How not to get robbed in South America

“If you are going to be pickpocketed or mugged in Brazil, Salvador is likely to be the place,”

says the Lonely Planet guidebook on South America.

“Don’t take anything with you when you walk around Salvador. No watch, no expensive phone, no cards, no jewelry, not even fake jewelry,”

the lady from the cruise company Pullmantur had warned on the ship before we disembarked in Salvador, scaring some of the passengers into staying on board.

Well, nothing happened to me during two weeks in Salvador, although I lived in a neighborhood that some people called dangerous, I usually walked around alone, also late at night, I went into dark alleys, I looked white and foreign, I didn’t speak Portuguese, I was wearing a watch, khaki pants and a white or blue shirt, I had a camera with me which I often carried openly, and whenever I was lost, I took out my tablet to check the GPS.

I was never assaulted, mugged or robbed, but I noticed two things happening over and over: First, Brazilians would look at me in disbelief, particularly if I was in some dark alley at night, they would look at my camera, look at me again and I could notice the “Oh my god, this guy is so stupid to walk around like this” in their eyes. Second, people called at me from their windows or balconies to not go down that way or this way, either signalling with their hands or shouting “dangerous!”. That was very caring and nice.

There is a lot of standard advice on how to behave if you get mugged:

  • Don’t resist. Your life is more important than your belongings.
  • Give the robbers whatever they want.
  • Don’t take all your cash and documents with you, but only what you need that day. This way, you limit your losses.

Often, this advice comes from people who did get robbed, though, so how much can their advice be worth? Obviously, it’s bullshit. Actually, it’s not only bullshit, but it’s dangerous advice. If Europeans and North Americans repeat this mantra of “don’t resist when you get robbed in Latin America,” of course the gangsters will prefer to attack people who are obviously tourists. “Haha, these gringos, they don’t even fight back. It’s like robbing little children, hahaha!” you can imagine the bandits laughing while having a drink after a successful day. Telling people to not resist muggers is like putting a huge “Rob me!” sign on top of their heads.

As the expert in not getting robbed, let me give you my advice:

  • Look confident. It’s not so much about looking Brazilian/Colombian/Haitian or not. These people get robbed too, and you can’t fake it anyway. But walk confidently, as if you know where you are going or as if you live in that neighborhood, even if you have never been there and are completely lost.
  • Look people in the eyes. I have had a few situations in which a group of young men was coming towards me in what looked like a potential ambush. I kept walking towards them, looked them in the eyes and either smiled slightly or indicated a nod as a greeting as I passed them. I could often sense how perplexed they were by this stranger who looked so out of place, but was behaving as if he lived just around the corner. If you avoid eye contact, you show fear and mark yourself as a victim.
  • Don’t wear flip-flops. If a gangster wears sneakers and sees you in flip-flops, they know you will never be able to run after them. If you wear flip-flops, even the one-legged guy in a wheelchair can rob you.

To summarize this: Don’t look scared. Don’t look like a victim. If you don’t have natural confidence, watch a James Bond film before you go out, observe the way he walks and imitate it.

cidade-de-deus-todos

But even then, the worst-case scenario may happen. So here is my advice in case you do get robbed:

  • If there is only one perpetrator, buy time. Pretend that you don’t understand what he wants. Pretend that you really want to help, but that you don’t speak Portuguese/Spanish. I also love to say “no thanks” in a polite way when people ask me for money, as if they offered me something. Smile and laugh! This will make him confused, he will lose his nerves and run away, looking for a more cooperative victim.
  • If there are several gangsters, it’s a tough call. The aforementioned strategy can work as well, but if it’s a group with a macho/show-off dynamic, this strategy can backfire because you’ll put the guy who speaks to you on the spot. He doesn’t want to look stupid in front of his peers and he may respond with violence. Try to keep the whole group involved in your conversation. Don’t let anyone get into a clear leadership position.
  • One type of robbery is to ask for your bank card, to take you to a cash machine and to ask you to take out cash right away (“express kidnapping”). In this case, pretend to be nervous and forgetful, enter a wrong PIN three times, and your card should be blocked or even withheld. You can also keep a card of an old, inactive account, pretend to be cooperative, but unfortunately there are only 12.33 $ in your account.
  • Fight! This is best done after some talking, where you lull the robber into believing that you are a weirdo. They will lower their guard, hopefully also their gun or knife, and that’s when you strike. Obviously, try to reach for their weapon and use it. Don’t stab or shoot to kill, that would be over the top. But a stab or a shot into the thigh makes most people go down or crawl away. To get yourself into the right mood of aggressiveness, I recommend watching an episode of 24 before you leave the house. Think of yourself as Jack Bauer and you’ll be surprised how swiftly you will react.

If girls can fight back, you can do it too:

Following the argument above, even if you fight and lose, you are making everyone else safer by removing the myth that tourists are docile victims.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to How not to get robbed in South America

  1. Speksnijder International Relations Management says:

    Great post!

    Go ahead!

    Johan

  2. erikathaissa says:

    It should become a lecture, Sir.

  3. Dante says:

    Great.

