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.
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.
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.