When you look for information about everyday life in Latin America, you will necessarily read stories about safety/safety issues, and you will worry. Which is good: it is important to think about safety before you move – anywhere! But why has Latin America a bad reputation when it comes to safety? Is it really that unsafe?
First of all, it is important not to generalize: not all countries present the same figures and statistics, on the contrary they are very different from one Latin American country to another. For instance, Panamá is considered one of the safest countries of Latin America, whereas Brazil and Mexico suffer from a very bad image.
What defines a country’s safety – or insecurity?
As in all countries, safety is measured using the annual number of complaints and police investigations for (among others) violence, theft, robberies, assaults… as compared to population. When it comes to expatriation, you namely want to know whether you can walk or drive in the street without worrying about being attacked, what kind of neighborhood and what safety measures need to be taken for your home (security guards, alarm, video surveillance…), and if you have kids, how safe the trip to school will be.
How can I evaluate the level of safety?
There is no miracle, you need to do your research. Internet can provide you with basic information, like crime statistics in given region or town, the latest crimes explained in the newspapers (which tend to love sensationalism!). If you’re an expat, some companies provide you with a list of situations to avoid as well as advice and various rules to follow. They are generally very careful. But there’s nothing like asking locals. They know what to expect, and will usually be very honest with foreigners, usually providing you with more security tips than necessary. They will also be more precise: where an expat’s company would say “never do this”, locals would give you more qualitative information “never do this, there/in this situation”.
What rules to follow / How should I behave ?
Rule number 1: adapt you behavior
All tourists are constantly being told not to wear too visible jewelry, not to show off their latest Iphones by keeping them in their hand instead of in their pocket or bag, or to get into unidentified cabs at night… These are basic safety rules, it sounds like common sense, and yet some people still get robbed for not following them.
So keep in mind that your carefulness and awareness is the first and non-negotiable rule.
Adapt your behavior basically means be aware that anytime, at any place, there is a risk. Most of the times and most of the places nothing will happen, but it will more probably happen when you least expect it, when you feel too comfortable and start acting too relaxed. For example, we were once walking around the historical district of a Latin American city, and as we went in the wrong direction, we went back and forth in the same street a couple of times. That’s when my son noticed someone behind us, who had gone back and forth like us, for no obvious reason: wasn’t that suspicious? We noticed him thanks to my son’s watchfulness.
Rule number 2: Inquire about dangerous neighborhoods and typical attacks
Know that people in Guatemala keep extra changes and sometimes an old cellphone at hand in their car because many (armed) robberies happen while waiting at a red light… and at night, if they can avoid to stop at the red light, they will keep driving for the same reason.
In Brazil, avoid using apps like Waze, because the shortest way sometimes goes through favelas, and so far there is no option in the app to avoid risky neighborhoods.
Rule number 3: choose safety over price
If there are many closed and secured neighborhoods in the area you are interested in, it’s probably to answer a need for protection… it’s a hint that living in a less secured building or in a detached house is (cheaper, yes but) may not be a good idea…
Rule number 4: choose safety over pleasure
You’re being told the neighborhood is not safe at night? Don’t take unnecessary risks, avoid hanging there at night. And if you do have to, avoid going by bus. If you can, take you own car or drive with someone you know and trust. If you can’t, order a taxi from a known and reliable company, do not just step in one you come across on the street. And Always memorize (or write down) its license plate and taxi license number.
Rule number 5: apply which ever other specific rule you are told by locals. They know best and only want to help you, so listen to them.
Can I really avoid safety issues?
If you apply all the basic rules listed above, starting with the “do never feel too confident or comfortable”-rule, you will avoid unnecessary risks. It doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen to you. Sometimes you can be assaulted on the parking lot of a fancy shopping mall, or when you’re waiting for the kids outside of school. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. But at least you will save yourself from avoidable harm.
And never forget this: if, despite everything, you get mugged, don’t resist! They want your cash, your phone, your keys: hand it to them. Whatever it is they want, it will always be worth less than your life.
And this is why Latin America as a bad reputation when it comes to safety. Because the main source of insecurity in Latin America is this: the attackers don’t care about life, just about getting what they want. It might be a moment of panic, it might be ruthlessness, it doesn’t matter: they will kill you without hesitation if you resist.
Better warned than sorry
I do not intend to scare you off, just to warn you. Again, if you apply basic safety rules as much as possible, chances are : nothing bad will happen to you!