The King of the Pickpockets
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He's stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. He's retired now, running a soup...
José, a.k.a. "the Snail," a.k.a. the "king of the pickpockets," stands near the soup kitchen where he now works. Photos by Alejandro Bringas
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He's stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. If half his stories are true, he's the best in Mexico, but that's hard to say for certain. There's no way to quantify achievements in petty theft, no Pickpocket Hall of Fame, but there was a time—if you believe him—when the Snail was so respected by the police that they let him go about his business undisturbed.
I found out about the Snail after I became interested in pickpockets—their stories, their ethics, their art of nonviolent robbery. I started asking people with ties to the criminal world whom I should talk to, and everyone from former beat cops to the pirated-DVD vendors on the street told me I needed to find the Snail, who they referred to as the "king of the pickpockets."
I tracked him down and discovered he's retired now, a dark-skinned man in his mid-50s running a soup kitchen on the El Paso border. He still receives gifts from old friends— cops and gangsters both—and a handful of glommers-on are always around to rub shoulders with greatness and pick up tips and tricks. One recent afternoon, I drove out to the kitchen to meet him.
We sat at a long plastic table, the only furniture in the soup kitchen's dining room. The place barely gets by on donations and what it can salvage from the trash, and its poverty shows everywhere—it smells of rancid food, and the front door is rotting away. In the winter, they cover the door with blankets to keep the cold out. As the Snail talked to me, a handful of men sitting at the table leaned in, cautiously eavesdropping.
The Snail's real name is José (he talked to me on the condition I withhold his last name). His nickname was handed down from his father, another curly-haired thief with a mop like a heap of snails. José inherited his old man's hairdo and a talent for nimbly lifting valuables out of people's coats and purses.
José said he started robbing people as a teenager in the mid-70s, often working with a team. "Sometimes we worked alone, in couples, or even in fours, depending on the job that had to get done," he told me. "One of us would be the distraction, the person who strategically deceives the [target]. Another person is the shadow—he's in charge of covering the operation, so police can't see the action. The other person is in charge of the direct action, robbing. The remaining person is a support for the group and the operation."
He told me that he could steal 10,000 pesos (about $775) in a day, but he didn't use the money to celebrate his scores—bottles of whiskey or electronics could easily be stolen too, and pretty much everything is free when you have quick hands. On the occasions he was caught, José would return his victim's money or valuables and flee before the cops could be summoned.
There's no honor among thieves, or at least the ones José ran with. If given the opportunity, José would pocket more than half his cut from the wallets of victims and then downplay the score to his team when it was time to pay up. "There is no honesty among us," he said. "We trick each other; that's why we fight and kill each other."
José reveals the contents of his wallet, which he keeps securely in the right rear pocket of his pants.
A group of eavesdroppers, Snails in training, approached us as José was reminiscing. He told them to scram, but one of them asked him to tell the "story of the four buttons."
José chuckled a bit. "One time in a bus terminal, I had to open a man's coat, slide my hand inside the coat into his sweater, unbutton four buttons from his pocket, and take out the money." He told me that he got away with the cash, of course—he gets away in all of his stories.
Another time he was detained for allegedly stealing a Juárez police captain's firearm, and the officer asked him how he did it. "I said, 'I can't tell you.' He then tried to cuff me. I slipped away, and I had his wallet in my hand. I told him, 'Commander, here is your wallet. This is how we do it, there is no way to explain it to you.'"
José always had a symbiotic relationship with the police. They would arrest him occasionally—he's lost count of the number of times he's been in jail—but once they got to know him he could buy his freedom for a gold bracelet or watch. The local police were likely more concerned with Juárez's astronomical murder rate, violent wars between the drug cartels, and the epidemic of kidnappings than petty theft.
José's base of operations was Juárez, but he traveled all over Mexico for work—the thieves who don't get caught tend to move around a lot.
"We'd go from here to Chihuahua, we'd be out there for two days, from there to Durango and from there to Mazatlán, from Mazatlán to Guadalajara," he said. "Then we'd go to Mexicali—we'd stay there for a week, making good money stealing passports."
His wife accompanied him on these trips. She was a thief, too; they'd go into stores and raid the shelves, hiding the stolen items under her skirt. Once, they were on a spree in Mexicali when they noticed a young man following them. When he followed them onto a public bus, José said his wife suggested they steal his wallet to see if he was a cop.
José and his gang got into position. They pretended to pickpocket another passenger, and when the agent moved to catch them, José nipped his wallet instead. "Poor pig. He was confused, waiting for us to do something, but we already had him, and he didn't even notice. He tried to stand up and take out his badge, but he couldn't find it. He ran off the bus, embarrassed."
José's talents have made him a rich man. He owned property in Juárez and hired servants to attend to his every need, but he wasn't happy. He became a drug addict and susceptible to violent swings during which he'd try to stab his wife with "whatever was at hand. Forks, knives, pencils. Poor woman, but it was my messy life," he told me, looking at his shoes like a repentant child.
In the late 80s he hit rock bottom. "One day she just left me, and I lost everything: my wife, my two houses, and my daughter. I ended up sleeping in the streets, didn't even have the strength to pickpocket again. I was living on drugs—heroin, to be specific." José lived on the streets for about a decade, until he met the priest who owns the local soup kitchen. "He saved my life," José said. "He gave me Jesus."
Now José is reformed, a legendary lawbreaker who's found the Lord, a cautionary tale turned into something straight out of a Sunday-school lecture on God's forgiveness. Which isn't to say that he doesn't get a certain gleam in his eye when he talks about the bad old days.
"Did I tell you I also pickpocketed a city councilman in a political rally," he said, "along with about ten other people who were there as well? I didn't need backup or help. It's easier to do when there are a lot of people around. The councilman only had a 50-peso bill in between a bunch of credit cards and IDs. All that work for nothing! I approached him [with the wallet] and told him, 'Is this yours?' He said yes, and I told him, 'Please put more money in it.' He didn't say anything to me, man."