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While serious crime has dropped in Cuenca, ‘crimes of opportunity’ pose an on-going threat

By Martin Simmons

The young man who recently moved to Cuenca from California described how thieves stole his cell phone and $100 in cash the first month he was in town.

Late at night, there are places to be avoided.

Hearing his story, a middle-aged woman from New Jersey, standing next to him at a party I attended last month, chimed in. “My backpack with my passport and credit cards was stolen at Raymipampa last year,” adding: “There’s a crime wave going one here and no one is doing anything about it.”

When I asked about the circumstances of the robbery, the young man said he was walking by the Yanuncay River after midnight on a recent Saturday. He had just left a group of friends who had been partying at a bar on Av. Remigio Crespo. “I was a little wasted, I admit it,” he said.

The woman whose backpack was stolen, said she had hung it over the back of her chair in the restaurant. “I don’t know how they got it since I was sitting right there,” she said.

Be especially careful in bars and discos.

When I hear about crimes like these, I always ask about the circumstances. In the vast majority of cases, they are crimes that could have been avoided, usually the result of simple carelessness. Although Ecuador has the second lowest rate of murder and violent crime in Latin America, and Cuenca has the lowest crime rate for major cities in Ecuador, expats and tourists remain popular targets of of “crimes of opportunity,” many of which result in major loses and sometimes injuries.

Many of these crimes occur as a result of what is commonly called the “gringo bubble”. Although the term is applied mostly to the carefree attitude of many tourists, I find that it applies to many expats as well, particularly those recently arrived. For some reason, many expats and tourists tend to think that the rules we accepted back home don’t apply here. 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, we often forget the dangers.

It is a statistical fact that the rate of crimes of opportunity and petty crime is much higher in Latin America than in the U.S., Canada, and most European countries.

I’m sure you’ve heard these before, and some of them seem absurdly obvious, but here are some safety precautions that will help keep you out of harm’s way. They bear repeating and considering … again and again.

1. In restaurants, and other public places, secure your belongings. Keep backpacks and bags within sight and wrap straps around chair legs or on the special hooks attached to tables in some restaurants. Don’t place bags and other belongings in walk-through traffic aisles.

2. If you are carry backpacks in tourist areas, wear them in front instead of on your back.

3. 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 he claims was thrown at you. While this is being done and you are being distracted, his 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, get away immediately, and walk into a nearby store or office in necessary.

4. Don’t walk alone late at night and avoid areas that are not well lit.

5. If you are at a bar or nightclub, don’t accept drinks or food from strangers.

6. Don’t allow strangers into your home, especially after a night of partying.

7. When you leave your house or apartment, take only the belongings with you that you think you will need for the particular trip. If you don’t plan to take pictures, for example, don’t take your camera.

8. Carry only color photo copies of important identification documents, such as your passport and cedula, unless you need the originals for official purposes.

9. If you must carry valuables, such as original IDs, money and credit cards, don’t put them in the same bag.

10. Report crimes (despite the commonly offered comment that it will do no good).

11. If you hear about a crime, ask about the circumstances.

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 retirement in 2001.

50 thoughts on “While serious crime has dropped in Cuenca, ‘crimes of opportunity’ pose an on-going threat

  1. Excellent advice to always ask about the circumstances of crimes. He’s right that most of them could be avoided.

      1. For example, leaving a purse hanging on the back of your chair…especially in a public place. That is on YOU!

  2. For many more serious crimes – house break-in and robbery and worse, it Very Often involves hired workers or their extended family. Frankly I would not unconditionally or casually trust ANY worker on one’s property, ever, no matter how seemingly trustworthy. The temptation is just too high.

    1. Ya, my third IPad gone last week. One stolen in a locked bodega at a friends house while in translation as my friend gave keys to Ecuatorianos taking care of her house. Then once out of a drawer ( hidden under papers ) while workers again in the house under my close supervision. Latest in my building doors locked and a worker ( of 2 years ) claimed he saw a kid crawl through the bars of a security gate 10 by 12 inches in the day with neighbiors outside watching the street all day – ya right !!! – he will be let go Monday – sorry ! Don’t trust any smiles here not your family and could care less as a culturally accepted norm…..there is no loyalty only opportunity to steal from you.

