Safety in Buenos Aires

Apr 29th 2010: Travel

One question I often hear from friends is whether I feel safe in Buenos Aires and what the crime rate in this city is. Given the interest in the matter I want to give a quick overview of my experiences. But the short answer is, yes, I feel very safe. In fact I would say of all my travels it is one of the safest cities I’ve been to.

From friends who have lived here for a while I learnt that the cost of living in Buenos Aires has gone up 40% in the last year alone. Combine that with the worldwide economic decline and the resulting rise in unemployment rates and you might guess, correctly, that crime is on the rise here. However, it appears to be primarily petty crime like pickpocketing, at least in the areas foreigners visit. After spending 2 1/2 months here, my advice is exactly the same as the one I received before I got here: “Don’t be stupid. Use common sense. Use street smarts.” Some pretty obvious key points:

  • Don’t carry your wallet in the back pocket of your jeans
  • Don’t flash your expensive camera and watch around
  • Don’t leave your bag / purse / belongings unattended, e.g. when you go to the bathroom in a restaurant
  • Don’t carry more money around with you than you need
  • Don’t be the obvious tourist, blend in a little
  • Don’t go into neighborhoods your guidebook tells you aren’t safe
  • Follow your instinct, if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it
  • Hold on to your bag
  • When in bad neighborhoods, walk fast and with a purpose. Take a cab home if you need to.
  • Leave your laptop in your apartment / hotel

All of these are common sense and apply to any major city in the world. The citizens of Buenos Aires seem especially safety conscious though and so you will often see men and women carrying their backpack in the front instead of in the back. It’s probably a good idea to observe the locals and follow their example. In addition the guidebook also emphasizes that the city is safe, even for a single woman walking through the streets at night. Certain neighborhoods, like Palermo where I live, have cops at every other street corner at night. I heard their purpose is more to watch for vandalism and graffiti than theft and robbery, but they make me feel better nevertheless. In general, the cops seem to be everywhere, though unlike in the U.S., they tend to rather blend in with the environment.

Following the rules above I’ve had absolutely no troubles so far (knock on wood). It’s not like it requires much effort either. But to give you a sense of what can happen, here some of the things that either happened to me or the ones I heard of. There are a few of them, but realizing that I have met quite a few people here and this is all that happened in the last two months, it’s not that much, really. And most of it is easily preventable if you follow the basic rules.

What happened to me

I have had three key experiences to point out.

The first was that a tiny notebook, which I use for notes while traveling around the city and which I keep in my back pocket, was stolen in the overcrowded subway. I’m assuming the thief thought it was a wallet (I kept the subway card in there) and reached in when I didn’t notice. This was the only time I personally lost anything and it was not a big deal. But it serves as a reminder to keep an eye on your wallet.

Secondly, as described in Futbol: Superclasico, I went to see a soccer game with (British) friends. We were in the midst of the most hardcore fans, typically a low income, blue collar group. Anticipating this we had dressed down a little and only brought enough money for some food (50-100 pesos). My digital camera was the most expensive item in my pocket and even then I was not afraid to pull it out occasionally. Finally, to blend in more, to enjoy the game and not stick out as foreigners, we barely spoke to each other. As a result, even though crammed in with lots of people, we had no problems, apart from once one guy noticing that I wasn’t Argentine when ordering my burger and telling me “give me some money!” I ignored him and that was that.

Thirdly, in my first week I ended up in a club at 4am without money left to take a cab home (bad idea) and so I walked completely disoriented and quite intoxicated through the empty streets of downtown for 2 (!) hours before finding the subway that would take me home. I was alone. I was drunk. The streets were empty. I would have been an easy target, … though without any money to steal. Nothing happened and even then I felt safe. I do not recall any time that I was worried about my safety then, though I don’t recall much anyway.

To be more protected with my camera I bought a shoulder bag here that looks like what most people wear and keep my camera in there unless I need it. It makes me feel much better than if I was carrying around one of those obvious camera bags. Blend in, look like you belong.

What happened to people I know and 2nd hand stories

As you meet people they will tell you their stories and the stories of their friends. One guy I met had his watch stolen in a rather dramatic fashion. His watch’s Dollar value was near the five digit range, so quite expensive. He went shopping in the supermarket and on the way home someone jumped him from behind, threw him on the ground, got up, ran to his buddy on a scooter, and they both took off. Confused it took him a moment to realize what happened and that they had stolen his watch. This occurred in broad daylight and with witnesses present. The people who saw this going down were very helpful, went to the police station with him, gave descriptions, and so forth. Likely the thieves scoped him and his watch out, knew it was the real deal and worth a lot, and took the risk of a daylight robbery. This is a dramatic attack, but he could have gotten his watch stolen in other ways too. So don’t flash your expensive belongings around.

Another story of a friend of a friend, who went to the same soccer game, but in a better section of the stadium, was that someone came up, pulled a knife, took his money and disappeared in the crowd. It happened very quickly and none of his friends even realized. So these things can happen anywhere, though I doubt he tried to blend in much given that he probably felt safe with his friends around.

Other common types of thefts

I have not heard of any of these happening to anyone I know, but they are often mentioned in guidebooks and worth pointing out.

Bag snatching: this seems common, someone just grabbing your bag or purse and taking off. Restaurants often have a hook on the table so you can attach your bag and not worry about it. Imitating the locals I made it my habit to always have one hand on the strap of my bag and carry the bag further in the front than in the bag when traveling around the city. That appears to be a sufficient deterrent.

Pick pockets: as in any city, exercise caution, keep your wallet somewhere safe, your bags closed, and be careful when hanging around in crowds, especially in tourist areas and the subway.

The bird-pooped-on-you trick: mentioned in several guidebooks I am still waiting to observe this one. Apparently one guy will put mustard or something similar on you from behind, then his partner will come up, point out the “bird poop” and offer to help clean up while his friends empties your pockets. Always refuse help.

Camera snatching: my Tango teacher told me about this one. If you are on the sidewalk taking pictures of the house across the street, a guy (or two) will come on his scooter, grab the camera out of your hands while driving, and take off. Prevention: use that strap the camera came with.

As you can see any of this could happen to you in New York or Shanghai or Bangkok or anywhere else and worry about safety should not stop you from visiting the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. What I do find worth pointing out is that violent crimes do not seem very common, and in the end all material things are replaceable, as annoying as that might be. I feel better about Buenos Aires in that regard than I feel about New York or L.A. where I’m more worried about someone pulling a gun on me. Here you are more likely to be hit by a car than a bullet. And at least the car you see coming.

Posted in Travel by Ernst Bruening on April 29th, 2010 at 4:36 pm.

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