“Ladrón, ladrón!” Feet striking the pavement in a full sprint underneath my bedroom window.
“Pará, ladrón!!” Yelling voice disappearing around the corner as a motorcycle roars off.
For such a populated city, Buenos Aires is, perhaps surprisingly, not afflicted with as much violent crime as one might expect. Compared to other large international cities like New York, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town this is a pretty darn safe place. There are no high rates of assault, murder, or rape, even in the poor villas; however, one of the biggest problems in all barrios is theft.
Pickpocketing and backpack purloining are frequently suffered by tourists and locals alike. Fer was raised in this city and has been mugged three times in his adult life: once he had his cell phone grabbed right from his hand (mid-call!), another time he relinquished his wallet to a knife-wielding assailant. For all the times he was successfully robbed, he circumvented about four more. Stories like Fer’s can be heard from people who have spent one week or a lifetime in Buenos Aires.
Thieves in BsAs (and many cities, for that matter) have a few special methods they love to employ. A creative one, affectionately referred to as “The Bird Poop Scam”, involves the squirting of a disgusting substance on you, the unsuspecting targets. Helpful “witnesses” show you the mess, point to the sky or trees and blame the birds, then proffer a handful of wipes, a bottle of water and assistance in cleaning up. The ensuing commotion allows them to filch the contents of your pockets and handbag; it’s a classic distraction technique. There is only one way to escape this situation- ignore the mess and offers of “help” and get to a safe place to clean up. The would-be thieves are persistent so hold your belongings tightly. Tourists are the most popular targets (that huge DSLR slung around your neck and head buried in a map make it pretty obvious who you are), though this also happens to locals. Fer survived this one and showed up to work with a dirty, smelly shirt.
The standard grab-and-dash is likely one of the most frequent ways thieves get their loot. Never sling your backpack over just one shoulder, and consider a cross-body purse or messenger-style bag instead of a tote or clutch. Cell phones, cameras, and wallets can be quickly snatched from your hands if you are not paying attention. Remember how I mentioned Fer having his cell stolen? He was on a busy sidewalk, close to the street, when a guy on a bicycle slowed next to him, plucked his phone from his fingers, and sped off. Thieves love to employ motos and bicycles for a speedy getaway as you stand dumbfounded, trying to process what just happened. I suspect this is what happened to the fellow yelling “Thief!” down my street in the early morning.
Crowded locations such as the subte, festivals, and the weekend markets are places to be alert and keep a tight grasp on your possessions.One of the things I first noticed when out walking is how porteños tend to wear their backpacks on their chests, facing forwards. It might look really silly, but it thwarts people from standing behind you and rifling through your goodies. It’s also not a good idea to leave your bags in the seat next to you or draping over the back of your chair. Keep them in your lap, under your feet (if you have been out shopping), or snapped to the nifty little under-table straps provided at many outdoor establishments. And never, ever flash all your cash. In fact, don’t carry more than a few hundred pesos at a time, if you can avoid it.
I have one remaining tip: don’t assume that an item you brought from home is worth the same here. That watch you are wearing might be worth three times the amount you paid for it. Did you know that an iPhone costs, at the very least, $500 here? Yes, that is in dollars, with a new plan, and for the iPhone 3; a lovely, new iPhone 4 will set you back $900-1200.
One Saturday a few weeks ago Fer and I were headed down into the subte when we were subtly flanked by a group of scruffy looking teens. Maybe the guys heard us speaking english, or maybe we just happened to look different (I don’t look particularly out of place- not too touristy, and plenty of Argentine women have light eyes and fair skin- and Fer of course speaks perfect español rioplatense). We both felt that being on the subte with those guys was a risky idea, even if we didn’t end up their targets, and so we headed back out into the sunshine. Fortunately, there was another subway line we could take only a few blocks away and we did not encounter any more problems. We were even assisted by a few homeless gentlemen that informed us the subte stop we were trying to access was closed and that there was an open one across the park.
I don’t think being robbed is an inevitable. Buenos Aires is a wonderful city full of kind, helpful people who are not up to the least bit of trouble, and like any large city, a bit of street smarts and thoughtfulness will make you less of a target for those that are. Make sure to avoid some of the quieter side-streets late at night, leave your valuables at home unless necessary (no need to walk around with your passport and laptop), and trust your instincts. Change your plans if a person, place, or situation seems questionable.
Stay smart and stay safe while exploring this beautiful place.