The Lightest-Fingered Crooks in the World


The Lightest-Fingered Crooks in the World
by Harry Harrison (1958)


Is the manhole cover still out there in the street – or has it vanished like the bulbs in the street lights? And while you’re taking a look you had better also check your car, in case all of the wheels are missing.

If you live in the United States, the chances are that you have never had any worries like these – but if you live in Mexico, these little troubles are commonplace. The country seems to be infested with the lightest-fingered crooks in the world and lifting anything movable seems to be a national outdoor sport.

Mexico City is the happy hunting ground of these screwball thieves, and their operations have the local authorities plucking themselves bald. For example, look what happened to the traffic department:

They started to install a system of new traffic lights a while ago – an improvement long overdue, since there are neither cops nor lights on most intersections in the crowded city. Cars rush each other at the corners, horns blowing and drivers shouting in rage. You might think that a noble project that could save hundreds of lives a year would be respected by everyone. The thieving gentry, however, just look at the system as ‘meat on the table.’ The new copper cables for the lights were being stolen just as fast as they were installed.


The workers would put them up one day, then come back in the morning to find they had mysteriously vanished.

Appeals were made to the public, with no result whatsoever. Finally, in desperation, the city government decided on a drastic measure. They charged the cables with 6,000 volts of electricity. Ads were put in all the daily papers warning of the juice and BEWARE signs were nailed to every pole.

This cut down on the thievery all right – but also on the number of thieves. The nice expensive copper wire was just too tempting – a few days later, the rising sun illuminated the figure of a man clutching a pair of wire clippers. He hung from the wires, neatly electrocuted.

Such violent measures aren’t always practical; many times the city has had to cry defeat and retreat from the field of battle. Like they did with the night lights around street excavations:

Kerosene lanterns and torches were used originally, but they vanished in the night by the thousands. Appealing to the public was useless; it just drew the attention of more crooks, and losses soared. When the last light was gone, the public works engineers gave a Latin shrug of their shoulders and put out whitewashed rocks to guard the diggers and open manholes. They were unhappy at the loss of the lights, but at least their troubles were at an end. In the harsh light of dawn they found that the white rocks were missing!

No one has, ever been able to explain what appeal the white rocks could possibly have, but they are still disappearing. Angry and bitter, the workers don’t even bother with the rocks, now. In some streets under extensive repair, you are liable to lose your car in the man-made canyons.

That’s not the only way you can lose your car. The gleaming chrome and glass fortresses of American autos make an irresistible target for those Mexicans with itching fingers. Nobody ever parks in the streets; cars are always safely stowed away in locked public or private garages. Those drivers who have ignored this rule have suffered tragic consequences.

Stealing the entire car is pretty rare, however. The country has rigid restrictions on autos and they are easy to trace. Stealing a car piecemeal is a different story.

Car thieves work with the speed of lightning, even in broad daylight and on the most crowded streets. While the owner is standing on one side of his auto, his hub caps will vanish from the other side. Valve caps are child’s play frequently – while the driver is at the wheel of his parked vehicle, youngsters on their knees will strip them off.

All of the removable parts on the outside of a car are fair booty – including a few we don’t normally think of as removable, except by the services of a well-equipped garage. Wheels, for instance.

Wheel thieves are a fraternity of specialists. They roam the city hopefully, carrying their little load of adobe bricks. When their prey is spotted, they move with the precision of a commando squad. The bricks are stacked under the axles next to each wheel so that they just fit. Then, the air is let out of the tires so that the car settles on the bricks. The wheels are easily removed and rolled away.

It is not a heartening sight to see your car resting on – four mounds of crumbling bricks, the naked wheel bearings gleaming in the sun.

But wheel-thievery is almost big business; Most of the Mexico City thievery comes under the headings of light fingers and anything movable. Your book vanishes from the seat next to you on the bus. A woman’s purse that hangs from her arm is opened gently and the contents removed while she is walking in a crowd. Or a man’s jeweled stickpin vanishes from his tie.

A friend of mine had a lovely diamond stickpin that he wore in his tie, despite many warnings.

“Relax,” he said, “I have a lock on it that holds it to the tie, as well
as a safety chain.”

He was right; nobody could get that pin off the tie – they just cut off the tie with a scissors and left him with a two inch stub and a very funny expression.

The thieves are utterly fearless. One cop was cashiered from the force because a pickpocket lifted his gun. They even work the Municipal Courts. A woman was on trial for thievery; a stolen pendant has been found in her home. The pendant, Exhibit A, was displayed in the courtroom. When a witness stepped forward to identify it, the red-faced cops discovered that it had disappeared.

They take the big with the small. Street light bulbs vanish and in the ensuing darkness the heavy manhole covers disappear from the street below. In one three-month period, over three hundred of the weighty lids were whisked off the city streets. The number of these thefts goes up and down, depending on the going price of cast iron in the junk-yards. Substitutes have been tried, such as cast concrete, but the answer has yet to be found.

Crimes of this type have always been common in Mexico City, but of late they have been on the rise. There are plenty of theories, but no one seems to know the real reason. Some die-hard Royalists blame it on the Revolution; mass looting was very common during the guerrilla
fighting then, and they think it grew into a habit hard to break. Others blame everything from the atom bomb to lucre-loaded American tourists. The answer probably lies in the rich-poor setup of Mexican society. When the average labourer earns only eighty cents for his day’s work, a nice shiny hub cap worth three dollars looks awfully tempting.

Whatever the reason, the light-fingered boys have the run of Mexico City. American tourists should take care – not only to watch their wallets and purses, but also to avoid falling in that manhole that you know was covered not ten minutes ago.


First published in Man’s Adventure, August 1958. Illustrated by Morton Donaldson.

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