Fear and Larceny in Buenos Aires
The image above is that of the interior of Comisaría 25°, the police station on Avenue Scalabrini Ortíz in Palermo, Buenos Aires, where we recently spent a few hours late one night, or rather, very early one morning.
After two decades travelling together and five years of continuous travel on the road as a writer and photographer team, someone finally tried to rob us. I use the word tried because the attempted snatch of my colourful Mexican shoulder bag was spectacularly unsuccessful.
Seconds after we left an Indian eatery in Palermo Soho, where we’d been satisfying curry cravings, Terence and I noticed that the guy walking towards us had his eyes fixed on my bag. We hadn’t walked more than two metres from the restaurant door when he made his ultimately clumsy but aggressive attempt to grab my bag. With my notebook containing two months of notes and my Olympus Pen camera inside, I held tight.
Most robberies in Buenos Aires are pretty straightforward and non-confrontational: a bag under a café table suddenly disappears; someone on a bus or train rubs up close to an unsuspecting victim and a purse is lifted from a bag; an unsuspecting tourist watching tango doesn’t realise a hand is slipping into his back pocket…
These kind of robberies – which we’ve either witnessed happen or had them happen to friends of ours – are non-violent. A bag snatch is an act of violence. As was the recent armed robbery of a youth hostel a friend of ours has been staying at.
Anyone who knows me appreciates that I’m not someone to mess with. Unfortunately for this thief, he thought he had an easy mark. He didn’t plan on his victim not panicking and not letting go of her bag. Nor did he expect that her husband would react the way he did.
After slamming our thief’s head into the wall and throwing him to the ground, my hero knelt on the guy’s back, and twisted his arms behind him – just like in the cop shows! This guy wasn’t going anywhere. But for how long, I wondered, would Terence have to hold him down like that until the police or security arrived?
I turned and waved through the window to the waiting staff inside the restaurant, using my best mime skills to simultaneously gesture for them to quickly come outside and call the police. They got the message. But just as I turned around to tell Terence, a policeman appeared out of nowhere, took over from my hero, and pointed his shiny silver gun (yep, just like the one’s on TV!) at our thief’s head.
The policeman looked nervous, especially when the robber attempted to reach behind his back with his free hand. Was the perpetrator carrying a weapon was what immediately came to our minds. The policeman gingerly searched the back of the thief’s pants with his spare hand, the other continuing to hold the gun to the guy’s head, while the waiter repeatedly dialled the police number on his own mobile phone. It appeared he was getting engaged signals.
I could see that Terence’s surprisingly calm demeanor (shock?) was shifting to anger. I knew that he, like I, was wondering what kind of a man attempts to violently rob a woman. What if the guy hadn’t made the mistake of picking on us, and had chosen more fragile and vulnerable victims? An elderly couple perhaps?
Why, in a city where people push carts around from dusk until dawn, sorting through people’s trash to collect cardboard boxes and other materials to sell for recycling to survive, does this guy think he deserves to rob people instead of earning an honest living?
I knew Terence was thinking the same thing, pacing back and forth, obviously fuming with anger. Yikes! I half expected he might just have kicked the culprit had the screeching of tyres from two police cars not snapped him out of it. Clearly for dramatic effect, the police pulled up to the crime scene like Starsky and Hutch, and leapt out of the cars that they’d angle-parked.
To add to the surrealism of the night, a handsome, dapper detective in the Andy Garcia mould, wearing a smart long winter coat, chic tie and handkerchief in his pocket, freshly-shaven, with not a hair out of place, strode confidently in our direction, held out his hand to each of us, and introduced himself as the comisar or inspector.
Uniformed and plain clothes police spilled out of several marked and unmarked cars, a couple of cops darting over to the nervous policeman and ‘perp’, another cop to the waiting staff, a couple more hurrying down the street to look for witnesses. Their reaction was initially impressive.
We were asked to recount what happened, to stick around for a while, and were told we’d be needed at the station to make a statement. Despite the number of police on the scene though, the process was slow. We weren’t quite sure why we were waiting around for so long, and we were uncomfortable that the thief, albeit now handcuffed, was sitting with his back against the wall, easily able to get a good look at us.
For a fraction of a second I felt sorry for our robber, as I wondered how long he might go to jail for. I couldn’t help considering it might have been an act of real desperation, but then I studied his clothes – brand new flashy sneakers, cool sweatshirt and clean jeans, a far cry from the dirty, torn clothes worn by the cartoneros who drag their heavy carts around the streets of Buenos Aires on foot every night.
No, this guy was just out to get some cash the easy way. Could there be a better deterrent than some community service or a stint in jail? Maybe. If he was made to help out the cartoneros for a while.
See our next post for tips to staying safe in Buenos Aires and other big cities.