Pickpockets in Barcelona and Spain’s petty crime problem

January 27, 2024

Almost everybody in Spain has a pickpocket story.

A story of how they were robbed, or almost robbed, while going about their business.

Pickpocketing is pretty common in Barcelona and Madrid – I’m not sure about the smaller Spanish cities. But in big city Spain it’s rampant – especially in the more touristy areas.

Here in Barcelona, if you’re on the Rambla, watch out. Be careful around Plaça de Catalunya and Puerta del Ángel. And if you’re new in town or especially foreign-looking, be doubly careful all the time.

(In Madrid, something similar. Be careful around Sol, Plaza Mayor, Paseo del Prado. One friend’s mom was even robbed inside the Almudena cathedral years ago.)

Almudena Cathedral in Madrid, back in 2021.

Pickpockets tend to target people who look confused and distracted. If that’s you, you’re at a higher risk.

Better safe than sorry.

Barcelona’s pickpocket problem

Here in the frozen north, I read an interesting article this week about the pickpocket industry.

Did you know that from January to September 2023 there were 258 robberies per day here in Barcelona?

I assume that number refers to police reports, and that not all instances end up being reported. The article doesn’t clarify. (When I was pickpocketed in London, it didn’t even occur to me to go to a police station. I just hopped online to erase all my data, then bought a new phone.)

In any case, pickpockets, if caught, are taken to the police station and processed. As long as the amount they’ve stolen is under 400€, the whole thing is considered a “delito leve” – petty crime, I guess – and in theory they’re given a court date within a week before being let go.

The trial is brief, the pickpocket pays a fine, and everybody moves on.

Except that’s not what actually happens: these days, according to La Vanguardia, courts are so backed up that the trial date they’re given is actually within 6 to 9 months, and the delays are increasing.

Also, the statute of limitations on this sort of crime is one year. In other words, if they’re not brought to trial within a year, the case is automatically archived and they’re effectively not guilty.

If the courts get so backed up there’s no way to take anyone to trial in less than a year, apparently there’s a situation of legal “impunity” and pickpockets just get away with it. Sad!

(All this in addition to the fact that if you look closely the numbers suggest that most pickpockets aren’t caught anyway. Once again, they don’t clarify, but the number of trials is far less than the number of police reports filed.)

In any case, it’s a system on the verge of collapse, and the local government is scratching its metaphorical head about what to do, given that Barcelona is already getting a sort of reputation for being unsafe.

Common pickpocket tactics and how to avoid them

Pickpockets tend to work in crowded areas, where you’re already confused and distracted.

In most Spanish cities, that means the whole center – shopping streets, night life areas and the metro are all fair game. They might come up behind you in a crowded place, and snatch your stuff before you ever see them.

(Keep backpacks and handbags zipped and in front of you, and wallets in a front pocket, to avoid this.)

Thieves might also be carrying a paper map, or a petition of some kind for you to sign. In that case, they’ll come up to your table in a café and put the paper in your face, using the moment of distraction to grab your phone (etc) off the table.

Estación de Francia, Barcelona.

Then there’s the “jacket on the arm” trick, which isn’t even really a trick. You’re on the metro, and somebody has a bulky jacket draped over their arm, obscuring their hands and giving them an “excuse” to bump into people. Perfectly normal on a crowded train in winter, except that sometimes they’re also using the bump and the covered hands to reach into your bag or pocket.

And here’s one I didn’t use to believe, but now I do: pickpockets may hang around signs warning of their presence. People read the sign, then tap their valuables to make sure they’ve still got them.

An observant pickpocket now knows where you’re keeping your wallet.

Like I said, I didn’t use to place much stock in this one, but the other day I was on the metro and an announcement came on warning of the presence of “carteristas”. Of course, the first thing I did was reach into my pockets to make sure I still had my wallet and my phone. So did a few other people in my line of sight. Oops.

Anyway, plenty of other things can happen. Someone might just grab your phone out of your hand while you’re walking past distracted. Electric scooters are fast enough that someone could grab your bag and be a block away before you’ve gotten over the surprise.

Pickpockets sometimes work in teams, so if you catch the person who actually robbed you, they don’t have your stuff anyway – it was passed off surreptitiously to an accomplice who’s walking the opposite direction.

Just watch out.

My personal experience: when I was living in the center of Barcelona, I’d have guys come up behind me to ask for a cigarette or a light. They’d tap me on the shoulder as a distraction, or ask me where I’m from, and then go reaching for my pockets. I’m pretty alert to this game, but I also look like a ginger guy who’s not native to this climate, so they try.

