As terrorism begins to target expats, South America looks increasingly like a safe haven

Jul 2, 2016 | 0 comments

By Martin Simmons

For anyone reading or watching the news during the past 24 hours, the headlines are alarming. For those living in foreign countries, they are terrifying.

chl guestTo pick only two, they read: “Expats targeted in Jihadist restaurant siege,” and “Foreigners hacked to death in Bangladesh terror attack.”

The attack on a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is only the latest in a bloody month of highly publicized massacres by Islamist radicals in the U.S., France, and Turkey. Less reported, but equally as deadly, were attacks in Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Lybia, and Liberia, and a dozen other countries.

Bangladeshi military vehicles near beseiged cafe.

Bangladeshi military vehicles near the besieged cafe.

Among the tens of millions of people living out of their own countries, especially citizens of North America and Europe, recent events have a chilling effect. Every indication is that the attacks are increasing in number and becoming more ghastly in their execution, with expats and foreign tourists becoming prime targets.

Philosophically, the attacks are aimed at Western culture in general as well as secular Muslims and those who stray from a strict reading of the Koran.

Before the final police assault on the Dhaka café, one U.S. cable news network showed a map of Islamic terror attacks in 2015 and 2016. It showed attacks on every continent except two: South America and Antarctica.

So why has South America escaped the wrath of the Jihadists? Most of the continent’s residents are apostates under the Jihadist world view, after all. One reason is that South American countries have remained relatively neutral in the U.S.- and European-led Middle Eastern wars and the military actions that followed, and that continue. The larger countries in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, explicitly opted out of joining the fights in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq over the past 25 years. Most of all, however, is that South America does not represent the aspects of Western values that outrage Jihadists — and is largely off their radar.

Expats living in South American countries, like Ecuador, enjoy the same off-the-radar protections as local citizens. South American expats, unlike those living in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, don’t have to think twice about going out at night and traveling across regional international borders due to terrorist threats.

As a part-time expat myself (I spend six months a year in Cuenca and six months in California), I have to say that my wife and I appreciate the sense of relief we feel on the ground in Ecuador. Just before our arrival here earlier this week, we were on three-week vacation to Europe, visiting Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, among other places. Although we told ourselves we were not going to obsess about the terror threat, neither of us were able to get it entirely off our mind during our travels. There were always the quick looks over the shoulder and the quickened pace as we walked through airports. As our flight from Madrid touched down in Quito, we looked at each other and exhaled.

As someone who has spent much of his life working with statistics, I have to point out the obvious fact that the chances of someone being a victim of a terror attack are infinitesimally small. We are all, in South America as well as the rest of the world, more likely to die in a car accident or as a result of crime or even a lightening strike. The fear of terror is primarily psychological, something the terrorists understand very well.

Recent events and those to come, I predict, will have a major impact on expat and tourism trends in the coming years. South America will have increasing appeal.

I am very happy to be in South America, and even happier to be back in Cuenca again. Even though it is a little chilly this morning.


Martin Simmons and his wife Rebecca have divided their time between Cuenca and California since 2002. A former criminology professor at San Diego State University, he has studied international crime trends, including in countries and cities popular with expats, since his university retirement in 2001.


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