Al’alla, a retired pickpocket in Tangier
Thieves who operate on the principles of stealth, motion, or impedence strive to minimize contact with their victim. Zero face-time is their preference. Minimal body contact, zero notice, zero recognition. Other pickpockets, though, cause contact and use it to their advantage.
Bob Arno and I met one of these physical-types in 1997 in Tangier, Morocco. He claimed to be retired and agreed to talk about his former career, though he was reluctant to demonstrate his moves.
However, at the end of our interview, without explanation, he sort-of hugged Bob, bounced around on his toes a bit, and laughed like a hyena.
What Al’alla-the-pickpocket did in Tangier in 1997 was exactly what is referred to in Barcelona today as the Ronaldinho move. He gave a little hop and collided into Bob with a gentle force. He began to laugh idiotically, raising and lowering his head while he threw one arm around Bob’s back and clamped his shoulder in a friendly manner. His feet were dancing and shuffling, knocking into Bob’s foot and wrapping around his calf.
Bob had braced himself at the first instant of Al’alla’s “attack,” but he didn’t resist the peculiar, intimate behavior. Al’alla continued his rollicksome moves for a few seconds, then gave a great forward kick in the air as a final flourish, and stepped away from Bob.
Was that a Moroccan farewell?
We were deep within a labyrinthine medina, led to this opium den rendezvous by an unsavory guide. (The rest of the encounter is documented here.) I was doubtful about getting out with all our equipment, certain we’d be robbed, if not worse. When we finally did emerge from the maze of alleys, our guide grinned—but it looked like a leer.
“This from Al’alla,” he said, holding out the newspaper-stuffed prop wallet Bob carries. “He name-ed that dance ‘rugby-steal’.”
It was a slick move and, between the baffling behavior and all the physical contact, Bob never felt the extraction.
The Ronaldinho is the simplest of pickpocket attempts. A little friendly football play and who’s going to complain or suspect? If the thief fails, no big deal. He’ll move on and try again, improving his M.O. as he practices. It’s a starter theft technique for aspiring pickpockets.
Barcelona gets a large number of illegal immigrants from North Africa. When they can’t work, some resort to pocket picking. The Ronaldinho is their basic training. It succeeds often enough, and is endlessly repeatable.
Barcelona gets a large number of young visitors. They’re easy-going, gullible, not suspicious. They want to like the locals, but they can’t tell who’s an outsider. The harmless moment of universal bonding through sports takes them by surprise but is not offensive.
Al’alla had become a pickpocket as a child in Tangier, then traveled to Barcelona for the big time. It was the sixties, and while Tangier reveled in flower power and hippie freedom, its drugs were routed to Europe through Spain. Al’alla found picking pockets far more lucrative and infinitely safer than drug trafficking. People carried cash then, not plastic, and naiveté in travelers was more prevalent than sophistication. On La Rambla, people strolled like clots through an artery. No one suspected the darting figure of a well-dressed gentleman, so obviously in a hurry, as he ricocheted off the moving mob.
One of Barcelona’s working pickpockets demonstrates the “football steal” on Bob, before it was named the “Ronaldinho.” Although he’s in front of Bob here, he reaches around to Bob’s back pocket and finishes with a tug at the pants hem.
A year or so after meeting Al’alla, we spoke with another Ronaldinho practitioner.
We’d been watching a couple of clumsy pickpockets as they snuck a wallet from a German tourist’s backpack. But before the thief could move away, he fumbled and dropped the wallet.
The victim wheeled around. Instantly, the pickpocket bent and picked up the wallet, politely offering it to his unwitting mark, who thanked him. They shook hands. The thieves drifted away, back on the prowl. First we asked the German: your backpack was zipped—how do you think your wallet fell out? “I have no idea,” he replied, unwilling to dwell on the incident.
We left him with his perplexity and caught up with the rogue pair, asking if they spoke a little English. Very little. French? Oui, they were Algerian.
“We are not police,” Bob began in French, “but we saw you take the man’s wallet.”
“Oh, no, monsieur dropped it!”
“We want to know your specialty, what kind of stealing you’re best at. For research!”
“Oui, research!” The men laughed nervously, but made no move to leave us. They glanced at each other, then suddenly, the taller of the two, the one who’d done the stealing, slung his arm around Bob’s shoulders. Taking quick, tiny steps in place, he twisted his body left and right.
“Play soccer? Football?” He moved his legs against Bob’s as if to trip him.
Bob stiffened, aware of the maneuver, this playful sports trick. But he had a real wallet in his back pocket, containing real money. He couldn’t allow the tactic to play out. He slapped his hand over his back pocket, trapping the thief’s hand in his grip.
“Enough!” Bob said.
“No football, eh? No research.” The thief transferred his embrace to his partner, and the two ambled off.
Late the same afternoon Bob and I both zeroed in on a well-dressed gentleman in a beige sport jacket. We tracked him at a distance until he disappeared in a crowd. We ran to catch up and burst into the moving crowd a moment too late. Our suspect was down on one knee, brushing and shaking the lower pant leg of his startled victim. He rose and apologized, as if he’d been trying to help.
The victim thanked him, but didn’t know what for. He was dazed and befuddled when I accosted him, asking brusquely if he still had his money. He felt his front pants pocket. No! It was gone! $2,000! His head swiveled wildly, but the thief was gone.
“He wanted to play football!” the victim said, “Right there in the crowd!”
Our multi-talented Barcelona pickpocket acquaintance later demonstrated the soccer swipe for us, this friendly male-on-male distraction technique. Side-to-side shoulder hug, a little leg-play, a little shake of the pant leg, and the wallet is gone, all in good fun. This was way back in August 2001, before the technique was named Ronaldinho.
In our 19-year worldwide thiefhunting experience, Ronaldinho seems to be a technique specific to North Africans, practiced by them wherever they may work. But that doesn’t mean they get away with it everywhere.
Many pickpocket methods are universal. Specialized techniques emerge from a specific population, travel with their practitioners, and are eventually taken up by other local thieves. Barcelona’s pigeon poop ploy is one of those—it came out of South America as a general “dirty-him-clean-him M.O., and was brilliantly adapted to blame the city’s birds. This movement of methods fascinates Bob and me as we study criminal subcultures around the world.
We must also keep in mind Barcelona’s symbiotic reputation. To visitors it’s fun and loose, good for partying late into the night. Pickpockets come specifically because they know of its loose legal system, and because it’s full of fun-loving tourists who party into the night.
Adapted from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams, in hardcover and ebook formats. Originally posted on Robbed In Barcelona on 1/30/12.