After 8 months on the road, I’ve considered myself pretty fortunate for not having anything stolen from me yet. I’ve heard enough stories from fellow travelers that robberies/scams no longer seem as uncommon as I originally thought. Some were just petty theft while some were quite violent.
I met a guy who said he was walking alone one night in one of the cities in Guatemala and someone grabbed him while another person came over and started punching him in the face then went through his pocket to take his money. I’ve heard of buses getting hijacked by armed men. Bags getting slashed in crowded areas without the owner noticing. Drunk men robbing women late at night while they were on their way back to their hostels. Money exchange people on the streets who offer a very good exchange rate only for you to find out later that some of the money you received “magically” disappeared and the person you did business with had disappeared as well. Even in dorm rooms when people leave their MP3 players or smartphones on their bed just for a few minutes and then they’re gone. The list goes on.
Last week was the closest I’ve ever gotten to getting robbed. Just like in any other city, the touristic areas are usually where robberies occur. It happened in Avenida de Mayo near the city center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Luckily, I recognized the con right away as another traveler had warned me about it, making me very alert when it happened.
The robbery attempt was actually very organized, involving multiple people. Below is the pattern from my observations.
Step 1: Getting the target’s attention
While I was walking, someone suddenly squirted mustard either from behind me or above me. I was next to a building with a balcony when it happened so it could have come from the balcony or from a person behind me.
Step 2: Distraction #1 – The helpful bystander
As soon as that happened, a bystander just “happened to be” standing a few feet away, appearing to possibly have been waiting for a bus. He offered to help right away by handing me some napkins and a bottle of water.
At this point I realized that this was the con the fellow traveler I met in Mendoza have told me. I should’ve just simply said “No, thanks” and walked away, but I accepted the help as I wanted to wipe off the mustard right away. I was very careful, however. The guy wanted me to come to him and get closer as he tried to hand me more napkins. But I said, “No, thanks, I have a handkerchief.” He then suddenly walked away after that, leaving the bottle of water behind.
I then took off my backpack to start cleaning it as I thought that the attempt was over at this point and I was safe. I was wrong, there was a follow up.
Step 3: Distraction #2 – The fellow tourist
A few seconds later a lady passed by, pretending to be just another tourist and told me I have a lot of crap on my back. I had my guard down at this point as I didn’t expect her to be part of it, until she told me I should take off my shirt.
My backpack was on the ground but I kept a close eye on it. I kept looking at it every second or 2 while the lady kept trying to distract me, insisting that I take off my shirt. I kept saying no and kept glancing at my backpack.
Step 4: The grab
As the lady walked away, I had my eyes off my backpack probably for just 2 seconds when a guy suddenly appeared from the corner behind me and made an attempt to grab my backpack just when I looked back at it. He was very close but quickly backed off when he saw me looking.
I then quickly checked the contents of my backpack just in case and everything was still there, but it was very, very close.
I made a lot of mistakes handling this. I really should’ve just quickly walked away to another area to clean up as soon as I realized it was a distraction for someone to rob me. I’m still glad, though, that someone had told me about this or I probably would’ve fallen victim from it.