Almost gone for good, finally. Our lucky wallet, our favorite thief-bait, would have been stolen in Guatemala City by a stone-faced woman backed by two accomplices, had we not, at the last minute, swapped it for a “regular” prop wallet.
Our lucky red leather prop wallet has been stolen more than a hundred times—close to 150 times—and we’ve always gotten it back. Usually we confront the thief and he/she hands it over or drops it on the ground. Sometimes Bob Arno steals it back. The thief who emptied Bob’s pocket in Guatemala City held her ground. We didn’t get the wallet back.
Then again, it wasn’t our lucky wallet. Perhaps if she’d stolen that one, she would have given it back. We’ll never know.
As we were heading out on a thiefhunting expedition in new territory, we did a little research. Yikes! Guatemala City is dangerous! Crime rates are astronomical (99.5 murders per week! 143,000 cell phones stolen (with force) in 2012!). The Westin Camino Real Hotel staff told us that more than ten of their guests are mugged every month. Presumably, other hotels have similar rates.
So it was with extra caution and trepidation that we ventured out. And we left our lucky wallet in the hotel.
Guatemala City pickpockets
After meandering around Guatemala City’s photogenic Sunday market in Parque Central, we strayed a bit and found ourselves on Calle Real, a busy pedestrian shopping street. Several street performers had gathered huge crowds which filled the street, like the one pictured above. To pass, we had to slither slowly along the green fence, pushing against the spectators.
That’s a long bottleneck—a choke point—in other words, pickpocket paradise. Why? Your progress is slow, giving the pickpockets all the time they need to get into position, find your valuables, and extract them. You’re experiencing physical contact with strangers on all sides, so you don’t suspect the pickpocket’s touch. The crowd is so tight that no one can witness the thief’s dirty work. And when the steal is complete, the perps can meld invisibly into the crowd.
Bob and I dove into the bottleneck. We let the crowd move us along, bump us left and right, feel us up. Negotiating the long passageway was like burrowing through a two-way tunnel of human bumper-cars. We emerged intact.
As we reached the next block, we saw a similar crowd. It, too, filled the street right up to the buildings. As we approached, this boy (at right) in plaid came around from behind us.
The boy glanced at us, then at his partner, a woman who could be his mother, who came around from the other side of us. The two joined up as they continued slowly along the street.
They were suspects immediately. The boy wore a messenger bag—typical of many pickpockets, but of course not exclusive to them. The woman’s sweater was draped “toreador-style” over one shoulder, also a common pickpocket M.O. The woman also carried a large purse which gaped open in the back. Then there were their frequent furtive glances at us. We were sure they were part of a pickpocket team, but we didn’t know their roles. Either one could have been (and perhaps sometimes is) the “dip.”
The woman and boy arranged themselves in front of us as we neared the bottleneck. We paused to see what they’d do. They paused. Uh huh. They hung back against the wall, both taking quick glances to see if we were on our way—if their prey was on track.
Bob went forward and the two suspects placed themselves directly in front of him. They were performing as blockers. They would delay their mark—their target—slowing down our progress, allowing the pickpocket time to find and extract our wallet.
Preparing for action, Ms. Accomplice removed her black sweater. I fell into place behind Bob, allowing a little distance between us. If there were a pickpocket in the vicinity, and we felt certain there was, Bob’s pocket would have to be accessible—not protected by me.
Bob paused in the middle of the narrow passage, forcing the accomplices also to stop and wait innocently. The boy pretended to watch the street performer. The woman fiddled with her glass case.
Two women squeezed past from the opposite direction. Surprise, they were also pickpockets! They didn’t recognize our team as thieves. You can see the first woman brush the hip pocket of our boy. The second woman bent her head low to look at his pocket as she passed.
Now our pickpocket took up her position behind Bob. I got behind her with my video camera running. She’s very short—her face not much higher than Bob’s waist. In the photo below, notice the parade of actors in this perfect choreography: the victim (Bob) is sandwiched between the pickpocket and accomplices, one of whom can “hold” (the stolen goods) and one or both can “block” (impede the victim’s progress, slow him down). Classic!
