Back in beautiful Buenos Aires, taking a break for a few weeks from Chile, We have decided to make you an expert at foiling the plots and plans of petty thieves in South America. If you are like us here at Four Flags Journal, you will laugh at some of their antics. But it is not funny if you are unaware and completely trusting of these “nice” people, and end up a victim.

From time to time we have discussed petty crime in South America. Some of this may be repeat for long-time subscribers, but we have many new ones and it is good for us anyway to review.

If you are coming here from a nice little country town in the U.S. you especially need to be forewarned. However, we also have those nice little country towns here, but most expats do not visit them.

There are petty criminals in nice cities in the U. S.. Three of them are sitting in jail right now, thanks to one of our family members still in Florida, as a result of three different incidents. He is good at dealing with it American style, but South America requires a few different skills because petty criminals here have different strategies. But the knowledge is easy to master and that’s what we are about today.

Occasionally we hear, in the States, travel warnings for some countries and you would think that the entire country is going up in flames. Our experience is that most of the time the situation isn’t as serious as it is newsworthy.

Argentina is particularly bad for being reported for riots, etc.

I can tell you about Argentina because it’s a way of life. We don’t always agree with the demonstrations but we still admire the people for leaving the TV set and the beer can (well here it might be the wine) and showing up to demand that their politicians change. We don’t know how much good it does but at least it encourages them to keep it in hiding.

And often we do agree with them. Once that I know of, when the demonstrations were organized in different parts of the city, certain expats that I know were helping to organize them! However, it’s often best to avoid any large, angry crowd of people. But I live just fine in Buenos Aires and I like it, but there are some guidelines to follow that can make life less “eventful.”  We want to orient you to a few.

One thing that is common in parts of South America is purse snatching. Sometimes they even come up on the sidewalk on a motor scooter and snatch a woman’s purse as they pass by.  So when you come, a purse with a long strap that can be worn with the strap, not just over your shoulder, but over your head as well, is a good idea. If the purse has a zipped top and then a flap that folds over it, that’s even better.  In the city, some women try to walk with the side their purse is on next to the buildings instead of facing the street. Now we don’t want you to think that purse snatching is going on all over all the time, but there is always a possibility. So just don’t make yourself look like an easy day’s work to a thief.
A man should keep his wallet in a front pocket, not the back.

The pickpockets come from all over to attend seminars here in Buenos Aires, much like you might attend a business seminar only teaching the skills of petty crime. And they are good. They are skilled, if we can call it that. You can get your wallet lifted or your cell phone snitched and wonder how or when they did it.

Even George Bush was in Buenos Aires with his two daughters. They went to one of Buenos Aires elegant restaurants, put their purses under the table, and when they rose to leave, one purse had been stolen. Don’t you wonder what the secret service men were doing?

This reporter lost a wallet not too long after arriving here in Buenos Aires—on the subway. The subway is a free for all for petty thieves so you have to beware. Watch your pockets, men, and women your purses–and pockets too. I had my serious money in a zipped pocket inside the purse instead of in the wallet, so they didn’t get that, but the wallet did have my passport in it, which cost $100 to replace.

There have been two attempts on my wallet since then but as my grandmother said in the long ago, once burned, twice shy. So far I won each contest. But in one case I was almost a victim for the second time.

Often (usually) these people work in pairs or groups. One is the diversion, the other the thief. The second time I was standing on the subway, holding the vertical bar (the subway takes curves pretty fast so the post is a good idea) and this man got on the subway and rudely pushed right between me and the post. I spoke to him about it and he was quite rude. This lovely woman behind me stepped up, put her arm lovingly and protectively around my shoulders and moving forward was forcing him out of the way when a man sitting in the seat by the bar noticed me. The Argentines are very respectful of older people and he immediately got up to give me his seat. But this woman didn’t want to let go of me. My first clue that something was wrong. I pulled away from her, sat down, checked my purse. Everything was still there but with one arm around me and crowding this man out of the way, she had actually managed to unzip the purse, even with the flap over the top. I don’t know how they do it. I suspect she felt so close to pay dirt that she just couldn’t bring herself to let go.

Although the two did not appear to be together when they boarded the subway, they were.  She avoided my eyes for the next few seconds until the next stop where both got off at the upcoming stop. My guess is they hurried and got on a different car to try again.

Lessons learned? Don’t let anyone touch you. This is a basic rule. In fact, beware if they touch you. I should have been but she was so sweet one would hardly think she was a thief.  I tell you this so that your guard won’t be down! You just have to learn what to look out for. Be nice to everyone, as long as they behave, but don’t be trusting no matter how likable they are.

Their strategy could be stealth, but in my observation it usually is diversion. My son was very familiar with South America when he finally talked me into coming. He warned me that if anything happens, whatever it is–someone falls in the street, someone drops a coke bottle–the first thing is gather your things together and step back until you can see what is going on. It could be a clever diversion.

I met a tourist here, backpacker, who told me of losing his entire backpack in the bus station. He had gotten off a bus and was walking through the station, wearing his backpack and carrying a suitcase, when someone eating an ice cream cone, paying no attention to where he was going, ran into him, smearing ice cream on his backpack and his shirt.

