We did so much reading about potential dangers and risks traveling Colombia that we didn’t really bother a whole lot with Ecuador. If we did do some more research we would have learned about the prominent thefts, bag snatching/slashing and pick pocketing in Quito. That being said, other than this incident we felt completely safe and comfortable in Quito, night or day. Feeling this safe is probably what led to us getting a bit lazy and becoming a target for thieves.
It was our second day and we were wandering the streets of the Old City around 11:00am. We had just left the Basilica of the National Vow and were headed towards the La Virgin del Panecillo. If you want to know what the heck either of those places are, read our full Quito blog here. The streets weren’t very busy, maybe ten people for every city block. We felt safe. Jeff had his wallet in an unzipped pocket and a backpack on with some random valuables. Britt had a camera around her neck and cell phone in the front pocket of her sweater. If we had we been at a market, bus station or another place known for higher crime rates we might have been more cautious.
We remember a group of three teens walking towards us, each looked to be around eighteen years old. We didn’t pay much attention at the time but after they walked past us, they exchanged some words between each other, we heard this and turned around to notice they were walking back towards us again. Still no major reason to worry, they came close to Jeff and showed him some posters of random cartoon characters asking him to buy. We said “No” but two of them stayed persistent with Britt and were touching her, tapping her shoulder, getting a little too close. We quickly got annoyed and when Jeff said “No” for a final time they carried on. Seconds later, Britt felt her pockets and knew her cell phone was gone. The piece of technology we use for pictures, to navigate city streets, communicate with people back home etc… It sucks to lose a phone anywhere, let alone while traveling.
Our initial instinct was to doubt ourselves. Or at least Jeff was doubting how certain Britt was that she just lost it. The fact was these kids were already a block away from us and the whole encounter was super suspicious. So, we decided to chase them. They didn’t run, but were trying to maintain the space between us. We caught up and stopped them. Obviously there was some serious language barriers but they knew we were accusing them and they strongly denied it, even turning there pockets inside out to prove they took nothing. They tried to leave but we threatened “Policia” and continued to follow them. This ordeal started to garner some attention from local shop owners and other people on the street. We did our best to communicate to them that the teens we are following stole from us. Finally, we had the teens stopped again on a street corner and we were accusing them, telling them to give the phone back, all the while keeping a look out for police or someone to give us a hand. Minutes later a local whistled at a cop on a motorcycle. He stopped and we explained to him as best we could that we think they pick pocketed us and took our phone. He lined them up on the wall and they continued to deny it. One teen got mouthy and said something like “stupid Gringo’s” and this got him a good smack across the face by the cop. It was clear he agreed with us.
It didn’t take long before we were surrounded by a group of at least 20 locals and more police kept arriving to the scene. They took this act of petty theft on tourists very serious. Eventually all three of the teens were loaded into the back of a cruiser. The police asked us to hop on the back of motorcycles with them and we sped off to the station.
The police asked us to wait while the searched the teens. A few minutes later one of the police asked us to come with him, they found our phone. We were relieved. Not only to have it back but to know for sure these little punks actually took it. They brought us back to a corner of the police station, and took a few pics of them returning the phone to us. Whether the pic was for files or bragging rights we still don’t know. Jeff could see they had the teens lined up on the ground, being forced to hold a push up position. One cop stood over them with a huge stick, about 3 inches in diameter and 5 feet long. The police asked us if we wanted to file a report. We have read that usually its a good thing. However we left it up to the police. They didn’t tell us specifically not to but explained in the best english they could that due to the current political situation, and the fact the thieves were younger it may not be a good idea. We still don’t know exactly why. Maybe they don’t like the paperwork. What we do know is the teens didn’t go unpunished. The police told us we could go and the teens would also be released about 5 minutes after us. Based on what we heard while walking away, the big stick was put to use.
The whole situation was a bit overwhelming. Of course we were happy to get our phone back and help catch some thieves. But, it was clear these teens were seriously disadvantaged. Obviously poor, lacking health care and proper education. Thieves are opportunists and we gave them an opportunity. We hope they learned a lesson and made some better choices but reality may be different.
This is why its important to take steps to avoid being a target while traveling. Not only is it for your own safety and belongings, but if everyone does then the career of a thief is a lot less lucrative and these kids might choose something else.
We learned that in addition to selling posters, another front for pick pockets in Quito is flowers. The “mustard trick” is another where the thief discreetly squirts you with mustard or another sauce than approaches, and offers to wipe it off, while taking your wallet. The pick pockets are skilled in Quito. Everything from these stealthy methods to outright cutting the bottom out of you bag and taking off (bag slashing) happens daily. Any belongings you do need to carry are best in a zipped pockets or a hidden pouch. Dont give anyone a reason to think you have valuables or a lot of money on you and we bet you will find Quito perfectly safe.