By Liam Higgins
A graduate school research project shows that expats living in small towns and rural areas of Ecuador are more vulnerable to serious crime than those living in cities. The research, by University of Edinburgh doctoral student Kelly Fowler, focuses on expats in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama and Spain.
“What we found is that foreigners living in cities, among the local population, are far less conspicuous than those living in the countryside and are less vulnerable to crime. This is true in Ecuador as well as in other major expat destinations.” Fowler says. “City expats suffer significantly fewer cases of crimes, such as home invasions, kidnappings, physical attacks and household break-ins.”
In Ecuador, Fowler’s work looked at crime against expats in Cuenca, Vilcabamba, Cotacachi, Quito as well as several small coastal communities. She was assisted in the project by former criminology professor and part-time Cuenca expat Martin Simmons.
Fowler and Simmons interviewed more than 100 Ecuador expats, most of them from the U.S., Canada and the UK. “One thing we found was that a surprising number of crimes against expats go unreported and this is true in Ecuador as well as other countries.” She reports that out of six serious crimes against foreigners she studied in Vilcabamba, only three were reported. In the Cotacachi area, it was two of five and in five coastal areas, it was five of 12.
“Victims tell us that they don’t report crimes because they trust the law enforcement agencies to pursue the perpetrators,” Fowler says. “In some cases, the fear reprisals.”
Fowler and Simmons also say that some of the non-reporting is due to the fact that expats don’t want to attract attention to the themselves. “In some cases, the expat victims are involved in illegal activities themselves or are in violation of their visas,” Simmons says. “Sometimes, the bad guys are aware of this and know the victims will not make a report. It’s like crimes among drug dealers.”
One of the more surprising findings of Fowler’s research is the involvement of other expats in crimes. “We went into the project thinking that almost all the perpetrators would be locals but found that other foreigners were often involved,” she says. “In cases that were not reported, victims often suspected other foreigners of being part of the plot.”
Simmons says that expats in small communities often make themselves vulnerable to crime for two major reasons.
“First, they are highly visible, which means that they make themselves targets. In Cotacachi and Vilcabamba, it’s hard to miss the big ‘look-at-me’ gringo houses perched on the hills around town. And many of the locals find gated neighborhoods offensive,” he says. “If you live in a community of mostly poor people and advertise your wealth, you make yourself vulnerable.”
“Second, we found that many expats in small communities make very little effort to get to know the locals. They prefer to be segregated with other expats and many of them told us they have no intention of learning Spanish,” Simmons says. “Expats we talked to in Quito and Cuenca make more of an effort to become involved in the community.”
Although Fowler has not completed her research, she says that, so far, she is “amazed” at the the discrepancy in serious crime against expats in the country in contrast to that in cities. “There are about 12,000 foreign residents in Cuenca, according to the mayor’s office, but there have been only three reported home invasions involving foreigners in the past five years,” she says. “By contrast, in Vilcabamba, with only and estimated 400 foreign residents, we found four reported cases. Statistically, that’s a huge difference.”
Fowler’s research shows that the most dangerous area in Ecuador for expats is the coast. “This isn’t a surprise since the coast has the highest crime rate in general,” she says. “Manta, Esmerladas and Guayaquil have the highest crime rates in Ecuador. Because of drug trafficking, crime has increased during the pandemic years.”
Comparing crime against expats in 14 Latin American and European cities with populations greater than 100,000, Cuenca ranked first in safety and Quito was fourth.
If there is good news for those living in the country, Fowler says, it’s that petty crime is far less common than than in cities. “Small crime against foreigners, like pick-pocketing and theft of bags and cell phones on the street, is higher in the cities but it is in line with crime against tourists in general.”
Fowler said that the overall crime picture in Ecuador is better than in the other countries she is studying and that the trend is positive. “Compared with Spain, Panama and Costa Rica, expats in Ecuador suffer fewer crimes. Except on the coast, crimes is holding steady in the country although there are reports of more crimes of opportunity due to rising poverty. How the local poor population recovers from the pandemic will have a lot to do with this in the coming months.”
“I have not seen the final numbers for 2021, but Cuenca and Quito will end the year with two of the lowest murder rates in Latin America,” Simmons said. “Cuenca could end up ranking in the top two or three cities in the region for lowest murder rate.”
He added: “The murder rate is also an indicator of the rate of violent crime but not necessarily of petty and property crime.”
Simmons says that no matter where expats live, they can control their vulnerability. “The bottom line is that we are all responsible for our level of vulnerability,” he says. “Be smart. Be safe.”