Near the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower and other famed attractions of their city, Parisians routinely tighten their grip on bags and purses. For the past 10 years pedestrians in those areas have risked losing their belongings to gangs of young pickpockets, almost all of them gypsy children smuggled into France from Yugoslavia. Indeed, the lightfingered thieves have been so successful preying on unwary tourists that French Security Minister Robert Pandraud complained recently that “those children are giving France a disastrous image in the United States and Japan.” But authorities say that recent arrests of seven adults who allegedly controlled rings of children have sharply reduced the risk of thefts— and convinced other criminals to shift their operations to Rome and other European tourist centres.
According to police estimates, as many as 150 ragged, dirty and often barefoot gypsy children operated almost with impunity in Paris in recent years, often evading enraged victims
and police officers by darting into nearby subway entrances. And they were able to avoid punishment because French law prohibits the prosecution of children under the age of 13. Declared Alexis Dréau, a Paris police official who deals with juvenile crime: “When we catch them, the first thing
As many as 150 ragged, dirty and often barefoot gypsy children have operated with virtual impunity in recent years
they do is tell us that they are only 12 years old.”
At the same time, police found it extremely difficult to deport apprehended pickpockets. Added Dréau: “We bring them in and have no way to identify them. One child gave us eight different names, and we figure that some days we have held the same child
a dozen times.” French authorities have even used X-rays, which reveal adolescent bone development, in their efforts to determine the exact age of young pickpockets. But the police gained their most powerful tool when the government amended the criminal code in 1983, making adults subject to prosecution if children under their care were repeatedly caught stealing. Police then began tracing the adult operators of the rings, and in November, 1985, they arrested a Yugoslavian man and woman who controlled seven young pickpockets. In July a Paris court sentenced the couple—who had been drawing welfare benefits while living in a well-furnished suburban home—to three years in prison.
Those arrests and other investigations revealed strong links between the gypsy rings in Paris and criminals who procure young pickpockets in Yugoslavia. According to police, the recruiters usually turn the children over to a “protector”—in many cases a former pickpocket who is too old to shelter beneath the French law. The protectors use cars to smuggle their charges into France, then teach them a new trade on the streets of Paris.
One favorite technique uses one child to distract a victim by waving a newspaper in his face while a partner tries to steal an unguarded wallet or
camera. According to police, some gypsies have even thrust a baby toward a startled tourist as another thief expertly rifled his pockets. And in one of the most unsettling methods used, a gang of noisy pickpockets swarm around their chosen victim, relieving him of his valuables, then swiftly passing the stolen goods
along a fleeing line of thieves.
The returns can be considerable: police say that they do not know how much cash and property has been lost to pickpockets, but they have arrested children who were carrying up to $2,000 in stolen cash. The so-called protectors share the loot, and many of them ferry their young subordinates to
choice tourist locations in luxury cars bought with the proceeds of earlier thefts. Indeed, the clear success of a link that Paris police refer to as the “Yugo connection” prompted senior investigators to visit Belgrade this summer to discuss ways of stopping the traffic in illegal young immigrants. There, while seeking pledges of co-operation from their Yugoslavian counterparts, the investigators told them that some gang bosses had amassed enough money to purchase real estate in Yugoslavia and homes in Paris.
For the most part, the young gypsies themselves did not enjoy as high a standard of living, and many spent their time in Paris in run-down trailer parks on the outskirts of the city. Now, many of those ramshackle trailers have been abandoned. And police note that such favorite hunting grounds as the sidewalks outside Champs Elysées department stores have been almost free of pickpockets this fall. Still, while the police crackdown may have prompted the exodus, recent visitors to Rome say that the number of pickpockets in that city has increased dramatically. Now, some of the nimblest thieves in Europe are challenging Italian authorities to solve a problem that has plagued Paris for 10 years.
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