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Robbed at Gunpoint in Cuenca Ecuador (Why We Stayed)

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We were robbed. By two men with a gun and a knife in front of our house in Cuenca, Ecuador. And this post has taken me two years to write.

robbed-cuenca-ecuador
The day after it happened I knew I would blog about it – I just didn't realize it would take me so long.
We've referred to it in the comments of other posts and we've talked to many expats about it. And although I've tried a dozen times before I just couldn't bring myself to live through that moment again. But it's been long enough.

Here goes.

Our Armed Robbery Experience in Cuenca, Ecuador

June 2012. We were visiting friends for the evening and came home around 9 pm.  Our daughter Drew wasn't feeling well so she went upstairs. Our neighbor was outside and Dena and I stayed downstairs to chat with him.
We left our gate open after we drove our truck in. He was having a cigarette – his wife was pregnant at the time so he was smoking outside on this cold evening. They were a very nice couple – both born and raised in Cuenca. Drew had gone up stairs to get ready for bed. And left the door to our apartment open.

We were at least 45 minutes on the sidewalk having a conversation. During that time we saw some of our neighbors arriving home and some other people walking around the neighborhood.

And then we saw two young men turn the corner and walk straight towards us. As soon as we saw them we knew we were in trouble. We were about 40 feet away. It took just a few seconds for them to reach us. As they were 20 feet away they pulled out their weapons. The one on the left had a black pistol and the other one a well worn and sharpened kitchen knife.

They were asking for phones and wallets. I don't remember exactly how the conversation played out. Our minds kind of froze up. Dena doesn't remember anything they said.

With their weapons in hand they began to pick over us like a couple of vultures on a carcass. They patted me down. Reached in my pockets. Took my wedding ring off my finger. Moved Dena's scarf and unhooked her necklace. They took the rings off her fingers as well. They took our keys.

Our neighbor protested. He told them that they could have his stuff but he needed his license and cedula. The man with the gun put it to my neighbors head and said that he would take whatever he wanted.

The gun thief picked me and our neighbor clean. While he searched me, he put the barrel of the gun into my stomach. The knife thief cleaned anything of value that he could get off of Dena.  All the while we stood there with our hands involuntarily above our heads. The jerk with the gun didn't get my phone as he was going through my pockets, so I pulled my jacket back and showed him where it was. My phone was worth more than everything else they took combined. After he was done with us the one with the gun went to check on how his buddy with the knife was doing with Dena, they were both stand there in front of her with a knife and gun pointed at her.

When they were finished, they took off down the street. When they got to the opposite corner of the block one of them whistled and threw our keys down on the sidewalk and took off running. We waited another minute and walked down to get them.

In less than five minutes it was over.

Well for us anyway. As we quickly locked up our gate I asked our neighbor not to do anything until the morning. A few minutes later a pickup truck pulled up to the house and he went with a group of friends to hunt for these two guys.

And then a police truck with the lights flashing drove around for a while. I guess we all respond differently. For me, I was happy for it to be over. He wanted resolution. He wanted these guys to pay. Vigilante justice is common here.

If they had kept our keys we would have had to sleep somewhere else because they could have entered our place whenever they wanted. It seems that they took the keys so we couldn't follow them in our cars.

robbed-cuenca-ecuador

How We Responded to the Loss (& Why We Stayed)

We didn't care about the stuff we lost. At least not the monetary value of it. A few things had sentimental value. Dena lost a ring that we had bought in Aruba (our first international trip together). My wedding ring was just a decoy. A cheap $12 silver band.

The actual wedding band that Dena gave me on our wedding day was safely stored. Dena's jewelry was all silver and worth less than $100 total. Our friends feel that the thieves though it was all white gold. Otherwise they wouldn't have wasted the time taking it.

My phone had personal data – photos of important documents, of my family and other personal information. And they knew where we lived.

What we really lost that day was our feeling of security. It made us feel like we couldn't stay in Ecuador. We felt like they would come find us to get more stuff and money. That night we seriously considered leaving Ecuador.

While we decided to stay in Ecuador, we did decide that we couldn't stay in that house or that area. We had to move.

Within the week we moved to El Palermo – the largest apartment complex in the city. It has guards and cameras and an automatic gate opener so we could return home day or night without fear of this happening again. We felt that the only way we could stay in Ecuador was to get over the overwhelming feeling of fear and insecurity. And it worked. After a year there we had gotten over that fear and we left El Palermo.

In retrospect we were very naïve. It was dark and we lived on a fairly isolated side street. We had gotten comfortable with the area and the city in general. We knew that this type of thing happened but it didn't seem like it would ever happen to us.

Why we stayed. We knew that these feelings would pass. We also knew that getting robbed once didn't mean that it would happen again. In fact, we didn't know any other expats that this had happened to – not in Cuenca anyway. We knew of expats who had their homes broken into but this also happened in our hometown of Nova Scotia (Canada). In both cases, our friends were out and they came home to less stuff.

