High and Dry on the Streets of Elsewhere
Chapter One, part-c, Travel Advisory
Bob and I hit the ground and I squinted at the gang.
“Luciano!” I said to one of the culprits as the tram trundled off. I recognized him as a pickpocket we’d interviewed four years ago.
“No, no Luciano,” he said, shaking his head. He backed away.
“Si, Luciano Barattolo, I remember you.” Luciano bent and fiddled with a window squeegee in a bucket of water abandoned on the median strip. He removed the dripping squeegee and touched it to the toe of each of his shoes. I got ready for a blast of filthy water; I was sure he was going to fling it at us.
Head still bent, he peeked up at me through the corner of his eye, dropped the squeegee, and bolted.
After more than a decade prowling city streets around the world, we’d become accustomed to finding known criminals freely plying their trade right out in the open. Here was Luciano, still out lifting wallets on trams despite police and public awareness of him. You’d think he’d be put away by now.
It’s a contentious political issue: law enforcement budget versus taxes, penal code versus perpetrator’s rights, unemployment, immigration. Same story in most of the world’s major cities and, therefore, street thieves abound, free to prey on the weakest, richest resource: the tourist. From a busy prosecutor’s perspective, or an overworked judge’s, or even an underpaid beat cop’s, pickpocketing is a pretty insignificant issue. Real bad guys are on the loose: murderers, kidnappers, rapists, drug-pushers. How much of a police force should be diverted to snag the bottomfeeders of the criminal hierarchy?
Most countries blame illegal immigrants from poorer nations nearby. “We can’t get rid of them,” said Inspector D’Amore Vincenzo, a frustrated policeman in Milan, Italy. “When they’re caught without work cards, we give them 15 days to leave the country. Then they are released and what happens? They just don’t leave! And if they have no papers, no passports, the countries they come from will not accept the repatriation of these people.”
The problem may seem small. One man loses his wallet, his money, his driver’s license, his credit cards. So what? But it’s not one man. In Westminster–that’s one small district of London–768 cases of pickpocketing were recorded in June 2002. That’s just June. Just one small section of the city of London. And only the reported incidents. How many victims did not file a report? And by the way, the figure doesn’t include the 142 bag snatches recorded in the same district in the same period.
Luciano paused a couple blocks away, having finally dredged up the memory of us from four years ago. He was 49 now, but still looked 30. He raised his children on a career of pickpocketing, and now was spoiling five grandchildren. Over lunch, he told us how he and his partners used legal loopholes to stay in the game.
“If the police catch us with a tool, they are angry and beat us up. If we don’t have a tool and they see us they just say …˜leave, get out of here.’”
“What’s a tool?”
“A razor blade, for example. Or some use long tweezers to slip into a back pocket.” Luciano’s eyes scanned the sidewalk cafÃ© for listening ears. “A scissors is a good tool,” he whispered. “A scissors is okay to carry. With scissors I can cut a pocket and let the wallet fall into my hand.”
Luciano makes it sound easy. He and his ilk hit on moving targets in tight spaces, then fade away into churning crowds. It’s a universal style. Police throw up their hands. “We must see the hand in the pocket!” they cry. “We have only six in our squad for all the city.” “Our officers don’t know what to look for.” “It’s impossible!”
The pickpockets aren’t about to stop.
“I started doing it to eat, to get food, because there were no jobs. Now it’s all I know,” Luciano told us. Others steal to support drug problems, or have no legal status to work, or simply believe in taking what they want.