Becoming Cuenca

Is Ecuador Dangerous? The Facts Don’t Bear It

Aug 16, 2023

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” ~Randy Komisar

This blog post is a “Must” as social media and online articles are making Ecuador look like a war zone. People are getting it into their heads Ecuador is like the coup in Niger or the civil war in Sudan.

Or people looking from the outside in think Ecuador is like Mexico with its ominous shadow cast by drug cartels and organized criminal activities, including human trafficking.

What people have gleaned from North America makes Ecuador sound like the country which was struck by over 43,900 homicides and 625 incidents of kidnapping in 2021.

That is Mexico, not Ecuador.

It scares people and it makes many of them question moving to Ecuador. I can’t count the times I have been asked via this blog, Facebook, and through emails if one should be moving to Cuenca.

It does not help when images like the one above and its story get blown out of proportion. All most people see is “Foreigner Kidnapped for Ransom in Manta.” That is the headline, but not the story.

They may have read the first paragraph that said, “A foreigner was easy prey for an Ecuadorian woman who wrapped him with her charms and seduced him until she achieved her goal of kidnapping him for ransom.”

Sounds scary, right?

If you read the entire article, it says the victim was a businessman from Morocco, who had traveled to Ecuador to meet his “Partner” whom he met through social networks.

Instead, three supposed cousins picked up the Moroccan and took him to a hotel, where they tied him up and demanded a ransom of a half-million dollars.

After spending five days tied up, the victim was rescued by police. The agents seized a firearm, seven cell phones, and ammunition.

We all know this is not the way to find your soulmate. And we can all agree that this is not happening everywhere in Ecuador, if anywhere else.

For those who are wondering where Manta is, it is about 390 km. / 240 miles northwest of Cuenca.  By car, it would take about seven hours to get there.

One source for news and the dissemination of it is Reddit, the American social news aggregation, content rating, and discussion website. According to Semrush, Reddit ranks as the 10th-most-visited website in the world and sixth most-visited website in the U.S.

The post above was circulated among various Facebook groups in Ecuador. This journalist of 42 years finds the post dangerous as it is unconfirmed information, and it is what most people will see.

Whomever” Capital_T_Tech” is, the person basically recanted everything with a second post that most did not read. This person said, “They are poor, and we think its neighborhood gossip.”

The post is still online despite the original post being unsubstantiated. This creates an illusion of how bad the crime is.

For those who are wondering where Guayaquil is, it is about 200 km. / 125 miles northwest of Cuenca.  By car, it would take about 3.5 hours to get there.

Those are just two of the reactions concerning a Facebook post by an expat involved in a shooting incident while driving in the Salinas region.

The woman wrote she was driving during the day with friends between Ancón and Atahualpa. A car pulled up in front of her and quickly stopped. She said the passenger jumped out of the car and started shooting. He was not a good shot as the first five bullets ricocheted off the hood of the car.

She threw the car into reverse and sped away as the gunman continued shooting. Once out of danger the expat called the police, however, they never responded.

Needless to say, everyone had an opinion.

But no one offered verified facts.

So, comments like this were made:

“Narco gangs are not just about drugs; they are out to make easy money.”

“I would argue it is about deliberate terrorism attacks, with the intent of destabilizing the country.”

“What a train wreck it is.”

“So much for expats not being targeted.”

You get the idea. That last comment just spreads fear and was not qualified as the woman who made the Facebook post about her vehicle added that she was not targeted and was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

For those who are wondering where Ancón is, it is about 320 km. / 200 miles northwest of Cuenca.  By car, it would take about 5.5 hours to get there.

An American expat, who has been in Cuenca for quite a while, posted earlier this month that many don’t realize “being a foreigner and being perceived as having wealth makes you a different kind of mark for targeting.”

The expat goes on to say the current situation is “as serious as it has ever been.”

