Rome's underage pickpockets

The murky world of Rome's underage pickpockets, their pimps and the laws that fail to protect them.

By Mike Dilien.

Rome, mid July. In Barberini underground station, a nine-year-old boy knocked over Maria Assunta Devoti. The gang of pickpockets to whom the child belonged, left the woman lying on the platform in a pool of blood. The child hit 63-year-old Devoti because she had shouted – in English –  “Beware of pickpockets” in order to warn her fellow passengers, many of them tourists.

Devoti subsequently embarked on a personal crusade against the underage pickpockets in Rome’s underground until she was informed by an employee of ATAC, the city company that manages the public transport network, that the clan was after her. She also conducted press interviews and media websites streamed videos showing the thieves in action. 

According to TripAdvisor, the Eternal City occupied the number two spot on the 2016 list of the world’s worst cities for pick-pocketing, after Barcelona. Further down the list are other European cities like Athens, Florence, Madrid, Paris and Prague – all tourist hotspots. 

Moment of inattention

Whether it is in the airport, on the bus or in the underground, in front of a monument or inside a museum, one single, short moment of inattention can turn a carefree holiday into a nightmare. Losing your ID, driver’s licence, credit cards and/or cash is diffcult at the best of times and even more inconvenient when you are abroad.

Police on patrol at Rome's Termini station

In Milan early in July police arrested a Bosnian woman. The woman had spent a lifetime teaching children how to pickpocket in tourist attractions and railway and underground stations. Remember the handheld videos shot in Milano Centrale showing tiny kids with their hands shamelessly in tourists’ backpacks?

Big business

Pick-pocketing, especially pick-pocketing tourists, is a multi-million euro business. Milan police commander Francesco Messina calculated the monthly proceedings of a gang of 50 pickpockets: “One child makes €300 a day. That’s €2,100 a week. Multiply by four and then by 50.” In Venice, an association called Cittadini non distratti rallied against the gang of underage pickpockets that is causing havoc in their city. And the business is dominated by networks that operate transnationally – genuine multinationals. 

Pickpocket networks

The Dutch police, in collaboration with their Spanish colleagues, identified six networks of pickpockets operating across Europe. Barcelona, where pick-pocketing accounts for 80 per cent of reported crimes, tops TripAdvisor’s list. Besides operating in traditional tourist attractions, these networks also flock to tourist events like San Fermín in Pamplona and Geneva’s annual car show.

A distracted tourist in Paris is robbed by a gang of underage pickpockets.

Less than a week after the Barberini metro assault made local headlines, the nine-year old pickpocket was back in action. Criminal law states that children below the age of 14 cannot be held responsible for the crimes they commit. Even when the authorities catch an underage pickpocket red-handed, all they can do is escort the minor to a detention centre. Within 20 minutes, the minor will walk free.

Pimps

Underage pickpockets are invariably controlled by adults. According to Rome police, about 280 minors living in the city's Roma camps dedicate themselves to pick-pocketing. 

There are also many apparently pregnant girls among the thieves. Girls who are visibly over 13 and not pregnant often carry an ultrasound scan that proves they are expecting: the police cannot detain a pregnant woman or the mother of a one-year-old.

Majority of girls

85 per cent of the pupils are girls. Boys are destined to become topi d’appartamento: they burgle houses and apartments. The few boys who accompany the pickpockets commute between the central tourist areas and the camp so that, when the police catch the thieves, the loot is not lost entirely. These children operate in squads. A leader, often an older, experienced thief, accompanies them. They receive incessant telephone calls. “Don’t come home if you haven’t made enough money. If you come back, Bebo [the father] will beat you up.” Police hearings recorded a mother in a Rome gypsy camp warning her nine children, the eldest being 13, while they were raiding the historic centre.

Lack of cohesion

None of the Rome's authorities – ATAC, the police, the military or the city council – has a coherent, joint approach to tackling the problem. A culture that considers a 13-year-old to be an adult and a potential parent, is taking advantage of another culture that declares that person is still an innocent child. But how fast can politicians change legislation that clearly is ineffective? And, in the meantime, what can judges do against those who obviously exploit the loopholes in the law?

Police raid

“I live in an abandoned farmhouse. I’ve been taken to Italy by a husband and wife, both of them compatriots of mine,” a 12-year old Romanian pickpocket told the Milan police. On a foggy morning, Francesco Messina and 200 police officers, backed up with a helicopter, raided a farm. In a shed they discovered 30 children aged between 8 and 13 years locked up and chained to the wall: the kids who in Milano Centrale had their hands in tourists’ backpacks. “I’ve bought a leash,” police hearings recorded a woman saying when she referred to a boy that was stubborn.

Yet, it soon turned out that Milan has few powers to protect these children. Barely a few hours after their arrest the police had to hand the children back ot the extortionists.

In 2010, a network of pickpockets that was managed from Rome was put on trial in Paris. The court hearings revealed the girls suffered beatings, cigarette burns and rape if they did not make €300 per day. Unsurprisingly, none of the girls showed up at the trial. Another clan boss had simply "liberated” the girls. 

Pickpockets operate at train stations such as Milan's Stazione Centrale (above) and Rome's Stazione Termini.

Whereas the children find it difficult to escape a life of crime, those who force them into crime get away with light punishment. Clan heads invariably turn out to be pluri-convicted in several European countries. After each arrest, Milan's Bosnian maestra returned to Bosnia or France and then came back to Italy with a new identity. When Dutch police traced another Bosnian couple in the outskirts of Barcelona, they discovered that, for several decades, the husband had been trafficking children in order to turn them into pickpockets. In Austria, a couple who forced 12 kids to steal for ten hours a day was sentenced to three years. Less than three years later, however, French police discovered the couple was leading an international network of hundreds of underage pickpockets.

Mercatini del rubato

Before dawn, in an open field somewhere in Rome’s periphery, car headlights are shining on sets of flat screen televisions, old computers, various kitchen apparel and even bottled and canned food. There is a hustle and bustle. An hour later, by early daylight, everything and everyone will be gone. 

On Saturdays, in the centre of Rome, near places like the gasometro in the Ostiense district – in quite an isolated area down by the river –  people appraise mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, handbags that are laid out on blankets. People haggle. People buy. Nobody asks questions about the origin of the wares on display. Nor does anyone ask when spotting a bargain on an e-commerce platform. Do we?

This article was published in the November 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome.

TRAFFICKING OF MINORS

The large numbers of unaccompanied underage migrants arriving in Italy, estimated at 17,373 in 2016, are easy prey for traffickers. But the Italian parliament has recently passed new laws that should offer them more protection. See Laura Clarke’s article in the May 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome and on our website.