In 2006 Barabara Bush, daughter of George Bush had her valuables stolen while she was eating in a cafe in San Telmo, one of the popular touristic spots in Buenos Aires. This happened while she was being watched by the secret police…I wonder what hope this leaves for normal people living daily life here in Buenos Aires? Before I came to this city I read mixed reports about crime in the city: on one hand Buenos Aires is one of the safest cities in South America while on the other hand I have heard many reports from neighbours and friends about their experiences of the crime in the city? So, what is the truth? Lets investigate….
Sadly, I am writing this article because I myself have had my first experience of being a victim of crime here in Buenos Aires. There have been many incidents in my life where I have been forced to think about the finite nature of it including my appendicitis in China, however, none of these incidents have changed my relationship with other humans quite so much as the one that I experienced last Sunday. While we often imagine what it is like to be a victim of crime I think that often people from developed countries do not have the same acceptance or experience of crime that those who live in less developed areas do. I now know that life can be short and in less than twenty seconds it could be ended over nothing more than a camera. I hope that by recounting my experience here I can be of some help to there who are victims of crime in other countries and help them to cope in a situation where perhaps not too much help is available.
My experience began last Sunday while D and I were on the way to go and do the “tourist” thing here in Buenos Aires. We had packed our camera, some snacks and prepared to go on our way. However, as we were waiting for the bus an old woman walked past us unusually slowly and whispered to us in Spanish to “watch our cards.” We looked at each other somewhat confused by her words but didn’t even have time to react when Little more than twenty seconds later we were jumped by two dirty looking young men, wearing white tracksuits and brandishing a gun inside of the jacket. “Everything, everything” they shouted at us. I had never seen a gun except on T.V and I watched helplessly as they patted down D with the efficiency of customs officers and took the contents of his pockets and then snatched my bag. I felt completely and utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do, no one we could call on despite the street being full of people walking around. An old couple, who had witnessed the incident came to sympathise with us and even offered us money to get home. It was only after that I started shaking in complete and utter shock. How could something like happen in broad daylight? Of course the answer was simple. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, after siting in the police office for one hour and being attended by a police officer who didn’t even blink an eye when we recounted our story and then going home only to speak with our kind landlady to listen to her recount her own horror stories about the robberies and crimes I became certain of one thing. Buenos Aires was not the safe city that it claimed to be. Now, I can only assume through listening to the stories people here have told me in exchange for mine that the reason the crime statistics here are so low are because no one reports them. In my research on crime in Buenos Aires I discovered a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and crime which links economic problems with an increase in crime. As we all know Buenos Aires has had and is still having huge problems with their economy, inflation and immigration and all of these things seem to be increasing the amount of crime that occurs here in the city. People here seem to feel a sharp increase in the number of crimes being committed and, perhaps more impotently, the number of violent crimes being committed in the city. In a survey on the levels of crime in Buenos Aires expats states that around 50% of the people who had participated in the poll were a victim of some kind of crime and while where and how you live is obviously a factor, it seems that you are likely to be a victim of crime in any of the barrios of Buenos Aires, even those that are deemed particularly tourist friendly.
In any case I would like to put forward some information for those who are visiting or planning to live in Buenos Aires about the potentially dangerous places to visit and the potential dangers in Buenos Aires. There have been many great articles written about petty crime in Buenos Aires like this one from BA landing pad and so I won’t to add to them but I would like to say something about more serious crimes which are underplayed and yet occur on a frequent basis. Although we were robbed by two men on foot this is actually relatively uncommon. I can only suppose it is because of the area where we lived. It was near enough to a villa, a kind of Buenos Aires slum, for the perpetrators to try some opportunistic robberies nearby. (See my article about them here) However, around 50% of the robberies in Buenos Aires are committed by criminals on motorcycles. They are commonly referred to as “Motochorros.” In the past, these “Motochorros” operated exclusively in the microcenter of the city and focused on potential victims leaving banks or ATM machines, however, now it appears they are branching out and victims have been reported in Palermo, Recoleta and Belgrano. Generally, the Motochorros travel on a motorcycle with two riders; one with a helmet and the other without a helmet. They often use motorcycles with larger engines and original license plates and registration cards to avoid suspicion and to avoid being detained by police at the various checkpoints.
