Street crime in Buenos Aires

Pianist Stephen Kane
Pianist Stephen Kane

When my friend, Stephen Kane, described what he witnessed on a recent afternoon in Buenos Aires, I begged him to write it down for me. Following is his account.

Bad action in Buenos Aires

Prior to my first visit to Buenos Aires I was warned about the mustard/ketchup gag. As you’re walking, carrying a shoulder bag, someone sneaks behind you and squirts mustard or ketchup on your back. The accomplice later offers to help you clean it off. You remove the bag from your shoulder to do that and then it disappears along with the thief. So I felt particularly foolish when it almost immediately happened to me. I noticed I had been squirted but just kept holding my bag tightly and walking until I was safely out of the area. I have been back to Argentina many times and, thankfully, have never been threatened with robbery again.

So I suppose I was due for one particularly eventful day. I wasn’t the victim but the witness of two different scenes.

I was having Saturday lunch in a cafe on the corner of Corrientes and Florida. I was sitting at the window and had a very clear view of the crowd of people and traffic at the intersection. If I hadn’t been looking in the right direction I’d have never seen it happen. It was much too fast; so fast that nobody nearby realized it had happened until it was over. A tall, beautifully dressed girl was standing with her boyfriend waiting for the light to change so they could cross the street. Mixed into the traffic speeding down Corrientes was a large motorcycle carrying two men. The cycle suddenly stopped right in front of her and the man on back jumped off. He grabbed the girl from behind, putting one of his hands over her mouth to keep her from screaming. With the other hand he grabbed her necklaces and purse. By the time she was able to even make a sound and alert her boyfriend the thief was back on the cycle with his accomplice and speeding away in escape. But the event wasn’t finished. Someone standing nearby actually did see the robbery and managed to capture a picture of the thieves on a cellphone camera. I watched as they all summoned a policeman and showed him the photo of the cyclists. Of course, during the discussion that followed, the victims were much more animated than the policeman. After pleading with him for several minutes they eventually gave up and went on their way. So did the crowd. So did the policeman.

Petter, a thief in Lima, told us that one member of his team always carries a knife.
Petter, a thief in Lima, told us that one member of his team always carries a knife.

After lunch I walked a few blocks down Florida and turned into a small, uncrowded side street. I noticed a commotion in a stairwell area up ahead. There was an elderly couple who were obviously tourists. The man was wearing a white wind-breaker and there was a large camera bag hanging from his shoulder. His wife had just noticed a large blob of red ketchup splattered across the back of the jacket. But another couple was there as well. This “local woman” had a handful of tissue or paper towels and was, very concernedly, trying to assist the woman in cleaning the mess off her husband. The “local’s husband” was just beginning to reach for the camera bag, assisting the stained man. Since I knew from experience what was happening I yelled out to the tourist couple, “Be careful! They’re about to steal your bag!” It was when they looked at me in total confusion that I realized they didn’t speak English and had no idea who I was or why I was screaming at them. The “local’s husband” took a lunging step toward me, glaring furiously. At the same time he reached a hand into his own jacket, insinuating he had a gun, a knife, or some sort of weapon. In all my travels I’ve only been robbed once. A man in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, pulled a knife on me. That wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat so I nodded to the “local’s husband” that I fully understood the situation and quickly left the scene. I can only hope that tourist couple took the time during this threat to me to figure out why I was trying to warn them.
– – –
Wow, you’d think Stephen was a thiefhunter, out looking for action. We’d employ him if he’d accept our terms (hugs in lieu of payment).

From the U.S. Department of State’s most recent Argentina information sheet:

Visitors to Buenos Aires and popular tourist destinations should be alert to muggers, pickpockets, scam artists, and purse-snatchers on the street, in hotel lobbies, at bus and train stations, and in cruise ship ports. Criminals usually work in groups and travelers should assume they are armed. Criminals employ a variety of ruses to distract and victimize unsuspecting visitors.
A common scam is to spray mustard or a similar substance on the tourist from a distance. A pickpocket will then approach the tourist offering to help clean the stain, and while doing so, he or an accomplice robs the victim. Thieves regularly nab unattended purses, backpacks, laptops, and luggage, and criminals will often distract visitors for a few seconds to steal valuables. While most American victims are not physically injured when robbed, criminals typically do not hesitate to use force when they encounter resistance. Visitors are advised to immediately hand over all cash and valuables if confronted. Thieves will target visitors wearing expensive watches or jewelry.

