MADRID, Spain - Travelers are constantly warned. Like most big cities, pickpockets can victimize even the most careful of seasoned travelers.
Many travelers know the basics by heart: keep your belongings as close to your body as possible, never put your cash all in one place, never flaunt whatever valuables you may have with you, never call attention to yourself, try to blend in with the locals and not stick out like a sore thumb, stay alert at all times.
Madrid, which has recently been beset by a 25% unemployment rate, has also been home to a lot of immigrants from different parts of the world. Previously under the Franco dictatorship, it transitioned to democratic rule and elected a president under the socialists who provided welfare services and benefits, and labor-friendly laws.
Today, the Spanish economy – much like the rest of Europe – is trying to recover from high unemployment rates, with many locals looking for different means to line their pockets. After their defeat in the November 2011 elections, the socialists were replaced by conservatives led by Mariano Rajoy who promised to fix the economy and create jobs.
Joblessness often results in more crime and never did I imagine that this would become real in the subways of this city. After all, travel warnings for Spain have been quite common, but they remain that – mere warnings that one tries to heed.
One day at the Alonso Martinez and Opera stations in Madrid, we were witness to how a crime could have happened.
Just a few days after arriving in Madrid, a friend who had her bag slung diagonally over her shoulder found the zipper of her bolso partially open while she was in the crowded metro in Madrid. She quickly zipped it, thankful that she prevented a possible theft just in the nick of time.
But when she got back to her hotel room, she instinctively checked her bag and was relieved to find her wallet still in place. When she inspected her wallet, however, the few euros she kept in it were gone.
“It must have been a woman,” she surmised, because the theft was so carefully carried out. It was a courteous, truly neat job. The message was simple enough: “I’ll just get what I need and you can keep everything else. I won’t even ruin your bag.” Thievery can indeed be a gracious art.
Adequately forewarned about the dangers of the Madrid metro, my travel partner held on tightly to his bag, which he also slung diagonally over his shoulder. The metro wasn’t crowded at past 11 in the morning on a Friday and didn’t signal any overt perils.
We sat and waited for the train that was expected to arrive in 3 minutes at the Alonso Martinez station. To our right sat a male Asian traveler who bore all the signs of someone who had just arrived from the airport – wheeled luggage, bag slung diagonally over his shoulder, what appeared like travel papers in his hand, and even a money pouch hanging over this neck.
Struggling with his belongings, he managed to get into the same train car as ours which, fortunately for him, wasn’t at all crowded.
All seats were taken, however, so we decided to stand and hold on to a pole instead to remain steady and prevent ourselves from tipping over. There were at least 3 other women who chose to stand too, making it difficult for me to hold on to the same pole that my partner was clinging to for balance. I decided to transfer to another pole opposite the opening doors since it was free anyway. The women remained where they were and tried to keep their balance.
Finding it a bit tight for comfort, my travel partner moved away to more open space. As the train approached the next stop, the women moved toward the doors and crowded the Asian-looking traveler. He might even have been Filipino.
Intent on capturing some footage of subway scenes in Madrid, I started to take some video on my iPhone, training it on the doors as I expected passengers to alight and likewise get on the train.
The women alighted as my partner and I decided to take the emptied seats. When we did, one of the seated passengers called the attention of the Asian traveler and pointed to euros that had spilled on the floor.
He quickly scrambled to pick them up while zipping his bag slung over his shoulder. Oh no, we thought, had he been victimized as well? He struggled to stuff what he picked up on the floor onto his money pouch, which he kept close to his chest. He looked slightly frazzled.
My travel partner said it was only then that he realized the women who were crowding him were actually acting suspiciously. Intuition told him to move away from them because something didn’t feel right.
I told him, “You know, I might have caught some of them on video as they moved to exit. One of them even put her palm against your chest supposedly to keep her balance as the train moved.” He said he no longer remembers but she could have been trying to feel for his wallet, which was luckily not in his jacket’s breast pocket. The women were together, he said with certainty.
The British government has warned its citizens who travel to Spain about thieves said to work in teams of two or more, often targeting money and passports. In many cases, one person acts to distract an unsuspecting victim while the rest perform the actual robbery, it says.
My travel partner certainly felt being crowded but fortunately moved away quickly. Trying to keep their balance was the women’s form of distraction. They moved on to their next prey and could have either failed or succeeded.
From the video captured by the phone camera, one of them even called the attention of the Asian traveler to his bag’s partially opened zipper. The final act of generosity – if it can even be called that.
As we prepared to get off the next train stop, the Asian traveler struggled with his belongings, probably trying to figure out if he had lost anything. As it turned out, we got off at the same stop – he headed to his own destination, and we, to ours: the Royal Palace. – Rappler.com
Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.