d'Esquadra (the Catalan police force) who increased patrols on the different lines and sent officers undercover. The idea was to patrol the metro as systematically as the streets above ground, with every officer spending an hour a day on duty underground.
(Source: Arturo Reina Sánchez)
The law was also tweaked in late 2010 to give the police more power. Before the change, any pickpocket caught with less than 400 euros could only be booked and released, which often meant they were back on the job within hours. They couldn't even be fined unless a victim showed up to testify, which rarely happened since most of the targets were tourists. Nor could the police prosecute unless the thieves were caught stealing goods totaling more than 400 euros four separate times.
As Eliana Guerrero, a local who roams the metro warning tourists of pickpockets, told a reporter at the time: "In Barcelona you get fined more for double-parking or wandering around with your shirt off than for stealing three purses in one day." The new law cuts the number of times a pickpocket must be caught before prosecution to three within a year, and prison terms increased from a maximum of 18 months to four years.
Exactly three years after Operation Xarxa began, the results are in. Mayor Xavier Trias and Catalan Minister for Home Affairs Ramon Espadaler announced last month that thefts are down 32% on the metro. That's 8,899 fewer incidents. In that period, police made 7,134 reports and 3,628 arrests, half of the time catching the pickpocket red-handed.
The most active pickpockets turned out to be a relatively small group of 98 people, 73 of whom got prison sentences, and 18 of whom were permanently banned from the metro. Although, according to the deputy chief of police Joan Portals, some of those who were banned have sought out other forms of transport, like the local trains, so the police are looking to expand the ban.
One concern had been that, if pressure was applied to thieves on the metro, they would go elsewhere -- above ground. According to Trias, there's no evidence that that has happened. The stats don't show any bump in crime in other parts of the city.
Yet despite the drop in incidents on the metro to 52 a day, one security guard on Line 2 told El Periodico newspaper that he hadn't noticed a difference. "The pickpockets come and go constantly," he says. In fact, he is so familiar with them that they even greet him as they go to work each day.
Obviously, Operation Xarxa is not the end of the story. Thefts need to drop further, and not just on the metro, before Barcelona's reputation as a hotspot for pickpockets begins to change. But Barcelona police are in good company as other police forces throughout Europe clamp down on the wave of petty theft.
What is your city doing to make tourist feel safer?