…¢ For more on the “condiment caper,” read:
The Pigeon Poop Pickpocket

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  • Oh, Howard, I feel for you! It’s the “kindness” that makes this strategy so devious. We want to trust kind people—it’s our very nature. And when we experience something like this a few times, we become hardened. It’s awful in so many ways. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • My son sent me this link AFTER I told him what happened to my wife and me. It wasn’t mustard or ketchup, it was green slime that looked like bird droppings. After it hit my wife and me a “kind” lady offered to help clean it off. In a instant 3 people were all over us. When it was over cash, credit cards and cell phone were gone. Believe it or not, later that same day, after we had cleaned up (the slime also reeks) we were slimed again. This time we knew what was coming and our shouts at the would be attackers caused them to flee. We are not flashy tourists, just tourists and tourists do not look like locals. A writer above recommends just being careful. Well, even if I realized the first time what was about to happen and managed to scare off that first group of attackers, my wile and I would still have been covered with slime. They do that from behind; you can’t see it coming. Until the police get aggressive about putting a stop to this it will only get worse.

  • We travelled in BA and a man vomited everywhere on the subway train. We tried to help and got our laptop stolen in the process. We are street wise New Yorkers and did all the precautionary things you should do, with the laptop strapped to my partner’s body at the front, not left unattended,arm over the side of the bag, we’ve ridden the subway in NY our whole lives etc. but the scam was a low life one as the guy was really, really ‘genuinely’ throwing up. Police very helpful though.

  • Don’t forget to hit el ateneo. BTW someone who posted here is dead wrong… you hear English everywhere in BUE.The police (such as they are) will of extremely little if any help to you, except for insurance purposes. Guys, watch out for Argentine women. There’s lots and lots of handguns and submachine guns here (nice and cheap too), some food for thought

  • BsAs….No city like it. I benn to 4 continents, cities i’ve walked include BUE NYC, Seoul, DF, Montreal,…They’re all different but they’re all the same. Show people that you’re stupid and I promise bad things will happen to you anywhere. While you in ARG, get out and see the country, sip some mate’ in one of the provincial towns with the locals, Have some asado, Jump south to Patagonia, do this stuff. BA is a great town, but there’s alot more to Argentina. And the Argentines. !Argentinos ,esto gringo te queiro mucho!

  • Good point, Holly. The “mustard trick,” which I call “the pigeon poop ploy” when perpetrated in Barcelona, and is sometimes called “the condiment caper” in New York, happens in many big cities. It’s said to originate in South America, and police photos of perps seem to bear that out.

  • I lived in Buenos Aires for five years and while I won’t go so far as to say it’s 100% safe, nothing ever happened to me while I lived there.

    The mustard trick happens to locals too. A person who worked with me came into the office covered with it after being sprayed just two blocks away.

    The police, as in many areas, are usually working with the thieves, so it’s of no use to go to them. It’s just a waste of time.

    If you’re a paranoid traveler, then avoid Buenos Aires and any major city anywhere, even in the US. Stick to small towns. But if not, take the usual travel precautions and you should be fine.

  • Robberies are the most popular sport and way to get easy money in Buenos Aires Capital City. The robbery at Banco Provincia is just part of daily life here, and of course the city government turns a blind eye on everybody and spends public funds on new park benches, tourist attractions and the like, Here’s some video footage from a robbery at my candy store that took place back in July 2010. Nice and quick and well planned as you can see, after reporting it to the police and almost every other store on our block being held up at gunpoint, of course we still NEVER see a police officer around here. The mayor, Mauricio Macri, just had a lovely wedding and loves to blame the president for everything that happens in the country, however he is the one in charge of the police, but of course does nothing to protect the people…….NOW YOU KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON IN BUENOS AIRES, CAPITAL FEDERAL!!