  4. Annemarie says:

    Sorry, I so don’t agree with your post. If you get robbed and fight back, argue or play stupid, big change you will get shot or stabbed. And yes they do. Didn’t you here about the robbery in Salvador last week in a hostel where one guy was shot? If they wanna rob you, they will.
    Yes, I agree there’s created an environment of easy to rub tourists, but the advice you give here is not working for the most people and even dangerous. I traveled a lot through south America and am like you in Brazil now (arrived from the cruise in Salvador as well) and luckely I never got robbed. And that’s because I do the opposite of you.
    Just go without valuable stuff on the streets, don’t look fancy, bring just some cash and especially act confident (that’s the only point I agree with you). Still you can get robbed, but if it’s just material stuff or money, it’s not worth the risk to fight. I always have my photos backupped. So if I want to bring my camera, I still feel confident, because I can’t really loose something as my photos are more worth then a camera. Especially when you have a good insurance. It’s just materials. If I go out to drink. I don’t bring anything. And for a girl it’s easy, just wear your bankcard in your bra and cash money in your pockets. No handbag. Just wearing shorts and a shirt, without bag, makes you a not so interesting target, comparing people with fancy (camera) bags. So if I bring my bag, it’s just a simple cotton bag. And yes, I wear flipflops. And yes, there’s still a change both you and me can be robbed. But if so, let it be. But my life is more worth then my ego.

    • I also agree that walking/looking confident is the most important thing.
      And yes, I also just have a simple bag, like a guy walking home from university.

      But my advice is not about the ego. I just can’t afford insurance and I couldn’t afford to lose the few bucks I have.

  5. Pingback: How not to get robbed in South America | msamba

  6. As a fellow travel blogger, this is the stupidest article I’ve read about how to not get robbed. I have not made it to Brazil (i will go in 2016) but I bet crime there is similar to other places i have been to near South America. I went to Port of Spain Trinidad (which is near venezuela and advertised a “super dangerous place” for americans) and came back without being robbed, or killed because I took simple precautions that you seem to miss in this post. i do not go into favelas, or poor areas for any reason. I also do not do anything I do not do at home, if I do not take the bus in NYC, you best believe i am not going to catch a bus in a foreign place.

    Unfortunately as a European or fair skinned American, there is little you can do to “blend in” to a culture that is not yours. However dressing like the locals is a big plus in diminishing your saftey risk. If someone sees a gringo in sneakers when everyone else is in flip flops, you best believe you are going to be more of a target. You can not outrun bullets. Trying to play dumb or entering your card wrong will definitely get you into more trouble or KILLED. That goes for places in the USA as well. In NYC people get shot all the time for putting up a fight in home invasions etc.. Give them what they want and they will give you what you want – your life!

    Also staring down someone who is trying to rob you might make them want to kill you because they will think you are trying to remember their features to then identify to police later. In NYC I was threatened by a guy on the train for “staring” at him when i was just looking in front of me.

    • Dante says:

      Give them what they want and they will give you what you want – your life!

      They don’t give you your life, they just perhaps don’t take it. This is a not-so-tiny difference.
      Additionally, in some areas, being robbed will just mean being killed slowly.

    • Why would anyone not take the bus, either in New York or in Brazil? I take buses all the time, and the only danger in Salvador is that the bus drivers all seemed to have learned driving from the movie “Speed”.

  7. VictorSalvador says:

    Ok James Bond. If you think that your camera is more valuable than your life so .. Fight back, get your bonus shot and tell us about. Because you know what happens with your attacker? Absolutely nothing. Normally they are children’s, if they got arrested (very rare) they become free in the very same day 😊

    I find amazing that u had luck to don’t get mugged in my town 😊 sometimes the luck make tricks with us.

  8. Dino Bragoli says:

    If you were so inclined, you might epoxy resin a scalpel blade into a pen. Pop the top off and write them a letter… results may vary.

  9. matt wells says:

    Hi all,

    I also have walked through some of the favelas of Brazil and townships of Africa, alone. I’ve found some of the tips from Andreas true to my experience, and some tips very untrue and dangerous. I happen to be at the airport in Salvador after another great visit with no problems. It’s a beautiful, but sometimes complex city.

    I also find that most mugging events are from opportunist criminals who spot a weak looking tourist separated from the herd. A confident walk and clever chat can sometimes work. Let’s not ignore this is probably easier as a male.

    This does not mean that more organized criminals will not sneak up behind you with a knife or gun. CCTV does not exist in favelas or the poorer streets – professional criminals only want your valuables and would not hesitate to harm you – my experience tells me not to go with the James Bond option.

    Happy travels!

    • Thank you!
      I didn’t go to any favelas in Brazil yet, but in many other countries I have also gone to “no-go areas”, and like you experienced it, with some confidence and friendliness, nothing happens.

      Most people who recommend not to go to a place have never been there. It’s like Harlem in New York or even Brixton in London, where some people still warn you against going just because it was dangerous in the 1970s or 1980s. The same even applies to whole countries. When I went to Transnistria this summer, many people (in neighboring countries) said “oh my god, you’ll never come out of there alive”. It was because they hadn’t heard any news from Transnistria except the war. But they didn’t realize that the war had happened in 1991 and that nothing has happened since. It seems to be very hard for a place to lose a negative image.

Please leave your comments, questions, suggestions:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s