Sometimes it even works. Morena had her wallet stolen at a street fair in Madrid years ago. My phone was stolen in a pub in London, as I tried to carry two drinks from the bar back to our table. We’re both innately paranoid people who have been around this sort of thing a lot – and it still happened. So be careful.

Should you take a self-defense class?

Some people have a pickpocket experience (or get robbed by someone using force, which is less common but does happen) and then think they should go to some sort of self-defense course.

And that’s fine. A lot of pickpockets will just run if you catch them in the act, so you might not need to defend yourself. They might even give back your stuff and then run.

There’s really not much to do in that case. It’s not a great idea to chase them, and even if you catch them there’s probably nothing the police can (or will) do. Attempted pickpocketing isn’t high on anyone’s list of things to prosecute.

Anyway, I’ve got a lot to say about self-defense.

First off, let’s talk about martial arts.

Martial arts are great, and everybody should do some. Especially men. And ESPECIALLY women (for different reasons). Having said that, a lot of martial arts aren’t going to be too great for self-defense.

For example, back in the day I did a form of karate that emphasized self-defense. There was a lot of silly stuff about “here’s how to grab someone’s wrist if they pull a gun on you”, or “here’s how to fight off three opponents at once using only a bamboo stick”, etc.

I’ve also done plenty of boxing, which seems more realistic.

Knowing how to punch someone, effectively, is great. But please don’t attempt to disarm someone with your bare hands, or fight three guys simultaneously.

Boxing on the beach, years ago.

These days I do a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is allegedly pretty good for a real fight – but honestly, it would be much better to just avoid the whole situation of being on the ground underneath someone who wants to choke you.

Trust me.

In any case, here’s my personal list of actual self-defense techniques right here…

Top 4 self-defense techniques, in descending order

What’s the most effective self-defense technique? Well, you be a bit surprised by this, but here’s a list of the top ways you can keep yourself safe in the city.

  1. Not being in a dangerous situation. If you’re walking down a dark street at 3 AM, drunk or high, and you get robbed (or stabbed, or worse) I feel bad for you, of course. But your first and most effective self-defense technique is not being on that dark street at 3AM in the first place. There’s a series of choices that got you there. Next time do something different. Avoid dangerous situations.
  2. Situational awareness. Pickpockets often strike in normal daylight situations, so avoidance isn’t always an option. But you can be alert. Watch out behind you, be careful with anyone walking too closely. Wear a bag in front of your body, keep your wallet in a front pocket (or an inside jacket pocket). If you’re at a restaurant, don’t leave your bag in an exposed place, and try to sit with your back towards a wall so you can see the room. If you are on that dark street late at night, look around, watch behind you, make sure nobody’s hiding in the shadows.
  3. Run away. You really don’t want to get in a fight with someone who doesn’t care if they go to prison. For them, the worst case is that they go to prison… and they don’t care. For you, the worst case is that you end up dead, or in a coma, or something similar. You have nothing to gain by fighting some career lowlife. It’s better to just run away.
  4. Strike once and then run away. If you absolutely have to, you can poke someone in the eye, kick them in the nuts (assuming they have nuts) or smash their nose with the heel of your hand. But beware of any techniques you may have seen that suggest someone will react a certain way if you hit them. Last time someone tried to “ask me for a light” here in Barcelona, I got my hands up in his face in a “fence” position – basically to keep a safe distance. He just kind of smiled, lazily, and asked for a light again. I could see he was high as balls, I kind of backed away, and he slunk off to find an easier target. I didn’t hit him, but I can pretty much guarantee that if we’d fought, his confused state would have made it much different than sparring with an opponent in the gym.

There’s a lot more to say here, of course. “Projecting confidence” may or may not be part of your vibe, but it probably works. As does “not looking like an easy target”. But if you’re smaller, or super foreign-looking, or lost and confused because you arrived two hours ago, you’re going to be easy to spot anyway.

Notice I didn’t AT ANY POINT suggest standing there and fighting someone who may have very little to lose. Don’t do it. Losing your new iPhone is way better than losing an eye.

In any case, self-defense classes are great, and martial arts will make you a better human: in addition to helping you project confidence, they’ll give you some discipline, some humility, some resilience and some good cardio.

Also, I don’t know you, but I’ll bet you could stand to spend more time doing hard physical things in your life in order to escape the modern comfort crisis.