  • Talking about thieves:
    ORLANDO, Fla — A local man wants to warn others about carport break-ins, and he’s pleading for help after thieves took off with his dog and thousands of dollars in electronics and jewelry.
    Miguel Taveras walked around his neighborhood Saturday, hanging up signs on telephone poles. He’s offering a reward for anyone who brings his dog Bronx, home.
    He said someone broke into his house Wednesday, took his 3-month-old American bulldog, along with two televisions, two play stations, three laptops and expensive diamonds and pearls.
    He said in broad daylight they broke down the back door to get inside.
    He said police told him burglaries in College Park are a problem and the thieves are targeting homes with hidden carports like his.
    His carport doesn’t face the road and it’s hidden with shrubbery.
    “The only thing we care about is our dog, Bronx. That’s all we want back,” Taveras said.
    A few weeks ago, the same thing happened to another homeowner down the road who also has a carport.
    A spokesperson with the Orlando Police Department said they can’t pull reports on the weekend.

  • Just got back from Buenos Aires and got my purse picked the first night right outside the Marriott. The management at the Marriott was cavalier and shrigged ..oh that’s Buenos Aires …certainly not a way to encourage future tourism. We r experienced travelers but they went though zipped purse, zipped wallet hooked inside purse with loop keychain. on another trip a friends wife was knocked down and her watch stolen by perps who zoomed off on a motorcycle.

  • I have spent two months in Buenos Aires; one month in 2008 and one month this past summer. I think I walked 100 miles in the city, a lot of it on and around Calle Florida. I did not witness any crimes nor did I ever feel threatened. I did not carry a wallet nor wear a watch. I kept my small camera in my pocket. I didn’t wear Disneyland tee shirts. I did have a backpack, which I held on my chest when I was in the crowded Subte (subway).Yes, there is crime there, as in any big city. St. Louis was just named as the most dangerous city in the U.S. Will I continue to visit Buenos Aires, one of the most amazing cities in S.America? You bet…

  • I lived in Buenos Aires from 2006 – 2008 and was never a victim of crime because I was “street smart” and never wore flashy jewelry, “dressed the part”, and never acted as a dumb tourist. BA is a fabulous city and like every other large city, there are problems and places to avoid. Saying that, however, I have seen purses stolen from people walking on the street, but BA can’t be beat as it’s one of my favorite cities in the world.

  • Some of the posts are ridiculous. If you think BA is dangerous, then avoid Sao Paulo and Mexico City which have far higher criminality. In fact, avoid Caracas, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, pretty much all of Latin America. While you are at it, avoid Cape Town, Bombay, Delhi, and huge swathes of Africa and Asia. Turn on the news in Miami or New York and every day a fast food restaurant is being held up, there is a home invasion, or some tourist was mugged. A message for Ian, please avoid Argentina and Latin America entirely. People like you the region can do without. I previously lived in and have been traveling regularly to Argentina for the past ten years and have never had any problems. Those posts that recommend dressing down, or as my father used to say, keeping a low profile are spot on. You Euros somehow think that everything is better and safer in the old world. I witnessed street crime in Zurich (the man robbed someone and escaped on a bicycle) and Madrid. This is a GLOBAL problem. Governments need to take more action and in some countries empower law enforcement and give them the tools to fight this scourge. However, the recent crisis created more poverty, and hence more criminality. The world needs more enducation and more jobs to put a dent in this problem.

  • I just returned from Buenos Aires- was waiting for a taxi outside the apartment I had been renting – the taxi was late- I had two big suitcases filled with instruments and a bagpack with passport, green card, airplane ticket, money, computer etc. A person came up and asked if I needed a hotel – I said no- that was a distraction- somebody stole my bagpack while I answered – the police did not want to come and help- nobody on the street was hepful – I warn everyone that goes to Buenos Aires to keep everything on your body in pockets- not in bags or visible- do not talk to anyone you do not know- do not look like a tourist in any way- a very disappointing experience with consequenses- I had to wait for several days for letter of transportation at the US Embassy and I also had to get a passport on the Danish embassy. And get a new airplane ticket. Not a great experience.