The man with the ice cream was sooo sorry and likable and apologetic, pulled out a handkerchief. Our tourist removed the backpack and surveyed the damage, then turned to make sure his suitcase was okay, and the very sincere, concerned young man with the ice cream ran off with his backpack. And even in a case where you catch it soon enough, do you stay with  your suitcase or do you chase the thief? If we were there and witnessed it, we would step up and guard his suitcase, but that might not always be the case. The first thief might have an accomplice who will also grab the suitcase.

Moral of the story? Again, don’t let  anyone touch you or your stuff. There are some wonderful people here but your problem at that moment  is you don’t know about the one at hand. Tell him not to worry, keep your backpack on and clean it up yourself when you arrive at your destination.

There have been times when we have been hauling a heavy suitcase up the stairs from the subway and some young Argentine gentlemen would graciously offer to help me and I accepted. I knew in a sense it is taking a chance but with the weight of my suitcase it is for sure I could run anyone down who tried to run off with it. And if I were chasing someone it is for sure some other men would step in. While there are thieves, I am impressed with the gentlemanly demeanor of Argentina men.

Here’s another scenario. You are walking in the park and a bird decides to decorate your shoulder. Same situation. And you will likely find out it was not a bird. You only thought it was. If someone rushes in to “help” you, so much more the caution.

So the rule is, again,  “No me toque!” Don’t touch me.  You can be polite but if necessary, insist on keeping your distance. Anyone you meet there who is not a tourist will understand.

Our  nephew was visiting us here and my son and he were walking to the bus station together with backpacks, no doubt taken for a couple of American tourists. Sure enough the “bird” did it’s thing and my son turned around and said, aggressively, in very good Spanish, “Don’t pull that stuff on me, I live here!” The thieves made a hasty retreat.

But if they get close enough to you your cell phone can disappear out of your front pocket and your wallet out of your back pocket and you won’t even remember they touched you. They are incredibly slick.

Also, if you are staying in an apartment building that requires a key to the front door of the building as well as a key to your apartment, when you near the door of the building, look around you. If things don’t look right, don’t open the door.  And don’t open the door to your apartment either unless you were expecting company and know the person. But you don’t ignore the knock either. You say, “Quen es?” Who is it. Or even if you speak in English it will still work. It is probably okay but caution is in order. You speak so that they know someone is at home.

The practice here is also not to tell  your neighbors or anyone else that you will be awayi. In my case I tell my landlord.

One last caution, don’t wear gold on the street. If you are going to the opera or theater, taking a taxi there and back, that is one thing. If you are walking from place to place  on the street, leave your gold at home.

Now I may be making this sound dangerous. I live here. I am very much at home. I don’t’ feel insecure, but I have learned a few things from my own and other’s experiences and from wonderful Argentina friends who attempt to educate me. I pass it on to you in one easy lesson right here in this newsletter. We want your trip and your life here to be uneventful as far as petty crime is concerned.

Our subscriber who inspired this little bit of education in being “street smart” informed us that she herself had been a victim of the purse snatching.

These are important factors in living uneventfully. Probably other expats will have other thoughts from their own experiences.

Having said that, there are many places here where these are not issues. We lived in Montevideo for a while when there was almost never any problem. I used to sit on the upper floor of McDonalds, by the window with morning coffee, watching with interest the people passing below. I believed that I knew which of the women were visiting from Argentina because she would have a purse with a strap over her head and carrying the purse itself next to her body. The Uruguay women, by contrast, obviously had no concern at all about their purses,  which were flying every which way.
But things have changed in Montevideo. Once when I returned to visit, the women were warning me things had changed. Even in the stores women would warn me about my purse, telling me about the jovens (young people) snatching purses. So there has been a change in Montevideo these last few years, sad to say.

In the smaller towns most of the time things are quite different.  I routinely ask about crime when I visit a town. In Villarrica everyone we asked reported no crime at all except for occasional burglary in unoccupied homes.

When we visited San Gregorio in Uruguay (San Gregorio) a wonderful contractor who had been in the U.S. for years and had returned to Uruguay with his family had settled in that little town. He proudly took us on a glorious tour of the entire area and told us that the thing he liked about it was if he left his truck parked along the street there for a year, when he came back it would be just as he left it. Nothing would be taken off of it.  He took us to a very large beach and picnic area beside the lake there and we drove through the area and walked down by the lake.

He said, ”Do you notice anything unusual here?” We said no. He said, “There’s not a bit of garbage laying around.” Really! He was right. There was not a shred of paper or anything in all that huge area. I said, “How come.” He said, ”They pick it up.”

So a lot depends on where you are. We think things are changing all over, just as there is more crime now in Montevideo. The same in the states.

But we can live happily and successfully where we are with just a little orientation.  And for  you who live here in the southern cone, don’t forget that there is a comments section with this article on the web site if you want to add something.

Great to see you all here this week. Looking for you again next week. And then one glorious day . . . in South America!