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I Left My Heart (And Phone/Wallet/Camera) In Barcelona

Now that I've become a source of recommendations and itinerary planning for the Catalan capital, I've become ever more aware that the city has developed a deserved and depressing reputation for opportunistic theft.
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I've been going to Barcelona for more than 10 years, and every time I go the city gets more appealing. Public spaces look better, the beaches are cleaner, and the subways and public transportation keep getting more efficient. Not to mention that the collapse of the euro/U.S. dollar exchange rate has made for bargain dining and shopping.

There are more and more people coming to the same conclusion, and the city now can chalk up almost 15% of its local GDP to tourism. New flights from Asia and the Middle East, along with an expanding global middle class with more disposable income (and even Woody Allen), have put Barcelona squarely in the sights of millions of new visitors.

Some things don't change, of course. The incredible weather, the perfect food, the parade of beautiful people and, sadly, the petty theft.

Now that I've become a source of recommendations and itinerary planning for the Catalan capital, I've become ever more aware that the city has developed a deserved and depressing reputation for opportunistic theft.

My sense of dread is made even more acute by the fact that I don't even think about petty theft at home. In the not-so-small city where I live, for instance, the New York Police Department doesn't even maintain statistics on pickpocketing, with the department saying officially "it's hardly a problem anymore".

But in Barcelona, it's a real problem. This week alone, a coworker who otherwise was having a spectacular time in town, had her phone stolen right off the outdoor cafe table where she was sitting, while she was looking. There's a certain irony that the city holding the world's most important mobile phone event isn't a super safe place to carry one around openly.

The week before, when I was in town myself, I walked into a store in the Raval neighborhood where a local woman had just had her wallet taken out of her purse in the shop, while she was trying on shoes less than a foot away.

When confronted with the question, Catalans are quick to point out that their city, and Spain more generally, is one of the safest places in Europe. And it is a fact that violent crime in Barcelona and the rest of Spain is uncommon, certainly less common than in many of the places where tourists come from (North and South America, the Middle East, and other parts of Europe). This rings true in other parts of Southern Europe, and statistics bear this out in Italy, Greece and Portugal (that's, of course, if they're not underreporting).

I remember being in the subway in Milan several years ago when I saw two teenagers, maybe 15 or 16, going down the escalators into the station and sticking their hands into women's purses, some attempts more successful than others. I yelled across for the women to be careful, and was heartened to see two police officers standing outside the station. When I dutifully alerted police (in Italian, no less) that there were teenagers stealing bags on the escalators, they shrugged and said "we didn't see anything" and went on their way.

More than anything, this American has a hard time swallowing a local (and Southern European) attitude I sense sometimes that paints this type of crime, particularly pickpocketing, as victimless and not really hurting anyone. There is even a certain folklore and literature that idealizes the lovable con artist: "pícaro" in Spanish culture or the "malandro" in Portuguese culture.

Tougher to digest though is the reality of crime and punishment, and the legacy attitude from the government that, any non-violent offender that absconds with less than 400 EUR / $450 USD (regardless of the number of repeat offenses) is only worthy of a small fine, and no jail time. The law has been modified in recent years to allow jail time after three offenses, but thieves either flee the country before they're prosecuted, or just develop their skills so they're not caught in flagrante or doing something violent (which is the only feasible way to be prosecuted). As Spaniards wistfully say, "hecha la ley, hecha la trampa", or "laws are made to be broken".

Police often know exactly who offenders are, where they live, and the fact that they are foreigners not in the country legally. But they have little recourse despite their best efforts, mainly unaided by the law or not confident that the justice system will do anything about it.

Sometimes I can't shake the feeling that the city, fighting a Sisyphean open battle against tourism and its perceived negative effects on the city's quality of life, turns a blind eye to the problem. In a similar vein, the local government has basically let counterfeit goods salesmen proliferate on the street while longstanding businesses suffer, and has enabled squatters with serious legal rights to remain in empty properties (all while evicting tourist rentals).

Would I compare the possibility of being pickpocketed with the violent crime endemic in many American cities? Absolutely not, and Catalans should be proud of the safe society they have created for themselves.

Still, Spain's judicial and policy attitude towards petty theft presents real problems. It diverts police attention away from much more important pursuits; it hurts the reputation of Barcelona as a place to visit for business or pleasure; and it gives it an air of lawlessness that is undeserving and unwarranted for a city with an otherwise fantastic quality of life.

Most importantly it creates a sense of insecurity for locals, which in turn drives the resentment for tourism, one of the factors that helped propel the current administration to power.

Maybe it's good for politics, but it's bad for everyone else. Except the pickpockets, of course.

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