By Alison Cramer
Unlike Manta, Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, where drug-related gang warfare has reached “emergency” proportions, Cuenca’s murder and violent crime rate has held steady during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are lucky in this regard,” says retired criminology professor and part-time expat Martin Simmons. “In much of Latin America, serious crime has increased since the pandemic began, which isn’t surprising given the unsettled times.”
According to the National Police, Cuenca’s murder rate remains the lowest among Ecuadorian cities –and one of the lowest in South America– with populations of 250,000 or more, at 4.8 per 100,000 population.
The news is not all good, however, and Simmons says petty crime and crimes of opportunity are on the increase. “I talked the regional police command in early June and they told me that that street crime and theft have increased over the past six months or so,” he says. “Most of it is non-violent, the kind of crime you are not aware of until you discover you’re missing your phone or your wallet, but that doesn’t make it any less painful.” He adds that police also report a slight increase in muggings, when victims are beaten up by thieves, sometimes requiring medical care.
When Simmons asked police about crimes committed by Venezuelan refugees in Cuenca, he was told that the rate is no higher than among the native population. “This was surprising to me given the hardship these people are suffering,” he said. “The police believe there are between 10,000 and 15,000 refugees in the city,”
Simmons says the rules for staying safe have not changed. “What has changed is the condition brought on by the pandemic so we all need to exercise more vigilance these days. As always, expats tend to spend a lot of time on the streets, particularly in the historic district so it’s not surprising that they become victims of pick-pockets and bag snatchers.” He adds: “Most expats lived urban and suburban lives before they moved here and most of them had cars. In Cuenca, many of us discover that walking is the best way to get around.”
Simmons says foreigners are victims of what he calls the “gringo bubble” syndrome. “For some reason, we tend to think that the rules we accepted back home don’t apply here. In fact, they do. In the U.S. or Canada, most of us understood that spending a lot of time on foot in the central city puts us at risk but because Cuenca has a friendly feel we often forget this.”
He adds: “What I hear from my contacts in law enforcement is that too many expats simply forget to protect themselves.”
Simmons offers what he calls “common sense” precautions.
1. In restaurants, bars and public areas, keep backpacks and bags within sight and wrap straps around your leg or chair legs if necessary. Don’t expose your belongings to walk-through traffic aisles. 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 home, take only belongings with you that you think you will need for the particular trip.
3. If you must take valuables with you (passports, cash, credit cards and cell phones), don’t put them in the same bag. For important documents, make a color copies to take with you when you make short trips around the city. Leave the originals at home.
4. If you carry a backpack, wear it in front of you when you go into crowded areas, such as mercados.
5. 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.
6. 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 turning.
7. Be aware of people around you by checking over your shoulder or in the reflection of windows to make sure you are not being followed. If you believe you are, go into the nearest store or restaurant. Be especially aware of motorcycles that might be following you.
8. At ATM machines, be especially conscious of those around you. If someone offers to help while you are at a machine, decline the offer and make sure your card is secure.
9. If you are out after dark, walk with friends.
10. Limit your cell phone calls and cell phone picture-taking in public areas. An increasingly common crime is for thieves to approach phone users from behind and, on the run, grab the phone as they pass.