A few weeks ago I was robbed at gunpoint in Buenos Aires. Not so different from a many other tourists and luckily I came through it just fine. As I write this, the mugging is just a distant memory. But it’s worth writing about as a cautionary tale. I got too comfortable in other peoples world. I made mistakes. Here’s my story.
It was a beautiful day in Buenos Aires. I’d transferred hotels and was feeling excited about my new neighborhood and itching to
get out and see more of this massive, overwhelming city. But I was tired too, having really pushed myself the past few days. I didn’t do all the research I should have. I decided to go to the La Boca neighborhood, which I heard was charming and colorful, Since I wasn’t feeling very energetic, I decided to take a taxi. La Boca is a popular destination for tourists visiting Buenos Aires, with colorful houses and famous pedestrian street, the Caminito, where tango artists perform and tango-related memorabilia is sold. Immediately when I arrived I realized I’d made a mistake. Although the houses were beautiful it was 100% tourist trap and awful. It was not my speed at all, but I shopped around a bit and had an Alfajors, the famous and much beloved sugar bomb cookie/cake found in this region. Then I decided to venture off the beaten path, as I’d done so many times before.
Since I was not interested in the tourist trap that was Caminito, I decided to walk around a bit off to the side of the tourist extravaganza. I had bad blisters on my feet, was feeling tired and decided to make it a quick tour. But I allowed myself to get lost. I was wandering a bit aimlessly, being sucked in by photo opportunities of the ramshackled homes. Although the area was clearly poor, I wasn’t uncomfortable as I’d traveled extensively in Central America, where poor is the norm, but I’d always been safe, There were a few people around, but not many. I thought nothing of it and taking photos of the beautiful, dilapidated buildings. I had my eye out for a taxi, and was ready to go home. All of a sudden, a man sprinted in front of me, turned around, flashed a gun and yelled something in Spanish. I think it was Spanish, but in my head it was English “Give me your stuff now”. The flash of a gun in your face is a universal language, however, and for all I know he didn’t say a word. At the same time, I felt someone behind me, helping me out of my purse, which was slung across my body – the safe way to carry it, I used to think. I didn’t resist at all.
They knocked my hat off in the tussle. For some reason both robber #1 (from the front) and I both went for the hat . . . I won that round, for what it’s worth. And then they ran off. I turned around after then and said something. Maybe I said “wait” or “stop”. I regretted not resisting and wanted to negotiate. Obviously this is not rational, but I was shocked. One of the robbers pulled out the gun, pointed it at me and said something which I translated to be “get out of here”. Or something. Again, the universal language of the gun. I turned around and went.
Were their witnesses? Yes. There were at least 3 people that saw what happened. They did nothing. Who knows why. There’s no real incentive for them to get involved. Maybe they fear the gun too. I asked the observers where the police station was and they politely, but without emotion, directed me to the station, which was two blocks away.
The Police Station
When I arrived at the first police station, there were about 20 police officers hanging around. They were texting on their phones, chatting with one another and generally looking unconcerned about street crime. They acknowledged me and listened to my story, halfheartedly. They nodded their head, loaded me into a police car and sent me to another station to make my report. When I arrived at Comisaria de Policia 24a, it was to a parade of others who’d undergone similar experiences. Some were wounded from resisting, some crying, some in shock. It made me feel better that it was not just me, a single women, who had been targeted. I met a young, athletic man from Madrid and his father. They had tried to reason with the robbers, who got nervous and hit the father in the head with their gun. Another young couple from New Zealand had not seen a gun, but had been jumped from behind and attacked. Both tourists and locals were at the police station reporting robberies.
Eventually I gave my statement. They told me there was no hope of getting my possessions back and asked me to sign the statement, which was in Spanish. I was asked to sign two pages and when I signed the first one “Melissa C, non-speaker of Spanish” all hell broke loose at the police station. After taking my statement with one eye on their cell phone and the other on the clock, suddenly South American passion showed its face. I had insulted them by not trusting their translation of my pidgen Spanglish. I know some Spanish but not enough to verify every word, without the google translate app on my stolen phone and certainly not enough to sign my name to it. The chief of police was called in for a consult and his reaction was pretty much “whatever”. Emboldened, I signed the second page the same way I had the first. That did not go over well and I was then kicked out of the comisaria with even an answer as to which direction my hotel was located.
I finally found a taxi driver who took pity on my and agreed to take me back to my hotel and wait for payment. He told me “the police here see nothing” and I agree. I’d encountered at least 30 police between the two stations, but not a single one on the street in an area I now know to be quite rough. I learned later that police in Argentina earn less then the workers who clean in hostels, so it’s no wonder they’re not interested in getting involved. In the nicer areas of BA, however, there were always cops on the street.
What I Did Wrong
Well I’ve gotten a bit soft traveling around with no problems for all this time. I love to go off the beaten path. I hadn’t adequately checked out the neighborhood first. If I had, I would have seen this written on the State Department web site under Safety and Crime:
“Be careful in San Telmo, an older traditional neighborhood specializing in antique stores, and La Boca neighborhood (home to the famous “Caminito” street and “Boca Juniors” soccer stadium) in Buenos Aires, where violent robberies have been occurring with increasing frequency. Tourists who go to La Boca should limit their visit to the designated tourist areas during daylight hours.”
Soooo, lesson learned. I was also flashing my camera AND cell phone in a dangerous area. Target.
What You Can Do if You’re Robbed at Gunpoint
Although it pains me, resisting is not an option. Never resist. Don’t even try to reason with the criminals, especially if you’re robbed at gunpoint. My comrades in the police station with bloody heads and worse made this point clear. It’s not worth it. Although I mourned my possessions for a few days, I’m so happy I didn’t end up in the hospital, nursing wounds or worse. As my dad says, it’s only money. I wasn’t carrying an expensive camera or iphone so I’ll recover. Here’s my to-do list, post robbery:
1) Go directly to the police station to report the event (this is critically important if you’re insured as most companies as that you report the crime within 24 hours).
2) Alert banks or credit card companies that are impacted
3) E-mail your embassy. They won’t do a thing, but if your crime is part of a pattern, they’ll report it in future alerts and it may keep other travelers safe.
4) Treat yourself. You’ve been through an ordeal. I booked a nicer hotel in a better neighborhood to put my mind at ease. Within a day I’d recovered and was back to my old self.
How to Keep it From Happening to You
It seems obvious but don’t let down your guard. Keep valuables out of site and always keep the bulk of your money outside your main wallet or purse. I usually keep some money in my bra or shoe, so if my purse is stolen I still have cash (foolishly I didn’t do this the day I was robbed). Don’t go out with your passport, credit cards or any bank cards you don’t need. Keep your pockets or purse clean of items you won’t need. The day I was robbed I had a watch in my purse that I wasn’t using as well as documents that should have been in my hotel safe and random items that should have been in my suitcase. If you need to take photos, stash your camera immediately after. Remember, locals are watching. The fewer who see your valuables the better chance you have of being robbery free.
Also, some great advice I learned from a hostel owner in San Salvador – if you’re around a lot of people, your chances of being robbed at gunpoint are reduced. If you’re on an empty side street, get to more populated ground as soon as your able. Keep your valuables hidden and . . . if the worst happens, don’t beat yourself up too much. Sometimes, robbery is the price of travel. Your in other peoples world, you’ll always be a focus of curiosity or worse, a target. That’s life as a traveler. Protect yourself, and never forget the disparity. If you’re traveling anywhere, you’re luckier than most of the world population. Take your licks and move on.
Thoughts or tips on staying safe are appreciated! Leave ’em in the comments below.
Stay safe and happy travels!