Cuenca 911

Reno-911-07George’s iPhone and both of our cameras were stolen yesterday. Boo-boo, and shame on us for not paying attention. We take full responsibility for being foolish. The bigger problem, however, is the incompetent and lazy police in Cuenca. And if Ecuador doesn’t address the police problem, then she will earn the same bad reputation enjoyed by Rio de Janeiro and Lima for crimes against tourists.

We’ve been around the world and this is our first real theft, not including a few overly long taxicab rides. It was bound to happen eventually—tourists are universally targeted. We’ve had some near misses: I managed to foil a band of kids in Lima, and our touring companion managed the same in Bratislava; In Barcelona I noticed three guys casing George and our friend Terry, and gave them a hard stare so they understood I had their number–they disappeared. This time we were not so fortunate. I guess we were “about due”.

The cops in Cuenca could care less what happens; particularly to tourists. They are not even smart enough to pretend to care. For example:

Last Saturday, the building behind our hotel hosted a party. The music started at 10PM and continued past 3AM. Usually, the sound of a party doesn’t bother me. I like to hear people having fun. But this was ridiculous—it sounded like the DJ was in our flat. I finally went down to the front desk at 2AM, and the poor clerk was beside himself. The music was even louder down there, and guest complaints were mounting. He had called the police several times, and each time they promised to be there in five minutes. We went out into the street, and the entire block was awake, walking bleary eyed and begging for the music to be lowered.


I stayed outside with the hotel clerk for an hour. During that time, he called the police three times, and each time they said they would come in five minutes before quickly hanging up. On the third call, they said they could see in the surveillance cameras and could not see any disturbance. Duh, you can’t see sound!

It turned out to be a wedding, and we watched in the cold, early morning air as revelers left the party. People carried sleeping children who are now destined to go deaf by junior high. One guy was so drunk, he had trouble pulling out of his parking spot. It took him about 15 minutes, despite the fact that there was no one parked in the space in front of him or behind him. He eventually drove off into the night. The police never came.

The Cuenca Tourism board should be furious with the lack of response from the police. The hotel was full that night, and none of these people will return. I’m sure they’ll tell their friends back home that Cuenca is a loud, unruly place. I thought the hotel owners should complain to the tourism board, but I doubt they will: They feel helpless, too.

They themselves were robbed two weeks ago. A group of people came in and swarmed the front desk, keeping staff busy by having them check available dates and rates and requesting quotes in writing—many people asking numerous questions all at once. Another person distracted the restaurant’s waiter while a woman slipped into the office, ransacked the desk drawers and stole two laptops. George and I arrived while the police were “investigating”. Their attitude, we learned, was such that they didn’t plan to do much. I was told they didn’t even take a copy of the hotel’s security system which captured the whole thing, including clear shots of the faces and actions of the entire group. They apparently refused to look at their own surveillance camera video which was right outside the front door. Everyone knew: Nothing was going to happen.

Just a few years ago, Ecuadorian Police had a reputation for corruption. They were notoriously underpaid and, therefore, prone to bribes. The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, an Economist who studied at The University of Illinois, raised their pay substantially and the corruption declined significantly. Unfortunately, the cops’ greed was replaced by lethargy and complacency.

President Correa also understands that Ecuador NEEDS tourism. Ecuador uses the American Dollar, so they cannot print money like other sovereign nations. They must have a balanced budget, or more dollars will flow out than in, which would cause a money shortage and national panic. Tourism dollars are a one-way deal: All of those tourism dollars flow IN, not OUT. Even the ex-pat community is an economic necessity, because their entire Social Security and Pension income is spent on good and services here. With oil as their number one export, and the price of oil at its lowest point in decades, their in-flow of dollars has dramatically decreased. They cannot afford a drop in tourism. They even invested in two Super Bowl commercials to increase visitors.

As a result, their official statistics show a decrease in crime, but during our experience we discovered the real reason: The Police do not bother to report most crimes. Here is our tale:

We boarded a public bus for Giron to see the waterfalls, and placed our backpacks on the shelf above our seats. A young man helped us. Before the bus left the station, another man distracted us by taking our names (we’ve seen names being taken before). When we arrived at our destination an hour later, we discovered our loss.

All four of us (our friends Sandy and Judy are visiting) can recall the entire operation. We can describe the young man who “helped” us, and the man who distracted us. The man who preoccupied us with the “forms” had left the bus. As the bus was pulling away, the first guy spoke to the driver and hopped off too. We believe the bus driver was in on it.

Giron is an hour away from Cuenca, and we explained what happened to a local restaurateur. He called the local police, who showed up and took notes on a small pad. He is the only official in this story who seemed to care. But we were a long drive from the scene of the crime—we knew we had to also report the incident to the local police in Cuenca.

The four of us are native New Yorkers, hence we had no delusions of recovering our possessions. We simply felt that this was a well-oiled operation and, if we could provide the police some more pieces of the puzzle, they just might eventually put this syndicate out of business. At this point, the value we could add was information.

Upon arrival in the Cuenca bus terminal we went directly to the Police. Judy and George both speak Spanish, and told the Policewoman at the front desk our story. She looked at us glassy-eyed, and was playing with her stapler while she pretended to listen. When our tale of woe was finished, she stifled a yawn while telling us that they had no jurisdiction. We pushed harder—making it clear that the crime happened here, at this station, which they were in charge of.

We could see into the office behind her, so we watched as she talked to another uninterested police officer. He looked annoyed that his staring into space and twirling his pen had been interrupted. He sluggishly stood and donned his hat and uniform jacket, and instructed us to follow him through the bus station. He walked very, very slowly, and we followed liked lambs to the slaughter. He had us wait at the bottom of some steps, returning five full minutes later. He was terribly sorry, but the area the crime happened in did not have a camera.

I pointed out that the robbers could only come through one door, and that particular door had both a guard and a camera. He just gave us that faint, insincere smile that spoke volumes. He said no more, only adding that we had a right to file a report downtown at the municipal building. He clearly had no intention of filing any report himself, as neither he, nor anyone else, wrote anything down. At all. He was also sending us on a bit of wild goose-chase: The municipal building was closed until Monday.

Are the police in on it? I wouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t really say that. Even if they receive no direct benefit, their complacency strengthens the criminal’s behavior, and they are therefore equally guilty. And as crime increases, even if their “statistics” show a decrease, word of mouth will do Ecuador in.

Indifference on the part of the police can only result in increasing crime thus enabling the criminals and eroding public confidence. Ecuador will eventually need to change their million-dollar Super Bowl theme song “All You Need Is Love” to a more appropriate Beatle’s tune. May I suggest “Help!”?


(Note: We know we are lucky, all we lost is “stuff”.  George’s phone is set to erase itself immediately, should someone manage to turn it on.  We did not lose credit cards, passports, or anything but the phone and cameras.)

©Kyle Merker 2015

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