Several expats have been targeted for robberies in Cuenca over the past week. This is on the back of several locals also being mugged at knife-point. This has prompted questions around safety in Cuenca.
One of the reasons many expats chose Cuenca as their adopted home is that it’s generally perceived to be the safest city in Ecuador. However, this perception may change if these types of incidents continue to occur.
Whilst the victims did not report any physical harm, the most concerning aspect of these attacks is that the perpetrators were armed and one occurred in a public place during broad daylight.
One victim reported being held up at gunpoint, whilst another reported a box cutter-type knife was used.
Where did these robberies occur?
The latest spree of robberies appears to be concentrated along the Tomebamba River, near Av. Fray Vicente Solano. If you aren’t familiar with this area, you should know that it’s not some dodgy alley or super crowded mercado where you might normally expect to find muggers hanging out.
On the contrary, the Tomebamba River is a well-known spot for locals and tourists to enjoy. I’ve personally spent a lot of time there and it’s one of my favorite spots in Cuenca.
So, seeing this type of activity occurring at a greater rate is quite concerning.
What was stolen?
Cash, credit cards, and mobile phones were taken. Petty mobile phone theft is a problem that many Latin countries face. Ecuador is no different. Phones are easy to resell and there is a large black market for them.
Why are robberies on the rise in Cuenca?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Yes, COVID has certainly edged many either closer to, or into, poverty. It’s easy to just put it down to the pure desperation of the people. But, it’s also very possible that organized crime is having more of an impact in Cuenca. Some anecdotal evidence does suggest organized crime activity is more prevalent.
However, given the amount of unreported crime (mostly petty), it’s hard to make hard conclusions on how much crime has increased due to COVID or in general.
What can you do to make yourself less of a target?
This is a sensitive topic. There is a fine line between putting yourself at risk and victim shaming. One of the first phrases they teach you in Colombia is ‘no dar papaya’ which basically translates to ‘don’t put yourself in a dangerous environment’.
Now, I’m very aware that Cuenca is not Colombia, but this same cultural tendency to put the onus on the vicitm definitely exists here.
The following tips won’t solve the problem. This will require true co-operation from the authorities. But, these are steps that you can take that will hopefully help decrease your chances of being targeted.
1) Don’t walk alone late at night.
It’s easy to be enchanted by Cuenca’s old-school charm at night. The lights and old architecture combine to form an intoxicating hue. But, the more we’re taking in the city, the less we can focus on our immediate surroundings and threats.
2) Safety in numbers
The best way to avoid becoming a robbery target is to stick together. Walk in groups, especially after dark.
3) Taxis instead of public transportation
If you can’t form a group, then taking a taxi over public transport will immediately decrease your odds of being targeted. Public transport is where many petty incidents happen.
4) Keep valuables out of sight
What’s the fuel for these robberies? Mobile phones, cash & credit cards. Keeping these safely out of sight will force the criminal to guess if you have these valuables on you. This doubt may just keep you out of harm’s way.
5) Dummy phone
A popular type of self-insurance is to carry a cheap dummy/burner phone. The idea is that you either give or throw the phone to the robber & then remove yourself from the situation as quickly as you can. They may now have your crappy phone, but you’ve kept your fancy iPhone safely tucked away.
6) Wear your backpack on the front
Crowded environments provide the ideal cover for someone to quickly remove the contents from your backpack. Wearing your backpack on the front of your body allows you to keep an eye on your bag at all times.
7) Go straight from ATM to taxi
I suggest being hyper-vigilant if you’re taking out a substantial sum of cash from an ATM machine (or even via the tellers). It’s always possible that you are being watched from afar. Jumping straight into a taxi removes this threat.
8) Don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches
Do you really need to wear that expensive jewelry or watch? If in doubt, then just don’t. These items are super visible and make you an easy target.
9) Be careful where you buy your phone
This one isn’t going to help you immediately, but you can help decrease phone theft by not adding to the demand for stolen phones. Given the price of electronics tend to be more expensive in Ecuador, it can be tempting to get a cheap second-hand phone via Facebook Marketplace or wherever.
But, if the buyer cannot provide their original receipt, there’s a good chance it’s stolen. The black market for second-hand phones in Ecuador is considerable. Don’t fuel this market by buying a stolen phone. This is not a victimless crime and you may find yourself as the next victim.
Should you fight back?
If you need to ask this question, then I’m going to suggest you don’t put up a struggle. A few dollars and your phone are not worth the risk to your personal safety.
However, if you are the type that is comfortable handling yourself in these extreme situations, you should know that the law won’t necessarily be in your favor if you hurt your attacker (even if it’s in self-defense). A lack of Spanish will only exacerbate the tension.
Is it legal to carry a knife?
The law currently states that police can only confiscate knives. They cannot punish you (or the criminals) further. You can definitely argue that these loose knife laws are part of the problem as muggers can carry them in public with what amounts to almost total impunity. Only if they carry out a crime with a knife can the police prosecute beyond confiscating the knife.
Where to buy personal safety items?
You can find self-defense items in Cuenca such as pepper spray, emergency buttons, and lasers. You can start your search at Cosas Prep, which is conveniently located at the back of Sunrise Cafe (with another shop on Simón Bolívar).
What to do if you are robbed?
Once you’ve ensured you’re no longer in danger, please report the crime to the police. I get the temptation of just moving on with your life without going to the hassle of filing a police report. This is particularly true once you realize any robbery under $400 is considered ‘petty’ and doesn’t carry any real penalty.
But, please do file the report. At the very least there will be a record of this and you’ll be doing your part to address the issue of underreporting of crime in Cuenca.
Where to report your robbery?
It’s easy to get carried away when crime appears to be on the rise. It triggers our core emotions of safety and we all want to protect ourselves and our family from any bad actors.
Whilst I still consider Cuenca to be a safe city, we are certainly going to be paying more attention when we’re walking along the Tomebamba River.