This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007.
Crime and Personal Safety: Is Cuenca safe for expats?
A gentleman who is contemplating moving to Ecuador with his family was surprised to learn that many houses here have burglar bars over the windows and doors. Such security measures raise the question: Is Cuenca safe for expats?
Cuenca is known as the most “tranquilo” or peaceful city in Ecuador. However, the locals, while loudly touting the peacefulness of Cuenca, will quickly tell you that things are not like they used to be. Crime does exist in Cuenca and it seems to be steadily increasing. The same can be said for practically any growing metropolitan area, no matter where you live. When contemplating a move or visit to Ecuador, one must realistically consider the issue of personal safety, especially if you have children like we do. One could be lulled by the beauty and apparent tranquility of Cuenca and forget the importance of being vigilant regarding personal safety.
The U.S. Department of State has a web site that offers travel tips to U.S. citizens who travel abroad. The web site (http://travel.state.gov) has extensive information regarding crime and safety issues for U.S. citizens in Ecuador. When I visited this web site I was shocked by the opening line of the section that deals with crime in Ecuador. It says something to the effect that crime against U.S. citizens is a major problem in Ecuador and that the country has a high crime rate. The web site goes on to detail some of the recent crimes committed against foreign visitors in Ecuador and gives advice on how to avoid being a victim. It specifically mentions certain areas of Guayaquil and Quito that one would be wise to avoid. The general information on the U.S. Dept. of State website regarding crime and safety in Ecuador is very sobering and one would be wise to heed the advice given while traveling in the country, especially when visiting Guayaquil and Quito. Interestingly, the above mentioned web site does not mention any of areas of Cuenca that expats or travelers should avoid. Does this mean that Cuenca is a crime free zone?
What can be said regarding crime in Cuenca? There is a criminal element operating in Cuenca and it is wise to be careful and to take certain precautions. Having said that, I can tell you that in almost 4 years of living in Cuenca we have never been assaulted or robbed. We have never felt unsafe in our neighborhood nor have we witnessed any violent crimes.
We have, however, had a couple of attempted petty thefts which we were able to thwart. For example, an innocent looking middle aged woman once attempted to open my daughter’s purse while we were in a crowded open air market. Lesson learned: Be vigilant and keep an eye on your personal possessions, especially when visiting crowded places. Criminals are not always the stereotypical masked bandit.
On another occasion, a thief attempted to rob us of our propane gas tanks that were stored behind our house. Apparently the thief was a construction worker who had been spying on our house from a new home construction next door. He noticed that the gringos had 4 gas tanks (a $200.00 value) unguarded on the back porch. He returned at night with a ladder and entered our back porch with the intention of robbing us of our gas tanks. My wife was at home during the attempted burglary and when she heard the noise of gas tanks being moved, she opened the door to see what was up and the thief ran off. Lesson learned: chain up gas tanks and don’t leave anything of value visible to potential thieves. Also, we have tried to avoid living next door to new construction or vacant lots where thieves can easily access the back yard.
A few months ago my daughter and a group of female friends were walking along a street around 10:30 a.m when a drunken man approached them and became aggressive. The drunk started cursing them, in English, and came very close to my daughter. My daughter was scared and sensing that the drunk was about to grab her, she reached into her purse and pulled out some homemade pepper spray and let him have it in the face. The drunk apparently was not expecting such a reaction from an innocent looking teenage girl and after receiving his pepper spray treatment, he shut up his cursing and retreated to his house to nurse his burning eyes. The man lives along a street that we sometimes frequent and the next time he saw my daughter, he nicely said “hello” and kept walking. Apparently he now knows better to mess with the “gringa” armed with pepper spray. I advised my daughter that in the future it would be better to run away from drunks instead of spraying them in the face with pepper spray. But in this case the preemptive use of pepper spray worked out okay and the rude drunk got what he deserved for his obscene language and conduct. Lesson learned: We have decided that it is not a bad idea to carry some non lethal form of personal protection, such as pepper spray. You never know when it will come in handy. We make our own pepper spray from vinegar and concentrated pepper sauce. Just mix the two together and put the spicy mix in a small travel sized spray bottle and you have a cheap, potent and effective personal protection device. It also works wonders on aggressive dogs as well as drunks. Since my son has been bitten twice by dogs, we now make sure that at least one member of the family is armed with our home made pepper spray brew just in case we encounter aggressive stray dogs.
Other than the few incidents mentioned above, we have not had any problems with crime or personal safety in the particular area of Cuenca we live in. That does not mean that one should be passive regarding crime in Cuenca.
Watch for my 7 Ways Not to Get Robbed article tomorrow – and learn some of the things we do, to avoid problems.