As expats we do stand out more. It's easy to imagine that this makes us more of a target. While I'm sure that is true in some settings, I don't think this was the case this time. The thieves were in an almost exclusively Ecuadorian neighborhood – robbing people for weeks.

There is a need not to make things different than they really are. We refused to let this experience change our view of the country and its people. Ecuadorians are very welcoming to expats and obviously this didn't change because of two random strangers from who-knows-where.

We are happy that we stayed.

How Getting Robbed Affected Me

I thought about getting robbed before. We both knew to just give them whatever they wanted. But the lingering emotion was something I didn't expect.

Seeing a man hold a huge knife up to my wife's delicate face and neck is an image I will never get out of my mind.

She was so brave and responded so well. I am so proud of her – and upset with myself for having allowed her to be in that situation. As a husband and father it is my job to protect my family. And I failed to keep them safe.

  • Fear: This was definitely my first response. After the thieves left we went inside, locked all the doors (and heaped furniture in front of them) and sat on the bed and cried for hours as we held each other.
  • Stupid: I couldn't believe that I had put my family at risk like that. I still think about what could have happened that night. We had a huge metal gate, with 4 rows of electric wire on top and we decided to leave it all open. I still feel stupid about that.
  • Anger: I would be lying if I said I didn't feel angry at them. And at the whole situation. This emotion has passed.
  • Frustration: There are so many what-if's in a scenario like this. What if we had stayed at our friends place a little longer? What if we didn't visit with our neighbor downstairs? What if they entered our house? What if one of us reacted violently towards them? Although I rationally know that nothing can be done – thinking about the possibilities make me frustrated.
  • Insecure: This is an obvious emotion. It affected us more than I expected. Although we talked about it a lot the first few months, it has hardly come up in conversation during the past year. I certainly feel differently when I am on an empty street. And when I'm on foot at night.

At first Dena was afraid to leave the apartment without me. It was hard for her to even walk across the street to the cafe. She looked suspiciously at anyone who resembled the robbers. A couple of months after the robbery we were walking downtown and a man (resembling one of the thieves) on a bicycle slowed down close by her, tipped his bike toward her putting his foot on the sidewalk, she was startled and thought he was going to rob her. While she knew it was not rational to react that way, it was not something she could control. It was a difficult time.

We never reported the crime. We didn't even speak with the police. The thieves knew who we were and where we lived. We were the only light-skinned foreigners in that sector of the city. It wouldn't have been hard to find us again. They had pictures of our daughter!  The police told our neighbor (who didn't have the nerve to sign /file a report either) that these same two guys had been robbing people in that area of the city every night for the past six weeks. They had arrested them a number of times, found stolen goods on them – but ‘couldn't do anything without a signed complaint.

It's nice to think big picture and take a principled stand, and say that we should have reported the crime to prevent it from happening to someone else. But the fact is that it happened to us – and we were scared of something worse happening to our family.

What About Crime in Cuenca? Is It Safe?

There are expat and travel bloggers that proudly state how safe it is in Cuenca. They walk down the street any time day or night without problems. Good for them.

Sure, Cuenca is safe. But what are you comparing it to? I'm sure that there are worse places. I also know that there are safer places.

I know that since we were robbed we are more careful not to sugarcoat things for incoming expats and travelers.

Stuff happens. Saying that it doesn't just makes you look stupid and puts naïve people at risk. People need to know the real situation – not some expat-marketed, spin-doctored slant that twists and deceives. No place is perfect.

We have heard that what happened to us is very uncommon in Cuenca. Usually it's pick-pocketing or a break in when no one is home. Being assaulted like that is rare, especially with a gun. We still enjoy the city, but we are more careful, and we try to make others more aware of what it's like to live in Cuenca.

Getting robbed has made us more savvy travelers and better bloggers. And writing about this has a solid therapeutic value for me.

We are very happy that we stayed in Ecuador. It took time to get over the trauma and to stop looking suspiciously at anyone that resembled the robbers. We knew those feelings would pass and we are so glad we allowed time for that.

An Ironic Twist

The morning that we were robbed we published a post entitled: Where are the dangerous areas in Cuenca? The post starts off stating: “Well, I guess I should start off and explain that we haven’t had many problems here in Cuenca. But it would be naive to think that crime isn't a problem here.” 

That same night we were robbed at gunpoint in front of our home.

Now it's your turn…

Have you been robbed on your travels? Or as an expat? How did you handle it?

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Drew

Tuesday 23rd of October 2018

Last night I was watching international house hunting and you guys were featured on it. I thought I would Google "Crime in Cuenca" to see what it was like. Ironically, I ended up on your blog. 5 years ago I lived in Quito and taught at a school in Cumbaya. I left after 8 months. I have been living in Istanbul for 5 years and feel much safer here, (regardless of it's geographical location and what you see on the news). There are many thieves in Latin America. Even my cleaner was stealing from me in Quito. I hope you guys are doing well.