  3. Excellent article. Another issue (perhaps especially for women) is being too passive and polite. If someone, for example, tries to clean something on your backpack, loudly say “no, no, no” and push them away. It’s better to be ‘rude’ than to have your things stolen. Also, there have been reports of people being drugged from touching a flyer being handed out. Scopolomine…. And, I was at a local expat hangout in mid-day recently and a young woman was almost unable to walk she was so drunk. I told her I was worried about her–she was making herself very vulnerable, etc. She sat down and a guy bought her a drink. I regret I wasn’t more forceful and didn’t get her into a taxi and home.

  4. Excellent advise whether living in Cuenca or any other place including, yes, I know I will be blasted, but the US also. This is excellent advice no matter where you call home!

    1. Hmm I only had 3 things stolen from me in over 50 years without being cautious in the States. Car and house doors left open. Many many people in and out of my house…..not blasting, but, depending on where you live it isn’t a constant worry in the States with constant vigilance and stress…..third world culturally accepted behavior and the victim is at fault for not being vigilant – you fool you deserved to be robbed !

  5. Yesterday, late afternoon, I took my daughter to Parque de la Madre to play. We had been walking along the river and crossed 12 de Abril at the bridge and were looking for a place to hop the fence into the park when a cop car abruptly stopped a half block away. Two cops got out and grabbed a guy who was walking on the grass beside the sidewalk. It looked like the cop who was driving punched the thief in the neck but it could have just been a very aggressive grab(they were across the street and my view was partially blocked by the car). Then a girl got out of the back of the police car with her purse and ran around to the other side and got some hits in on the guy as she called him a thief. The girl looked like a Cuencana somewhere around 19 or 20 years old. In my opinion the thief looked more like a Peruvian than an Ecuadorian and appeared to be around the same age. As this was unfolding I had begun crossing back to the other side of the street with my daughter in tow. After crossing we walked up to within 15 feet of the action and I had an unobstructed view of the rest of what happened. There was a pat down and a cuffing interrupted by occasional outbursts by the girl that were accompanied with attacks on the thief; to the police officers’ credit they did nothing to restrain the girl. A young couple crossed the street and told the cops that the guy had also tried to rob them and said that he had had a knife. The cop who was the driver then went to put the thief in the back seat and rammed his head into the top of the car on the way in like a U.S. cop. Then the cops got in the car and the girl got into the other side of the back seat and the four of them drove away.

    As my daughter played in the park I replayed the events in my mind and realized that the thief’s knife was unaccounted for and the cops had not bothered to look for it. Afterwards we went looking for it in case it might be an upgrade for the 5 year old switchblade in my pocket but we could not find it. In over 8 years this is the first time I have ever witnessed a cop in Ecuador do anything to fight crime, either crimes in progress or recently committed; I wonder if this is a policy change or was just an oddball cop. Another possible contributing factor could have been how upset the girl was, who knows if the cop may have had a daughter her age and thus had his empathy triggered.

    1. Please tell me how you can differentiate so easily between an Ecuadorean and a Peruvian. Or a Colombian or VEnezuelan or Bolivian. Or an Ecuadorean from the coast vs one from the sierra…You must have very acute radar.

      1. There were serveral very troubling things in that post. The least of which is the racist undertone and lack of compassion

        1. There was no racist overtone in the post and it’s not racist to specify the race of a person. I do have compassion for the girl who was traumatized by an attempted robbery at knife point; I think everybody there did which is why nobody including myself raised the slightest objection when she was beating up the thief.

          If you and Jean McCord are disturbed by the fact that I reported an event it is because you live in an alternative “social justice” warrior safe space reality and are unable to cope with facts nor solve real world problems. Implying somebody is a racist is a strategy which has been overplayed by people like you and no longer works; I can’t even take it seriously because I know you would never dare repeat such a lie face to face.

        2. I think that white people in US are so terrified of somebody calling them Racist that they neglected to see that they are being discriminated against.

          1. I agree, Judita. It is just another liberal strategy used to keep the U.S. a divided nation. The “good” about it is that most Americans see through it eventually, and dismiss the week-kneed liberals for what they are.

        3. Let me guess, you are from California where they go though life with rose colored glasses. Regarding the “troubling things” you referred to, maybe you need to double-up on your psychiatrist appointments, for a month or so. Hate to see a grown man crumble, due to undertones. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

      2. What I said was “In my opinion the thief looked more like a Peruvian than an Ecuadorian“.
        How does one tell? The same way one tells if someone appears more like a Japanese person than a Chinese person. At 15 feet no radar is required; these are basic pattern recognition skills that are built into your brain. I interact with people from many races and cultures and am able to perceive and remember differences. Most people who’s basic brain functions have not been altered by repeatedly submitting to the thought police can do the same thing. Until and unless someone else comes along with better information my description of the thief is the most accurate one we have.

