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.
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.
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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.Â 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.Â A pickpocket will then approach the tourist offering to help clean the stain, and while doing so, he or an accomplice robs the victim.Â Thieves regularly nab unattended purses, backpacks, laptops, and luggage, and criminals will often distract visitors for a few seconds to steal valuables.Â While most American victims are not physically injured when robbed, criminals typically do not hesitate to use force when they encounter resistance.Â Visitors are advised to immediately hand over all cash and valuables if confronted.Â Thieves will target visitors wearing expensive watches or jewelry.
…¢ For more on the “condiment caper,” read:
The Pigeon Poop Pickpocket