In June 2011, a 23-year-old woman was walking to a bus stop in the center of Guadalajara when she saw a dark figure approaching, armed with a pair of scissors. The assailant jumped in front of her and shoved her in the direction of an alley behind the main street. Once there, he pushed her face to the wall and sliced off her ponytail.
It was the first case of hair theft in Mexico’s second-largest city, but since then, there have been a spate of similar attacks. Scissor wielding thieves have been targeting victims for their long hair, in many cases simply approaching on foot or on a scooter, and cutting off as much as they can. The stolen hair is later sold on the black market for extensions, where it can be worth up to US$60 apiece, a price comparable to a stolen cell phone.
Hair extensions are increasingly popular in Mexico and can be bought in beauty salons for anything from US$100 to US$500. Yet the popularity and price of these products is driving the theft.
Chairman of Guadalajara’s Security Commission Jose Luis Munguia Cardona says that the widespread use of scooters by thieves has taken the crime to a new level. “We have seen more and more of what have become known as scooter-rats or scooter-thieves. These criminals work with one riding the scooter and another sat behind. The role of the second thief is to grab cellphones, handbags or even in some cases human hair, which is chopped off and sold as hair extensions. These products are apparently very expensive,” he said.
There has been a sharp rise in hair theft across Latin America, with incidents reported in Columbia, Brazil and Argentina. To be valuable, the hair must come from a single person, and it is a crime of convenience, because the victims can be selected based on their appearance.
Hair theft, while undoubtedly on the rise, is not an original offense. Significantly, it was a popular crime in Europe and the Americas throughout the nineteenth century. As early as 1863, “The Hairdressers’ Journal” was decrying the trend:
“Even in the present day it has happened over and over again that a good crop of hair has been laid in wait for, and shorn from the trembling victim, who has been only too glad to get free with but the loss of her hair.”
The parallel between Victorian London and present day Latin America is worthy of scrutiny. Until the distribution of wealth in the region ceases to resemble that of nineteenth century Europe, crime in the continent will likely retain its anachronistic flavor.