Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca Is a Very Safe City

Jun 5, 2023

Over the last decade, social media has become a major go-to resource for people to follow the news, especially crime reports. On Facebook, there are more than 14,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies communicating directly with the residents of their communities.

In Ecuador, Facebook groups announce the latest crime.  On June 3rd, an expat exclaimed, “Vilcabamba expat killed in home invasion.” Two weeks earlier, another expat stated, “Home invasion near Vilcabamba leaves one US citizen expat dead.”

Then there are what law enforcement calls petty crimes. A woman in Cuenca exclaimed her pocketbook was lifted from her. A young man from California said his phone was taken from him as well as $100.

Or you read someone stating their backpack with passport and credit cards was stolen at an El Centro hotel.

But do these Facebook pages present an accurate picture of the relationship between crime and crime statistics?

Stanford Law School Associate Professor Julian Nyarko collaborated with Ben K. Grunwald, professor of law at Duke University, and John Rappaport, professor of law at the University of Chicago, to design a study that could measure overreporting.

It is not surprising that the results of this study show crime news as presented and experienced on Facebook does not accurately reflect crime patterns in the local community.

Though the study focused only on the United States, it can apply to Cuenca, too.  Expats in Cuenca get worked up over one incident (I am not diminishing what it did to the victim) and think all of Cuenca is dangerous.

This journalist of four decades calls it, “The Domino Effect.” All it takes is one domino (Facebook post) and the dominoes start falling. Without using authoritative sources, people are taking social media posts and extrapolating it into fact.

Then there are the headlines.

All one reads from major news sources is the heinous crimes in Guayaquil and along the coast. For many, especially in the United States, that makes one to assume violent crime is spreading all over Ecuador.

It is NOT spreading everywhere.

Especially Cuenca.

Because the mainstream has focused on the 300 percent increase in murders by the drug gangs, one does not take the time to see this activity is concentrated near the shipping ports and fishing villages. South America is funneling a huge majority of its illegal drugs through Ecuador.

Not through Cuenca, which is in the Andes mountains.

Cuenca expat and retired criminology professor Martin Simmons told CuencaHighLife, “I read an article in a Quito newspaper Friday and the headline said violence was rising in Cuenca and Azuay province.”

He added that it is totally misleading. The ratings grabbing headline does not state that almost 60 percent of the murders in Azuay province are committed in the Camilo Ponce Enríquez canton.

With less than 3 percent of the population of the province and located three hours west of Cuenca, Camilo Ponce Enríquez is a center for illegal mining, “which is also the domain of criminal gangs,” according to Simmons.

It is not to say that crime has not risen in Cuenca. And for the rest of the world for that matter. The Covid pandemic caused an increase in crime everywhere in the world.

Cuenca did something about it. The June 5th CuencaHighLife headline exclaimed, “Crime drops in Cuenca and police credit citizen brigades and warnings to thieves for the trend.”

According to the National Police, crime in Cuenca has dropped 78 percent since the beginning of the year.  The crime categories include car thefts, murder, robberies, and violence against people.

That is one heck of a drop!

The downward crime trend is good news, but Cuenca has always been a relatively safe city. Crime rose in the pandemic years of 2021 and 2022, but only by about 3 percent a year.

Maybe the crime most people talk about in the United States is murder. According to January’s report from the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, the number of murders in the U.S. declined by 4 percent between 2021 and 2022, though that rate remained 34 percent higher than it was in 2019. Data for 2022 is incomplete.

When one talks about murders in Ecuador, it is always Guayaquil. It is not uncommon to hear that it is a dangerous place to be.

But is the Ecuadorian coastal city that bad? How does Cuenca compare to the country’s largest city? And is it really that bad in Ecuador compared to the United States?

Based on the most recent statistics, here are some murder rates. To compare apples to apples, the rate is per 100,000 people:


Cuenca, Ecuador: 6

Ecuador (Entire Country): 23

Chicago, Illinois: 29

Cincinnati, Ohio: 30

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 32

Kansas City, Missouri: 35

Guayaquil, Ecuador: 37

Rochester, New York: 39

Cleveland, Ohio: 42

Memphis, Tennessee: 44

Detroit, Michigan: 50

Baltimore, Maryland: 58

New Orleans, Louisiana: 74

St. Louis, Missouri: 88


The dropping crime rates in Cuenca are the result of a number of factors. According to the regional National Police, the addition of 300 police personnel to the local force has made great inroads. Law enforcement also credits the formation of neighborhood watch programs for deterring crime, particularly robberies and extortion.

In the Don Bosco barrio (the south side of the city), Flavio Gavilanes Vintimilla has put up several signs in his neighborhood to warn prospective bad guys. He told me last month that crime had risen in his neighborhood.

Gavilanes told me he put up over a dozen large signs from Tres Puentes to Parque Iberia. In our short conversation, he gave me the impression the signs were having a positive effect.

A police spokesman concurs as he told the local media that criminals are very aware of the signs that warn them of “the consequences of committing criminal acts.”

