“If you are going to be pick-pocketed or mugged in Brazil, Salvador is likely to be the place,”
says the Lonely Planet guide on South America.
“Don’t take anything with you when you walk around Salvador. No watch, no expensive phone, no cards, no jewelry, not even fake jewelry,”
the lady from the cruise line Pullmantur had warned on the ship before we disembarked in Salvador, scaring some of the passengers into staying on board.
Well, nothing happened to me during two weeks in Salvador, although I lived in a neighborhood that some people called dangerous, I usually walked around alone, also late at night, I went into dark alleys, I looked white and foreign, I didn’t speak Portuguese, I was wearing a watch, khaki pants and a white or blue shirt, I had a camera with me which I often carried openly, and whenever I was lost, I took out my tablet to check the GPS.
I was never assaulted, mugged or robbed, but I noticed two things happening over and over: First, Brazilians would look at me in disbelief, particularly if I was in some dark alley at night, they would look at my camera, look at me again and I could notice the “Oh my god, this guy is so stupid to walk around like this” in their eyes. Second, people called at me from their windows or balconies to not go down that way or this way, either signalling with their hands or shouting “dangerous!”. That was very caring and nice.
There is a lot of standard advice on how to behave if you get mugged:
- Don’t resist. Your life is more important than your belongings.
- Give the robbers whatever they want.
- Don’t take all your cash and documents with you, but only what you need that day. This way, you limit your losses.
Often, this advice comes from people who did get robbed, though, so how much can their advice be worth? Obviously, it’s bullshit. Actually, it’s not only bullshit, but it’s dangerous advice. If Europeans and North Americans repeat this mantra of “don’t resist when you get robbed in Latin America,” of course the gangsters will prefer to attack people who are obviously tourists. “Haha, these gringos, they don’t even fight back. It’s like robbing little children, hahaha!” you can imagine the bandits laughing while having a drink after a successful day. Telling people to not resist muggers is like putting a huge “Rob me!” sign on top of their heads.
As the expert in not getting robbed, let me give you my advice:
- Look confident. It’s not so much about looking Brazilian/Colombian/Haitian or not. These people get robbed too, and you can’t fake it anyway. But walk confidently, as if you know where you are going or as if you live in that neighborhood, even if you have never been there and are completely lost.
- Look people in the eyes. I have had a few situations in which a group of young men was coming towards me in what looked like a potential ambush. I kept walking towards them, looked them in the eyes and either smiled slightly or indicated a nod as a greeting as I passed them. I could often sense how perplexed they were by this stranger who looked so out of place, but was behaving as if he lived just around the corner. If you avoid eye contact, you show fear and mark yourself as a victim.
- Don’t wear flip-flops. If a gangster wears sneakers and sees you in flip-flops, they know you will never be able to run after them. If you wear flip-flops, even the one-legged guy in a wheelchair can rob you.
To summarize this: Don’t look scared. Don’t look like a victim. If you don’t have natural confidence, watch a James Bond film before you go out, observe the way he walks and imitate it.
But even then, the worst-case scenario may happen. So here is my advice in case you do get robbed:
- If there is only one perpetrator, buy time. Pretend that you don’t understand what he wants. Pretend that you really want to help, but that you don’t speak Portuguese/Spanish. I also love to say “no thanks” in a polite way when people ask me for money, as if they offered me something. Smile and laugh! This will make him confused, he will lose his nerves and run away, looking for a more cooperative victim.
- If there are several gangsters, it’s a tough call. The aforementioned strategy can work as well, but if it’s a group with a macho/show-off dynamic, this strategy can backfire because you’ll put the guy who speaks to you on the spot. He doesn’t want to look stupid in front of his peers and he may respond with violence. Try to keep the whole group involved in your conversation. Don’t let anyone get into a clear leadership position.
- One type of robbery is to ask for your bank card, to take you to a cash machine and to ask you to take out cash right away (“express kidnapping”). In this case, pretend to be nervous and forgetful, enter a wrong PIN three times, and your card should be blocked or even withheld. You can also keep a card of an old, inactive account, pretend to be cooperative, but unfortunately there are only 12.33 $ in your account.
- Fight! This is best done after some talking, where you lull the robber into believing that you are a weirdo. They will lower their guard, hopefully also their gun or knife, and that’s when you strike. Obviously, try to reach for their weapon and use it. Don’t stab or shoot to kill, that would be over the top. But a stab or a shot into the thigh makes most people go down or crawl away. To get yourself into the right mood of aggressiveness, I recommend watching an episode of 24 before you leave the house. Think of yourself as Jack Bauer and you’ll be surprised how swiftly you will react.
Following the argument above, even if you fight and lose, you are making everyone else safer by removing the myth that tourists are docile victims.