He then used a seven-year-old murder case as to why Ecuador is not a safe place: In 2016, a young French tourist was brutally murdered on the north coast of Ecuador, near Esmeraldas. It did not involve the drug cartel. And it did not involve any Ecuadorians. It was a random crime by a foreigner.

I could talk about the numerous random murder cases in my 37 years in North Carolina, but that does mean one’s safety in the Tar Heel State is “as serious as it has ever been.”

For those who are wondering where Esmeraldas is, it is about 610 km. / 380 miles north of Cuenca.  By car, it would take about 10.5 hours to get there.

You get the idea.

It is why earlier this month, the administrator of the largest Facebook group in Ecuador, David Sasaki, decided he had enough:

“I live in Cotacachi. There has been no noticeable increase in crime in my town, and no drug-related crime that I am aware of. I walk the streets without fear. Most of the violence is occurring in coastal areas. What I am seeing now in this group is a certain amount of hysteria and panic, as well as fearmongering.”

He added, “I hate it when people make generalizations and blanket statements about Ecuador and its people. That to me is very condescending.”

 

Cotacachi is about 11 hours away from the majority of shootings and killings. But reading headlines like the two above from North America, one would assume David’s city of approximately 9,000 people is in the crosshairs of the shooters.

And you would think walls are going up in Guayaquil because of the recent crime. To me, the headline about walls is ignorance, the lack of knowledge or understanding about life here.

There are walls everywhere in Cuenca. To me, there are two reasons for it. One is privacy as many times there is no buffer between houses or other buildings. Most people have a shared wall.

The other reason is for security. Though these walls are for safety, Cuencanos have expressed to me time and time again that they do not feel threatened. Walls are something they have done for the longest time.

I have been to the coast and took precautions. Because of that, my wife and I never felt endangered.

One of the things Joanna and I did was to walk with another couple at night. And we were not out past 8:00 in the evening.

This is not an indictment about Ecuador, but a reality. In my four decades in the news business in the United States, the crime I covered usually happened in the late hours of the evening and in the first couple of hours after midnight.

Bad guys tend to go out late at night. It is not a hard fast rule, but getting off the streets early lowers the odds of being a victim of crime.

David concurs: “If you are going to let drug cartels scare you, then they have won. And the drug violence problem is not limited to this country.”

You may be thinking, “Well David and Stephen both do not live near the coast and its recent uptick in gun violence. That would be a legitimate statement to make.

On the Ecuador Expats page, Lesli Flaman reacted to the posts that many are calling hysteria, panic, and fearmongering. These are the words being bandied about.

Lesli lives in a small community in coastal Manabí province. She posted, “There has been no noticeable increase in crime in my village, and no drug-related crime that I am aware of. I walk the streets without fear.”

She added, “The assassination of Augustin Intriago, the Mayor of Manta has rocked our province and the country, but he would never have bowed down. His wife and the new mayor have and are standing up and are defiant that the bad will not win.”

Most Ecuadorians concur that the country is a safe place to be. The long holiday weekend that just ended attracted some 1,500 tourists to the beaches of the small town of Muisne, in Esmeraldas province. A musical concert and gastronomic festival in nearby Tonsupa closed the holiday with some 20,000 tourists.

Meanwhile, in coastal Santa Elena province, hotel occupancy was 70 percent Saturday morning, and the hotels were expecting it to reach 100 percent by the end of the day.

Ecuador is not Detroit, which is consistently ranked at the top of violent city lists. That city’s violent crime rate is about six times the U.S. average.

Nor is Ecuador like Memphis, Tennessee. It has a crime rate that is 237% higher than the national average.

And Ecuador is not like St. Louis, where residents have a 1 in 50 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime. I can guarantee you that even in the most violent parts of the Ecuadorian coast, your odds are better than being in Missouri’s second largest city.

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. A once-peaceful Sweden is grappling with a major crime wave that includes murder, gun violence, and bombings.