More fun facts about pickpockets and assorted criminals in Barcelona

Remember newspapers? People used to subscribe to them, and kids on bikes would toss them up on your porch every morning. You know, in the 50s of the last century. My dad was always somewhat disappointed that I didn’t follow in his footsteps and get a job as a paperboy when I was eight or ten – I guess he wasn’t keeping up with current child labor laws.

Anyway, as a gentleman of a certain age myself these days, I’m a paying subscriber to La Vanguardia “newspaper” online, so let me regale you with some fun facts about pickpockets (and other assorted criminals) in Barcelona that I’ve gleaned from putting the word “hurto” into their search function.

First, “hurtos” on the metro were recently up 47% year on year – that’s again in the first 9 months of 2023. There were also 447 violent muggings on the metro in that time. Be careful on the train, of course, but also on the escalators. While you’re zoned out looking at your phone, someone else is probably right behind you, and they might not have the best of intentions.

Second, in December of 2023, a group of thieves on electric scooters stole a watch valued at 500,000€ from a tourist on Passeig de Gracia. While I find it hard to feel too bad for someone who has half a million bucks to spend on a watch, it’s worth keeping in mind that Barcelona isn’t the best place to be wandering the streets in expensive stuff. Maybe wear your wildly expensive timepiece at the yacht club… not on the public thoroughfare.

Third, two thieves from Kosovo were recently apprehended by police after stealing a Louis Vuitton carry-on at the airport – the bag held jewellery worth 8.5 million euros. Soon after, a wave of criminals descended upon El Prat – presumably they’d heard about the whole thing and wanted to try their luck as well. Police then spent the rest of the week expelling thieves from the terminals.

Not even your bones are safe in Barcelona…

Finally, this has nothing to do with pickpockets, but the story made me jump when I read it last year: the cemetery at Montjuïc has reported that at least 160 – and possibly as many as 300 – tombs had been broken into, with criminals supposedly looking for valuables in among the bones.

This is Edinburgh, not Barcelona, but it’s the first picture of a cemetery I found on my computer.

These days, most people don’t bury their loved ones with expensive jewellery, but the tombs that were broken into were very old, and… who knows?

There haven’t been any follow-ups to the original articles last August, so I guess nobody has been caught.

Spain’s legal system has some interesting loopholes

I’m not a lawyer, but as a foreigner in Spain I’ve had plenty of contact with the legal system. It’s something I’ve become more interested in with time.

One of the problems contributing to the pickpocket situation, apparently, is that the Penal Code doesn’t have much of a plan for what to do with people who commit the same crimes over and over.

The top pickpockets in Barcelona, again according to La Vanguardia, can be arrested and released dozens of times while waiting for a court date. When it finally comes, they’re in and out of prison in a few months, and back on the streets like nothing happened.

The Catalan Generalitat has formally petitioned the central government to take some sort of action – in the form of writing stricter laws – but as of now that’s how things stand.

Be safe out there, y’all!

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Other interesting legal grey areas I’ve written about on here are the cannabis situation, the rights of squatters (we’ve got some in our new building, too) and the whole racket around getting legal through (sometimes) shady means. The Spanish even have a proverb: “hecha la ley, hecha la trampa” which basically means that every law has its loophole contained within it. What do you think? Leave me a comment, right here…

P.P.S. Did you know you can donate to this blog? Thanks to recent supporters Lani, Nancy and Alex. It looks like a lot of people read the blog or listen to the podcast in preparation to move to Spain. Donate here, and while doing so, please send me a note telling me who you are and why you’re interested in Barcelona, Madrid, or (more generally) Spain. Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. There’s a series of choices that got you there. Next time do something different. Avoid dangerous situations. (So love that line)
    So far so good !
    Add to that "and do not do it again."

    You bought two drinks in London, the guy behind the bar robbed you at the point of sale, :-).
    Well, it always felt that way on the few trips I made to that "some places" wonderful city.

    Barcelona, I just used my inner wimp and total fear and we escaped the single day/night unscathed as we did our few nights in Rome a while back.
    Naples, nope, the inner wimp rejected that as a destination.

    I think we are more typical than we think and do not fall victim to pickpockets. The crime is out there, you do what you can, and all the above in this article are part of our toolkit, well apart from the fighting for me, I opt for running away!
    But sometimes we just get unlucky.

  2. I still feel safe in Madrid for the most part, then again I’m old and don’t go around the streets drunk at 3:00 a.m. anymore. But even after living here for 30 years, the minute I step into the Centro I go into “tourist mode”, because physically I’ll never look like a local! You can’t let your guard down. I like the tips you gave!

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