James

Monday 4th of September 2017

I'm glad you three survived your encounter, but I must admit I am baffled by your response. Have you since armed yourself? Take Krav Maga, it is great for your health and is designed for just such scenarios- it came about as a means for Jews to defend against Nazi brutality. Nothing could prevent Hitler's plan, on the scale he implemented it, but many Nazi's were disuaded from their attacks, early in the war, by the blossoming art of Krav Maga. I don't know the laws there about weapons, but could you arm yourself with a knife or firearm? I flew F-15's primarily, in the Air Force, but I spent 9 years as a police officer and 5 of those as a SWAT officer with a DEA narcotics task force.. Crime can- and does- happen everywhere. I have seen many people, who did everything the criminal asked...and were killed anyway. A corpse is a corpse, and that is permanent. You need to prepare for it, not just plan to avoid it. Do both. Trust me, you will feel better about yourself and your ability to protect your family. Hopefully you will never need to use the skills you learn...but better to have and not need than need and not have...right? It is a well proven fact that confidence and body language will very often stop a crime before it begins- they want an easy target, not a difficult one. Simply holding your stance correctly and meeting their eyes might have prevented the crime. You did not call the police because they know where you live...? You should have called them- or gone after them yourself- precisely because they had that information. They are a constant threat, to you and others. You left them there to prey on the next person. I am glad you are ok, but I do hope you take more from this experience than "run and hide". Think of the next victim- which might easily have been you, again. Next time they may well have had rape on their minds. What would you do then, Bryan? All the best, Bryan. Please consider my words. I lived in Costa Rica for years, and worked as a pilot. I flew all over south and central America, and it is most definitely a Latin trait to prey on the weak- in business and crime. Do not be that victim.

Sam

Thursday 28th of December 2017

A “Latin trait to prey on the weak”? Are you kidding me? Are you suggesting that criminals around the world don’t have a tendency to prey on the weak and the ones that they know that they could easily take advantage of? You’re acting like a moron.

Bryan Haines

Monday 4th of September 2017

Hey James - is "going after them myself" your professional, police-trained opinion?

Lynn

Saturday 25th of June 2016

Aloha, This is a GREAT blog! I'm so glad you shared you're incident. There are a lot of people marketing retirement areas all over the world saying they are safe, and that's their perspective. My perspective comes from growing up in an area in San Diego with many gangs, living in Los Angeles for over 3 years (in one of the worst areas) and getting mugged, having my car stolen, and living on several places in Orange County (good and bad areas). But my father was a police officer, and now my brother is a SWAT, so I was raised to be aware and take care and avoid situations. And even though I've had guns pointed at me on the freeways in Los Angeles and Orange County, been mugged, and followed, had my car stolen (and amazingly enough it was recovered before they were able to strip much off of it), and lived in many areas with gangs, I've been very fortunate to enjoy each area and not be a victim. I've traveled many places in the world and you just have to have a careful mindset, keep valuables close or hidden, and give no one a reason to even think you would be a good target. And it's important to remember that no matter where in the world you go, or the US, there is crime, unfortunately. Overall, it's better to be aware that there is crime (of all kinds) and be educated and prepared and know what to do, then to be ignorant and unknowing, and become a victim or be surprised by it. Thank you again for sharing. Much mahalo

Verna Mandel

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Well, I've lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years and honestly...after having my house broken into three times and police doing nothing..... I think the US is more of a third world country than South America!

Donna

Thursday 31st of December 2015

So glad you and your family were not hurt - what a terrifying experience you went through. I guess no where is totally safe, I grew up in Chicago, Uptown and East Village, lived most of my life there. Left in 1999, never had a problem and Chicago has always had such a terrible reputation. One thing I learned there is to walk with purpose and never look lost or confused. I now live in the mountains of Colorado - no problems here. My only experience with robbery would be being pick pocketed in Rome! Riding a crowded bus - I was stupid. I travel internationally about 3 or 4 times a year and have never had a problem of any kind, anywhere (except Rome). I've been lucky, right places, right times. My husband and I are thinking of relocating to Cuenca. I've read a lot of blogs and it sounds lovely. Decided that condo life would suit us best - no yard work and the type of maintenance that a home would require. Also, thought it would be safer. Have already decided that if we settle overseas, we won't bring anything valuable except computers and iPhones. Nothing fancy, no fancy jewelry, no expensive purses and the like - don't need that stuff and don't want to call attention to it. Pack the dogs, cats and go. Don't know what Lily's issue is - strange response to your blog. Begs the question, just how easy is it to get meds? Someone might need hers. Thank you for your blog, I've subscribed to IL and they do tend to sugar coat stuff so I appreciate the dose of reality I have found here. Cheers, be safe, be happy.