The pickpocket unfurled a wadded shirt she carried, which we consider a tool. The purpose of the shirt (striped) was to hide what her hands were doing. She worked very slowly on Bob’s wallet. While Bob walked and filmed, he concentrated his attention on the sensitive skin over his right gluteus maximus. The pickpocket gently rocked the wallet, zigzagging it up and out of Bob’s pocket.
As soon as she got the wallet, she scooted away from the scene of the crime and hurried to catch up with the female accomplice. Bob had to feel his pocket to be sure the wallet was really gone.
The pickpocket darted straight to her partner, again using the striped shirt as a cover to conceal Bob’s red wallet. She slipped the wallet into her partner’s shoulder bag, which gaped open, ready to accept the loot.
Wallet stolen and stowed, the two women rearranged their props. The pickpocket folded her spare shirt and wrapped it around the strap of her shoulder bag. The shoulder bag was replaced and adjusted. The accomplice re-covered her satchel with her big black sweater.
Bob stepped in with his usual courtesy, asking madame if he could please have his wallet back. The thief gave him a dumb stare. He tried a mixture of languages to no avail. He invoked “policia,” hoping that the accomplice would drop the wallet onto the ground. Nope.
Bob grabbed the pickpocket as she turned to go. Strangely, the accomplice, who stayed close, opened her big purse as if to produce the wallet, but didn’t remove anything. She did this over and over, sometimes alternating with glass case fiddling. Again: nerves, or signals? The boy accomplice disappeared. Perhaps to get assistance? We don’t think the female accomplice passed the wallet to the boy, but it’s remotely possible.
Bob and I continued to film openly as our confrontation escalated. Bob’s tiny camera, the fabulous GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition, doesn’t really look like a camera. Its wide angle lens is fantastic up close, though of course there’s a bit of distortion. But even frame grabs are sharp—sharper than those from my Sony RX100. All these images are frame grabs from our videos.
We stood on the edge of the street entertainers’ crowd on the opposite side of the street, where there was another bottleneck passageway between audience and buildings. Quickly, a crowd gathered around our encounter. Our show was better than the street dancers’.
The crowd found something amusing. Was it that we made an issue of an everyday occurrence? Was it the futility of accusing the thief? Something someone said in Spanish? Or simply Bob’s height? Bob’s height was amusing—he was a giant in a land of short people.
The pickpocket finally had enough of our accusations and stormed off through the crowd. We followed her through the bottleneck and out the other side. Bob continued to demand his wallet back, trying to provoke a response. When she turned down a side street, Bob lingered a moment with a couple of police officers. I followed along beside the escaping thief, my camera still running. I’d been filming the entire time—which was actually only a few minutes.
Suddenly, the woman whacked my camera! It flew out of my hand but luckily, I had it on a tight strap around my wrist so it swung wildly but didn’t fall. I abandoned the chase to look at my camera. It was dead. Dark screen. I’d never stopped recording, so the footage was never saved to the chip. I turned it off, then on, and lo! It gave me an option to recover unsaved video! Yes!
It recovered about the first two-thirds of the shoot. Nothing after I turned the corner. Not the potentially great shot of the pickpocket attacking my camera and ending the scene with a dramatic blackout. But I got enough. Great camera, this Sony RX100.
Meanwhile, Bob had snagged two armed police officers who seemed excited to take up the chase. Together, we ran down the street. But the pickpocket had disappeared. She could have ducked into any of the little bars or bodegas lining the street. Chuckling silently about the thieves’ disappointment when they found our wallet totally empty, we gave up. We needed to return to the scene to shoot a little more video. We had only another half hour of daylight, and this was one city we knew not to linger in after dark.
An American soldier assigned to protect the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City told us just how rough the city is. He said that no new embassy personnel are allowed to go out at all until they have been briefed. They’re told how to behave, how to dress, what not to carry: wear no jewelry, no branded hats or clothing, dress down. Flashing an iPhone or iPad definitely invites mugging. Some zones of the city can only be visited in groups of two or more persons. Other zones are not to be visited at all. Curfew is midnight.
Guatemala City is a place where security must be taken seriously. Be certain your hotel is reputable. (We believe our friend was drugged at his hotel, and his room ransacked while he slept. Story coming soon.) Use taxis from your hotel, and arrange for the drivers to wait or return for you. Do not flag down a taxi in the street. If you go exploring, use all Thiefhunters’ advice in Pocketology 101 and Purseology 101.