Despite dropping crime rate, a former criminologist says stay alert to street crime

Aug 30, 2018

By Alison Cramer

Although the overall crime rate in Cuenca has dropped an impressive 45% in the past decade, street crime remains a danger, particularly for tourists and foreign residents.

According to national police, Cuenca’s crime rate, which is the lowest among Ecuadorian cities with populations of 100,000 or more, should continue to drop in 2018.

Tourists are especially vulnerable to street crime.

Retired criminology professor and part-time Cuenca resident Martin Simmons says that the street crime problem is “manageable,” but says it is up to individuals to keep themselves safe. “In Cuenca, most expats and tourists tend to spend a lot of time on the streets in the downtown area, and most of them are on foot. It’s not surprising that they become victims of pick-pockets and bag snatchers.” He added: “Most expats lived surburban lives before they moved here and most of them had cars.”

Simmons says many foreigners are victims of what he calls the “gringo bubble” syndrome. “For some reason, we tend to think that the rules we accept back home don’t apply here. In fact, they do. In the U.S. or Canada, most of us understand that spending a lot of time on foot in the central city puts us at risk. Here, because Cuenca has a friendly feel about it, we often forget this.”

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He adds: “What I hear from my local friends in law enforcement is that too many tourists and expats simply forget to protect themselves.”

For the record, says Simmons, Cuenca is safer than most cities its size in the U.S. for violent crime. “If you look at crime statistics, Ecuador has about 60% as many cases, per capita, of murder and aggravated assault. The rate is even lower in Cuenca. So you are statistically safer here from serious harm than in many other places.”

Petty and property crime are another matter altogether, says Simmons, who was a professor in San Diego, California, where he still spends part of the year. “This sort of crime is grossly under-reported everywhere in Latin America. There’s definitely quite a lot of it in Cuenca.” His advice: “Be careful. Be smart.”

Simmons gives credit to the national government for reducing the crime rate. “Nationwide, they have put thousands of new cops on the streets. They have also done a decent job of reducing corruption within law enforcement and all of this makes for an improving situation.”

To protect yourself in Cuenca, Simmons offers what he calls “common sense” precautions.

1. In restaurants, internet and phone cafes, secure your belongings. In popular downtown restaurants, keep backpacks and bags within sight and wrap straps around your leg or chair legs if necessary. Don’t expose belongings to walk-through traffic aisles. In internet and phone cafes, pick a secure place to sit. Avoid sitting beside an exterior door, especially if your back is turned to it. Again, have bags in plain view and secure the straps if necessary.

2. When you leave your hotel or apartment, take only belongings with you that you think you will need for the particular trip. If you don’t plan to take pictures, leave your camera in your room or hotel safe box.

3. Don’t put all your valuables, such as passports, cash and credit cards and cameras in the same bag. And again, when you leave your room, only take documents and money with you that you will need.

4. Make a color copy of the identification pages of your passport to take with you when you make short trips around the city. Leave the original behind.

5. If you are carrying bags and backpacks in crowded tourist areas or public mercados, wear them on your front instead of on your back.

6. If you are approached by strangers, be aware of diversionary tactics such as the “mustard trick.” In this case, a nicely dressed, well-spoken stranger will attempt to clean something from your bags or clothing. While this is being done and you are being distracted, his associate or associates will be taking your belongings. If this, or something similar happens to you, refuse any assistance and move away as quickly as possible. Be suspicious of small groups of strangers who approach you. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable, walk into a nearby store or office.

7. If you are walking alone, avoid tight turns where you are unable see around a corner due to walls or other obstructions. Continue a few steps in your original direction so you have a full view of the side street or sidewalk before you turn.

8. In the evenings, stay within a few blocks of your hotel and, whenever possible, walk with others.

9. Don’t allow strangers into your hotel room or apartment until you are certain that they have legitimate business there.

10. Do not accept food or drinks from strangers.

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