  • I am a frequent traveller to Latin America and I often advise friends to avoid Buenos Aires. My advice to travelers in Buenos Aires is to dress down and take safe taxis while avoiding walking if possible unless it is in a very upscale part. I personally choose to carry a knife and a collapsable truncheon whenever I do have to walk there. I’ve lost track of how many street crimes I have witnessed. Aside from cheap leather goods, there is little of interest in this city as it is an impoverished graffiti filled shabby imitation of a European city. If Buenos Aires were a woman then she would be one of those typical middle aged Argentines with the cheap peroxide blonde hair, she is desperately trying to look young and European while fooling no one. Buenos Aires offers nothing you can’t find elsewhere. If observing and studying street crime is your hobby then is is a great destination.

  • I’ve got to agree with John. Handing over your money is feeding the hand that bites you. My experience, even here in the U.S. is that streets are safest when citizens are willing and prepared to defend themselves. It isn’t pretty, but it is the truth.

  • We were in BA two years ago. Two muggers approached us in broad daylight near Florida Street. I carry a switchblade strapped to my leg and another large switchblade in my pocket. When the mugger tried to take my watch, I sliced off his nose. The other mugger started to run; I chased him and cut his face with two strokes. That is the way top handle street criminals in BA

  • If you’re thinking of going to Buenos Aires, please read OSAC’s “Argentina 2009 Crime and Safety Report” dated 8/19/09. OSAC is the U.S. Government’s Overseas Security Advisory Council.

    The report is here:

    Specifically, OSAC suggests that everyone carry US$100-200 or equivalent in Argentinian pesos, because “Criminals in Argentina frequently resort to violence if they perceive a victim is being uncooperative or if the target does not have anything worth stealing. Those without money to offer thieves are most likely to be attacked or beaten. If confronted, offer no resistance and immediately hand over everything demanded.”

  • Instead of avoiding Buenos Aires, Kathy, it’s better to go PREPARED. The age-old advice, dress down, is timeless and should be taken seriously. A tennis bracelet—isn’t that basically a string of diamonds? Doesn’t matter if they’re fake; the thief can’t tell. He sees diamonds, or flash, and it translates to “wealthy foreigner.” He may look you up and down and decide to go for your purse or wallet. He may bide his time and wait for an opportunity, if you look like you’re worth it. Dress down, don’t give the thieves easy opportunities, and at least you won’t be a magnet to them.

    On the other hand, if you decide to skip Buenos Aires because of street crime, you’ll skip many of the world’s greatest cities. Buenos Aires is not unique, as the stories in this blog prove.

    Dress down, don’t give thieves an easy opportunity, and research your destination before you go.

  • My husband and I have visited BA several times over the last 10 years. (We enjoy and dance Tango)
    The last time we were mugged in broad daylight in San Martin park across from the Marriott.
    We were sitting on a bench, the park was crowded with people. Two men attacked us and stole my husbands watch (which was hidden under a tEnnis braclet) and the other man tried to get my watch, but I bent my body forward covering the watch. A third mugger was waiting to help their escape on a motor bike We met another couple who were also mugged in broad daylight on the most busy street in BA.
    The tourist police (in orange vests) are a farce. They only make their location obvious to the muggers, What is needed are undercover police posing as tourists.
    If you go to the American Embassy you will find many Americans waiting for days, for a replacement passport, because they were robbed of thier money, jewlery, and travel documents. – BE WARNED – THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU. – IT IS BETTER TO AVOID BUENOS AIRES.

  • Steve Martin. LA Story. Victoria Tennant. Richard E Grant. They’ve just been to dinner at l’Idiot (run by Patrick Stewart) and are at an ATM. The people waiting to use the ATM are lined up at one side. There’s another line at the other side…

    Sounds like the directive’s implying things are getting that bad.

    The people on the other side of the ATM are queuing up to rob the people one by one as they get their cash. Martin gets his cash and the next robber pops up, baseball cap and hippie locks, toting a revolver.

    ‘Hi! I’m Bob and I’ll be your robber tonight!’

    Martin smiles as if this is all both pleasant and expected, hands over the cash, and he and Tennant and Grant are on their way again. Just a typical evening in modern life.

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