      3. Size…faces…skin and hair color…just as I could tell a Mexican in New Mexico….even the clothes they wore.

        1. Amazing! I still fail to understand how one can differentiate nationality based on simple physical appearance. Or dress. I wonder how much help to the police it is to describe a person by their nationality? I don’t think it holds much water. Can you tell the difference between a person from Colorado and one from Nevada or Florida or Texas? Try it with the expats and see if you can. And that’s with the advantage of hearing them, which can help to some degree. But not of much evidentiary value to a policeman, in my opinion.

      4. Hey Jose, if you dated latino chicas you would know the difference. Maybe that is where your confusion comes into play. Hint! Hint! You need to get out more.

  6. After two young college age boys pickpocketed my cell phone (across
    the street from Supermaxi El Vergel) I ordered online a personal alarm, which I
    always carry with me. It looks like a pager and if the pin is pulled out, gives
    an ear-splitting 140 decibel siren alarm. Thieves hate being detected. Also, I carry a small wallet filled only with old
    expired credit cards and realistic play money. But my best defense is to always stay alert of
    my immediate surroundings.

  7. “2. If you are carry backpacks in tourist areas, wear them in front instead of on your back.”

    Ridiculous. That SCREAMS “I have something very valuable worth robbing my for”

    1. That is not necessarily true. I first came to Ecuador as a student and the university told us all that we should carry backpacks in front of us. Also, it is not uncommon to see school children here doing the same.

      The bigger problem is carrying a backpack at all (as most gringos do). At our age anyone that sees us will know we’re not carrying school books.

      1. I agree, what the hell is in the backpack anyway (unless you are going backpacking LOL). KISS, keep it simple stupid works for me

      2. LOL. After reading some of the commentary on this site, maybe many of the liberal gringos in Ecuador need to be carrying school books. Lol.

  8. When we are traveling, I carry a small wallet in my front pocket and no purse. Other ‘personal items’ go into a small backpack which contains nothing of any value that could not be easily replaced. Another rule of thumb is to wear no expensive jewelry (including your sparkling diamond wedding ring) that will also make you an easy target.

    1. Good advice. Ecuadorians do the same with jewelry. When going out to a formal event, the Ecuadorian women give their “bling” to the men to put in their pocket before they leave the house. When they arrive at the event they go to the ladies room and put it on. When they are leaving they do the same in reverse.

    2. Hey, ccrider – if it is going to happen, it will. I am a soltera and live in Quito almost 7 years. As a reasonable person out and about, I take reasonable precautions. The one time I was robbed big time was in Puerto Lopez when a moto taxi guy somehow got my small monadero out of my front jeans pocket while pretending to drive me to my hotel at the beach. I think he had help as I had been distracted by two of his friends he stopped to chat with… SO the front pocket strategy DOES NOT ALWAYS WORK< m'dear!

  9. That’s true. I’ve been a victim twice (all in the last four years) and I learned to watch my surroundings anywhere in Latin America. My Ecuadorian friends constantly remind me, “Be careful, you’re gringo.”

  10. Great advice. Cuenca is a Latin American city and is not “safe” as people from North America are used to. Personal safety is possible but with more attention to surroundings than we’re used to “back home.”