A 2022 global study ranked France as more dangerous than Mexico in terms of visitor safety. Nantes was singled out for its crime. In 2004 Time Magazine described Nantes as the “most livable city in France.” Today, it is now considered more violent than Bogota, Colombia.

A Canadian expat in Ecuador, who lived outside of Toronto, says there are more carjackings and car thefts than ever before. She says shootings are happening around Toronto. According to the Canadian expat, most Canadians never expected to see crime rise so much in what was considered a safe city.

Ten months ago, Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen wrote a piece entitled, “Crime is everywhere, and it’s freaking Americans out.”

Thiessen wrote about a shooting in affluent Suffolk County, New York. He said, “Shootings such as these were once contained in certain high crime neighborhoods. No longer. Crime is everywhere. The week before, a Long Island dad visiting his child at college was shot and killed at a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Marriott hotel. Last Thursday alone, there were three subway knife attacks in New York — one of them fatal.”

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.

And according to the National Police, crime in Cuenca has dropped 78 percent in the first six months of the year. The crime categories include car thefts, murder, robberies, and violence against people.

You will find people out and about, enjoying life. That includes these people enjoying the last minutes of the day on Plazoleta Cruz Del Vado.

As we get older, we tend to become more risk averse. Maybe that is why every single crime in Ecuador seems to be reported on social media.

I don’t poo-poo it.

And I don’t want to be naïve about crime in Ecuador, specifically Cuenca.

That is why I have been asking Cuencanos of all ages their thoughts and feelings about crime. They have been here longer than any expat, so their perspective will be a lot more complete and more accurate.

Every Cuencano mentioned they are concerned about crime, especially in Manabí province, Los Rios province, and Duran City in Guayas province (across the river from Guayaquil).

The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on August 9th doesn’t help, either. It should be noted Villavicencio’s campaign focused heavily on drug trafficking and gang violence. He tweeted the day before his death, pledging to hunt down the leaders of criminal groups, which are involved in the illegal drugs trade.

On July 31st, Villavicencio told reporters that he and his campaign team had received a serious threat from the leader of a group linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel is often described as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere. In April, in a sprawling fentanyl-trafficking investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 28 members of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, including the sons of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Most are still at large.

But when I asked my Cuencano friends to focus on their hometown, every single one of them expressed being safe. Not a single one had any concern about their personal safety or property.

To put things in perspective, 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 the British pensioner who had her $8,900 Rolex Oyster stripped off her wrist by a balaclava-clad robber while holidaying in Italy. Then there is the 42-year-old British tourist who had his $11,700 Rolex lifted off his wrist after he joined a dance in the street with three boys.

These are truly preventable crimes. Tips about how to walk the streets of any big city in the world are plentiful on the Internet, so I will not rehash them here.

These tips apply to Cuenca, which has the lowest crime rate for major cities in Ecuador. It only takes one bad guy to grab your valuables and dart away.

So, don’t be careless.

Despite all of the bad news from Guayaquil and the coast, Ecuador has the fourth lowest rate of murder and violent crime in Latin America (which is every country south of the United States).

The co-founder of Claris, and former CEO of Lucas Arts Entertainment, Randy Komisar said, “Passion and drive are not the same at all. Passion pulls you toward something you cannot resist. Drive pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do. If you know nothing about yourself, you can’t tell the difference. Once you gain a modicum of self-knowledge, you can express your passion. It’s not about jumping through someone else’s hoops. That’s drive.”

I mention Komisar to encourage you to pursue your passion for a better life. Despite all of the crime mentioned in this post, I truly feel Ecuador, especially Cuenca, will fulfill your passion for enjoying life to the fullest.

“Ecuador is my home. I love this country and have no plans of leaving,” said David Sasaki. “For me, the pros far outweigh the cons.”

Lesli concurs: “For me, the pros of living in Ecuador, on the coast, far outweigh the cons.”

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 amigo.

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.