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Playing it safe in Buenos Aires

Kristin Dean

By | May 13, 2009 | 4 comments

Photo by John Harris

The balcony of my apartment overlooks one of the busiest streets in Buenos Aires. On any given day, I watch as colectivos noisily navigate the crowded street, as passersby scurry on their way to appointments they are likely running late for, and as dog owners allow their beloved pets to soil the sidewalks. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed robberies from my balcony.

I watched as a corpulent middle-aged man ripped a cell phone from the hands of a young woman and then walked away nonchalantly as the woman yelled for help that never came. More recently, I witnessed a robbery with a happier ending. As I sat on my balcony, a loud commotion broke out from the quiet of the evening. I looked down to see two well-dressed men struggling over a backpack. One of the men victoriously emerged from the scrum with the backpack as the other took off running after him. The robber was too fast, so the victim yelled for help. Just as quickly as the struggle began, several caring Porteños turned around, tackled the robber to the ground, and then violently restrained the perpetrator. The backpack was recovered and the robber was kept there until the police arrived.

Not all robberies here share this happy result, but there are several things that one can do in order to avoid such sticky situations. Especially for young women, exercising a little extra precaution can go a long way. But before moving on with sharing the good advice that I have received, I’d like to provide a brief disclaimer. The stories that I have just told are not intended to frighten. Furthermore, I don’t want to give the impression that Buenos Aires is an entirely unsafe place. It’s true that petty robberies, such as the ones I have described here, are relatively common. But the rate of violent crimes here is much less than that of most major cities in the US. For example, the murder rate here is about one-tenth that of Washington D.C.* Please don’t assume that robbers won’t hurt you, however. If you do wind up in such a situation, don’t be brave, don’t take risks, just give them what they want and stay safe.

That said, I seek not to incite the sort of paranoia that could make any visit miserable. Rather, I want only to offer helpful information that will allow you to best enjoy your time here. So read on, and please, travel safe!

The backward backpack and other oddities
After your first trip via subte, you’ll notice something strange about this city. People here frequently wear their backpacks backward (carrying the bag in front of them rather than on their backs). Why do they do this? Well, as the victim I just described experienced, when worn in the intended manner, a backpack is an easy target for robbers (According to the officer from “Interview with a Cop” this is the most common theft in Buenos Aires). They can easily reach into the bag and snatch whatever goodies are held within. If worn over one shoulder, these bags can be easily snagged.

So what should you do if you need to use a backpack? One of two things: if there’s nothing particularly important in your bag, wear it as normal. Or, do as the locals and carry it either under your arm or in front of you. Especially on the crowded subways, this the best option to avoid someone getting their sticky fingers into your bag without your noticing.

If you are carrying a computer, however, the backpack is a better option than carrying a special laptop case. The laptop case announces to the world that you have valuable equipment and invites attention. I carry my computer in a book bag and always carry it with caution.

The purse curse
You will also notice that women here carry their purses differently. Instead of strolling along with their bag casually slung over one shoulder, women here most always keep one arm firmly over the precious bag, holding it close to their bodies (almost like a football, really). They also always make sure that zippers are zipped, buttons are buttoned and snaps are snapped. Take cues from the locals and do the same. Guard your purse, keep close attention to it and NEVER set it down. Even when you are seated at a café, don’t set your purse down or hang it over the back of the chair (yes, this is a pain, but it’s better than the alternative).

The purse drama continues: you need to be cautious of both what kind of purse you carry, as well as what you keep in it. Although your fancy Coach, Gucci or Chanel bag may be your favorite accessory, don’t wear it here. Anything that screams “expensive” will also scream “rob me.” The same can be said of clothing, jewelry and electronics. If you want to bring these things along on your trip, these items should be kept within your bag while in transit. Don’t carry your camera in your hands, don’t wear the 5-karat diamond necklace you inherited from your grandmother, and don’t walk down the street talking on your iPhone.

As for the rest of the contents of your purse, you should never leave the house with anything more than you need. In other words, don’t leave with anything that you wouldn’t mind having stolen. Never leave with more than 300 to 400 pesos, don’t carry your credit cards with you unless you are taking a specific trip to the ATM, and don’t bring your passport unless you know you will need it.

Just a few more things…
Aside from being cautious with your bags, one should be particularly careful of several other things. First, and most importantly, please exercise caution while crossing the street. After your first ride in a cab or colectivo , you will realize that the drivers here are crazy. Fatal traffic accidents, including those involving pedestrians, hold the highest crime rate in Argentina (approximately 22 people die in such incidents each day).* If your crazy friend who has lived here for years bravely throws him or herself into an intersection, don’t follow. Be patient and wait for the walk signal. When you do get the go-ahead, still keep an eye out for impatient drivers wanting to turn into the intersection.

Here’s a short list of a few other things to watch for:

  • When picking up a taxi on the street, don’t do so in front of a bank. This will give the impression that you are carrying a lot of cash.
  • Try to use as close to exact change as possible. Don’t pay for a 5 peso pack of cigarettes with a 100 peso mark unless you’re hoping to get back fake bills. False currency is a huge problem here and many people, including myself, have been suckered this way.
  • Ignore people who approach you on the street. Don’t be nice, just walk away.

These are all bits of advice that I have received from my friends here in Buenos Aires. At first, having to clutch my purse while outside the house and having to be constantly vigilant of my surroundings did make me uneasy. Now, I realized that with this appropriate level of paranoia (not a paralyzing fear, but rather a comfortable awareness of my surroundings) I’m now enjoying myself more than I otherwise would have. Hopefully this will help you as much as it has helped me. Safe travels!

*The statistics presented within this article were gathered from materials published by the US Overseas Security Advisory Council and the Argentine Interior Security Commission. For further information, visit these sites: www.osac.gov and www.parlamentario.com

Kristin Dean
LPBA Staff

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SO FAR, THIS ARTICLE HAS 4 COMMENTS!

  1. tangocherie

    14/05/2009 - 1:20 am

    My partner had his gold chain (thin) yanked from around his neck while seated on the train: the thief reached in through the window and then ran away!

    It's better not to expose ANYTHING of value while out in the streets!

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  2. Sarah

    14/05/2009 - 4:52 pm

    I heard a similar story the other day. It was someone's phone through the train window!

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  3. John.St

    26/07/2009 - 7:33 am

    I don't understand why everybody else don't use my simple trick in e.g. outdoor restaurants where I always place my bag on a chair next to me – fastened to the bag is a thin but strong nylon cord (mountainering equipment) with a carbine hook. Loop the cord around one arm of the chair, fasten the hook on the cord and a thief will have to run off with chair and all.

    Itzz azz simple azz zat!

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  4. Bell

    27/05/2012 - 5:22 pm

    The snatching from the window of the train/colectivo is a common one. If you have a window open, don’t carry your cellphone in your hand for all to see. Close the window if you receive a call or before you decide to change the music you are listening to. Also, beware of the small time window when a train arrives to a station until it just starts to leave- you may notice we sometimes travel with the doors open (though it’s not permited, nobody cares), and that’s the PERFECT time to snatch a bag or backpack or an exposed cell phone from unsuspecting hands. ALWAYS hug your backpack/purse when people start moving around until the train has left the station completely, and don’t bring your phone out during these times. Also, be very aware of where the zipper is.

    Reply