He is talking about the exercise of justice in private hands. In other words, citizens are taking justice into their own hands, which is illegal in Ecuador.

An example by the police spokesman was given: The murder of two men suspected of attempting to extort businesses and a third suspected of motorcycle theft.

The spokesman added, “We are very clear, however, that the exercise of justice in private hands is illegal and will be prosecuted. Very often, vigilantes attack innocent people and sometimes kill them. Anyone suspected of criminal acts who is detained by private citizens should be turned over to the police unharmed.”

Leaders of several Cuenca neighborhood anti-crime groups say they are working with police to make sure they are following the law.

Gustavo Hernandez of the El Valle anti-crime program told CuencaHighLife, “There is much anger toward thieves and vaccinators, but we understand that it is important that we operate under the rules.”

He added that his neighborhood group’s intention is not to perpetuate the cycle of crime and violence, but to stop it.

Remember that dude? I am talking about the young man whose phone was taken from him as well as $100.

Simmons talked to him, and the man said he was walking along the Yanuncay River after midnight. He admitted that he had been partying at a bar, and that he was “a little wasted.”

As my photo above proves, there is a lot of lighting along the Yanuncay River. Cuenca has made sure that most public places have sufficient lighting.

A woman told Simmons that her backpack was taken from her restaurant chair despite her sitting in it. She had no clue how it was taken from the back of her chair.

These are truly preventable crimes, especially in Cuenca, which has the lowest crime rate for major cities in Ecuador. And despite all of the bad news from Guayaquil and the coast as well as Vilcabamba, Ecuador has the fourth lowest rate of murder and violent crime in Latin America (which is every country south of the United States).

The rate of crimes of opportunity and petty crime is much higher in Latin America than in the U.S., Canada, and most European countries.

But it can happen anywhere. Just ask my youngest son, who was 23 years old, when he was visiting Athens, Greece. The green line of the Metro is notorious for pickpockets as it is heavily used by tourists.

After riding on the green line, my son went to the police station for the Athens Metro to tell them his wallet was stolen. My son was quickly informed he was just the latest victim. But he wasn’t. A French family was behind him to file a similar police report.

Even travel guru Rick Steves has been pickpocketed. He said that he was not following his own safety rules and had his wallet lifted from him while riding on the Paris Metro.

The bottom line is to pretend you are a tourist while walking about and enjoying Cuenca. Heck… Most of the time expats are walking around, taking in the beautiful sights of the city.

Maybe the number-one rule that most expats follow is not walking walk alone late at night and avoiding areas that are not well lit. A very good friend of mine, who is 80 years old, told me just the other day that she is not afraid to walk alone in Cuenca at night, but she will not be making a habit of doing it.

Every expat I have talked to in my 40 months down here has stated they feel safe in Cuenca. But they all add that one must use street smarts.

That includes securing your belongings out in public. At a restaurant, keep your backpacks and bags within sight. Wrap the straps around chair legs. My wife and I do that and put the bag in front of us, so it is under the table. Good luck not being obvious trying to steal it from there!

Walking around tourist places such as El Centro, wear your backpack in front of you. Have the strap of your purse across your chest, making it a lot more difficult to snatch and run.

Do not put anything in the rear pockets of your pants. Pickpockets are experts at lifting your expensive smartphone from your rear pockets without you noticing… until it is too late.

Joanna and I use Pacsafe bags for many places we go (I am not getting any payments for that statement). Pacsafe bags have straps that deter cut and run theft with their stainless-steel wire mesh. This stainless-steel barrier makes it nearly, if not impossible for this type of theft.

Stay vigilant in crowds and steer clear of commotions. A professional team of thieves will create a disturbance, a fight, a messy spill, to distract their victims.

That includes the famous “mustard trick.” A well-spoken and polite stranger will attempt to clean something from your clothing he claims that was thrown at you. Of course, as this “helpful” gentleman is cleaning the supposed mess, his associates will be taking your belongings.

If this happens to you, move along quickly. Walk into a nearby store or office if you feel threatened.

When you leave your hotel room, apartment, or house, take only the belongings with you that you think you will need for your trip. Don’t take valuables with you that are not needed for your journey.

One last tip that is good for anywhere you go: Don’t flash those expensive diamonds and watches while walking about.

Law enforcement always tell tourists to not wear their flashy jewelry or display expensive watches and purses. Do not wave your cellphone all about to catch the attention of thieves.

The bottom line is to avoid being outwardly showy. Of course, it depends on where you are. If you’re in Paris, you won’t be conspicuous if you’re toting the latest cellphone. But in less privileged countries such as Ecuador, you’ll be perceived as extremely affluent.

It is why my friends, my wife, and I do not wear anything or have anything flashy on their bodies when walking in Cuenca. Why wave that red cape in front of the bull?

This post is to show you that Cuenca is a very safe city.

Statistics show that to be the case.

Expats feel safe here.

And Cuencanos have told me they have no fear walking around this great city of ours.

Just use common sense.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.