Some basic tips to protect yourself and your property:
1.If you are a woman, one trick I have learned is to keep all my valuables secured in a travel wallet and only carry things of no value in my bag. If someone is going to rob you they will most likely just grab your bag and then run, especially if the crime is committed in daylight.
2. Avoid financial or bank transactions in cash in plain view on the street or in other public areas. Put money away prior to leaving the banking institution.
3. Don’t use taxis in front of banks. It is better to walk a few blocks first, then get a taxi.
4. Watch for motorcycles going the wrong way down a one-way street or on sidewalks.
5. You should never leave the house with anything more than you need. Never take more than a couple of hundred pesos, don’t carry your credit cards with you unless you are taking a trip to the ATM, and don’t bring your passport unless you know you will need it.
6. One place that I would urge people to be very careful is La Boca. I know more than one person who was robbed in Broad daylight in the middle of the touristic part “caminito.” The advice states to be careful, stick to the tourist parts and take a taxi to go and return. I would add to that to not take anything of value with you at all. Having myself been a victim of actual “daylight robbery” in the middle of a busy street I know the rise is all too real.
7. Most importantly remember if someone attacks you just give them what they want. Your camera is not worth your life.
One of things I found most difficult after my experience of robbery in Buenos Aires was the complete lack of support in dealing with my feelings and the actual event of the crime. While I was momentarily heartened by the neighbours kindness after this incident I have to thanks my lucky stars that I was travelling with D. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I would have coped until now. Even until this moment I am suffering from the psychological and physical effects of the crime and I would like to write about them just to let others know that it is totally normal to have these feelings. I would never have guessed that an experience like this would have such a profoundly physical effect on me.
Apart from having mood swings that go from intense sadness and guilt to anger I have been suffering from ongoing flashbacks & nightmares: I find myself reliving the nightmare again and again in my sleep and also while I am awake. Even while I am writing this article my heart is thumping and I am feeling a sense of panic. I still feel completely numb: Although this was worst in the first day when I couldn’t even comprehend what was happening to me. I felt like I was in a daze or a weird actor in some movie. I couldn’t even talk about it. I feel like I have to be on guard all the time: I have been suffering from “hyper vigilance.” I find it hard to sleep and I am jumpy and irritable. Worst of all when I am walking down the street I can’t stop examining every corner for potential criminals. Anyone dressed like the offenders or who even look remotely similar make me feel uneasy. I even jump at unexpected noises. And just to add the insult to injury I have also been surprised that I am suffering from Physical symptoms: I have muscle aches and pains; irregular heartbeats; headaches; depression; constant crying and a feeling of impending doom much like anxiety.
In my first few days I searched online for stories from other victims of crime and for advice about how I could help myself overcome these feelings and I came across an article by the Royal College of Psychiatrists which helped me a lot to understand the feelings and emotions I was (and still am to a lesser extent) experiencing. On their website they provide an explanation for some of the most common symptoms. Due to the fact that everyone here has been so blasé about crime and not really treating it as if anything serious has happened It really helped me to realise that my feelings and reactions to the situation were normal. If you are having problems coping with being a victim of crime I would recommend visiting their website for advice.
Sadly, I don’t think this is an experience that I will ever forget and although I hope in time these strong feelings will pass there are some lessons that I hope I will never forget. The kindness of the complete strangers who met afterwards will hopefully be one thing that will stay with me long after the dreadful memories of the crime have faded and I have certainly learned a bit more about myself along the way….saying that I hope that I don’t have this kind of adventure again anytime soon!