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Nov 09

Fear and Larceny in Buenos Aires

Our local Buenos Aires police station.

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.

9 comments

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  1. Mike

    Well, this is too bad. We’ve traveled for a decade and the only time we’ve been robbed was the night before we were leaving for a trip… my backpack was stolen from a car outside of a restaurant in our home town. Go figure.

    Sorry you’re having to deal with this trauma, but you played it well, and you managed to hang on to your journal. Might be a good time to take high-quality pictures of each of the pages and email it to yourself just in case something does happen. I just spent a couple months scanning in all my journals from our trips… just to be safe.

    Anyway, I hope this is a low point for your attacker. Maybe he’ll clean up his act after this.

    Stay safe!

  2. Efrutik

    Glad you both are safe and sound! Always wondered how I would act in the same situation, kudos for holding on to that bag! And of course your husband for giving a good lesson to the guy.

  3. Jen Laceda

    I’m so sorry to hear about the attempted robbery. Good thing it was only an attempt that failed. About a month ago, at 2am (while I was blogging, in fact), someone threw a heavy rock through our front window, smashing the glass and sending that huge thing flying across the room! Thankfully, nobody was in the living room (where I usually work), but my girls and I were pretty shaken with the whole incident because the house shook / echoed with the sound of glass breaking. We felt so violated and vulnerable in our own home, so I am guessing you must have felt the same way when the thief tried to snatch your bag. I don’t understand why some people would cause so much trouble to other people.

    My husband and I always talk about jail time punishment. We think, instead of having them just sit around in jail and work out and “gain privileges”, punishment should be to get them to work full-time. Let them do hard work like garbage sorting, mining, farming, construction, or yes, be a cartonero. My grandma survived two world wars and was widowed early on so had to raise 13 kids herself by peddling fruit juices on the street and doing laundry for others! My uncle, the eldest child, was a cartonero in Manila as soon as he was old enough, and found that collecting glass made him some money. Many, many years later, he became an owner of one of the biggest hardware stores in Chinatown, Manila. He supported his siblings this way and was able to send them all to school.

    Sorry, I went on a rampage there. I get so emotional at situations like these. I’m just glad to hear that you are alright and that it’s nice to have a body guard (Terry) all the time, but somehow I have no doubt that you’d be kicking the thief to the ground as well!

  4. Alice

    Just about one month ago, I evaded a purse-snatching in BsAs, as well. Wrote about it on my blog, as people assume this happens in Mexico City and not BsAs. http://wagamamawonderings.blogspot.com/2010/10/get-your-paws-off-my-bag.html

    This incident and other stories I heard from fellow tourists left me with a sour taste for BsAs. It is so rampant and rarely goes reported, so good job on nabbing your guy. Hopefully, it’ll teach him a lesson.

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks for your comment Alice. We were actually scheduled to be robbed in Rio, but it never happened ;)
      It hasn’t changed our love of the city – but it’s certainly made us more vigilant when we are there.
      It is an issue the government has to tackle – and quickly – as it won’t be under-reported forever.
      T

  5. Sandy O'Sullivan

    Oh, I only just read this… glad you two are both safe, and also glad that the guy got his comeuppance. It’s foul and really unfair when this happens, isn’t it? But as you point out, if you’re careful it’s also rare and it’s important for those of us who travel a lot to not have it define our feelings about a location or a way of operating as a traveller. Thanks for the story… it is, in the end, kind of a good news story on how to deal with this as well. I can imagine Terence giving the guy a hard time… he IS a hero, as are you! I confess I did giggle when you said the guy must not know you’re not someone to mess with. Quite!

    1. Terence Carter

      Hey Sandy, thanks for your comment. More reflexes than heroics, I’m afraid!
      Cheers,
      T

  6. WanderingTrader

    I love it how the cops “spontaneously appeared” out of nowhere.. makes you think doesn’t it? I’ve been living in BA for about 2.5 months now and def has seen this kind of behavior but have been lucky not to have been robbed or anything yet. I know of many ppl that have tho

    1. lara dunston

      Hi there – actually the cops in the cars only appeared after our waiter dialed them a gazillion times, but if you know the Palermo Hollywood and Soho areas you would have seen the police and security guards on nearly every corner. They’re there for a reason we discovered on this trip. And good thing they are. Apart from our nervous cop who didn’t really want to be holding a gun to anyone’s head, the others were super-professional once they got on the scene. A bit slow, but hey that’s Buenos Aires. But it’s obvious they have to handle this shit all the time. Take care and thanks for dropping by!

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