    1. Cuenca has a lower murder rate than most big cities in the US but there’s more robberies and petty crime, for sure.

  11. If I had a dime for every person in Ecuador that told me there cell was stolen, I wouldn’t need my pension. An expat would be so much better off if someone had the stones to tell them, upon their first trip to Ecuador, is that theft is a part of the culture here. That would set the tone for the newbees. After several years of living in Esmeraldas, I have settled into my comfort zone, after learning the hard way. (I realize Cuenca is not Esmeraldas). For those interested, I wear a thin belt under my shirt when I go outside of my apartment. Attached to the belt is a 5″ stun rod and small pepper spray gun. Both are extremely effective, and yet not so much for what they represent, but for as to how they appear in sticking out a little from the sides of your shirt. In my experience, Ecuadorian thieves won’t come at you unless they believe there is no risk. They briefly study you as most predators do, and rely on their instincts. But the fact remains that you can’t help but see the mini bulge on the sides of your waist, and the ones that notice it most are those that are preparing to rob you. I believe their immediate reaction is to imagine the resemblance of a policeman’s weapons belt. If you know anything about the average Ecuadorian person, you know they are fearless-except when it comes to the “unknown”. 90% of the time they opt out of their bad intended action, simply because they sense a “risk”. What they can’t see or feel, marginalizes them. So, in many cases, it’s like winning the battle without firing a shot.
    Another proven method that will deter a thief, is the look on YOUR face. In many cases, the thieves will study you and your behaviors, enough to convince themselves that you will be their victim. In their brief and primitive study, they concentrate on your facial expression. If you are walking around, alone and smiling, you will likely be targeted by someone with bad intentions. If I am walking alone, I have a “bad mood” face on. People, in general, typically shy away from approaching a stranger with that look. Ecuadorian thieves are no exception. An unfriendly face could be interpreted as an intended victim that would resist and fight back. Again, thieves don’t like “risk”.
    I have other learned make-shift ways and means of deterring crimes of robbery, but I will leave it there for the moment. Transitioning into a more dangerous environment than what we are accustomed to, is a learning experience. I love living on the ocean, so I have accepted the risks and I am willing to learn the ropes. I have also learned to live with detractors that will read this and come our of the bushes with all kinds of negative responses. No doubt they will consist of mostly liberals, many from the la-la land of California. In which case their opinions are inutil, and won’t be taken seriously.
    Bottom line: If you are an expat and live in Ecuador, you will be targeted by thieves. Count on it! Whether you are attacked or not, many times will depend on you and your self-defense effort. Take care and be safe, my friends.

    1. This is good advice, all of it. Awareness and pattern recognition are the most important things. For me it has become automatic to scan the people around me and identify the most likely threats to keep them in my site just in case. I only ever had one attempt during the daytime in Cuenca and it was half-hearted at best, some clown pointing to my gold wedding ring and asking for it timidly, but at night vigilance is an absolute requirement regardless of whether or not you are a Gringo. If two or more men approach you and ask you for “a dollar” they are about to try to rob you and will try to put their hands in your pockets as you fish out the dollar. If it is one man it is more likley legitimate begging.

      What you said about the thieves’ instincts is very true and they tend to try to mess with you when you are tired or sick or carrying something or walking with a woman rather than when you are ready to throw down. What they say about dogs smelling your fear is also true of thieves. I think it is important never to resist a thief; they are prepared for that and very experienced. Traditional American ideas like gradual escalation of force will get you killed here. The only valid strategies here are avoidance, attacking, and complete submission; if taken by surprise best to comply initially acting like a scared slave who can’t even look them in the eyes and then take them down when they try to leave. Also always assume there is one more attacker that you have not seen yet and act accordingly. I realize most will view this post as rather extreme but as a small person who never turned over my lunch money or pushed the penny when attacked by multiple larger attackers in middle school or high school I just can’t bring myself to give the bullies here what they want when they are my size on average and have always been 3 people or less.

      1. Lol. You must have dysfunctional episodes trying to read Spanish, as they don’t use periods at the end of sentences. And I don’t care much for those who don’t capitalize the first letter in each sentence. You “hate to nitpick”, yet here we are. No offense, but after reading your comment, I immediately thought of the enormous tragedy that ruined the lives of so many in Houston. Now why do you think that is?

        1. I am attempting to do so, but I just cannot find the connection between nitpicking and the tragedy in Houston.

          1. I’m not surprised. The “connection” is probably a little too deep for you, but here goes. The tragedy in Houston is/was devastating, yet your concern of the day was a disruption by someone who doesn’t use a formal paragraph format. Gee, Dude, where do people like you come from? Hello “connection”. Earth to Donald, come in please.

    2. You were doing pretty good until you got to “they will consist of mostly liberals, many from the la-la land of California”. That brief political and editorial detour is a misconception and is unnecessary and untrue and uninformed. Everyone, no matter what their politics are and no matter where they are from, needs to be aware of and needs to take precautions against crime here. Liberals from California are no less aware of and no less likely to take precautions against crime here than anyone else and they are no more likely to be detractors and no more likely to write negative responses to your comments than anyone else.

  12. Gringos tend to be over prepared and travel with many more items than necessary. Walking down the block to drop off a bag of laundry doesn’t require an iPhone and wallet containing original ID and a couple of credit cards. Remember when we all survived without cell phones? Why constantly carry credit cards in a predominately cash society or way too much cash? There’s a time and place for everything, but if you don’t need it, why take it. Too many people feel insecure and suffer anxiety if they forget to bring their phone along.

    If I don’t carry what you’re after, it becomes difficult for you to take it from me.

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