My wife, Suzan Haskins, and I are asked constantly about safety for expats living abroad, and in particular about safety in Ecuador, the country where we currently live.
A lot of these questions start something like this: “How safe is it in Ecuador? I heard a story about a couple who got robbed there.”
This is a big issue for potential expats, and in today’s hyper-connected Internet environment, a morning blog post about robberies in Ecuador can be the topic of discussion over lunch in Portland or Winnipeg or Charleston. But two major points need to be made.
First, there is crime everywhere. I have yet to live anyplace on the planet where a crime has never been committed. Ecuador is by almost any standard one of the safest, most welcoming countries in the world…I’ve certainly found it so…but there is crime, just like anywhere else.
Second, it’s almost impossible to talk about the crime levels of entire countries with any accuracy (Ecuador is about the size of Nevada). Different regions, cities, towns, and even neighborhoods in the same town can have dramatically different levels and types of crime. The crime level in any one of those places affects the national statistics accordingly.
I don’t have a list of the safest places in Ecuador simply because I’ve felt safe almost everywhere I’ve been in the country. But in my experience, any place you happen to live tends to be as safe…or as unsafe…as you make it. Safety is as safety does.
The problem some expats run into is something I call the “bulls eye effect.” It’s when someone or something stands out from the surrounding environment so much that there might as well be a target painted on them.
I know about this from personal experience. I’m over six feet tall and obviously very Caucasian. There is little hope of me “blending in” anywhere in Latin America…or Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East. I just stick out from most of my surroundings abroad, and there’s not much I can do about it. And in certain situations…for example, in areas with high tourist traffic or large expat populations where foreigners have reputations for having lots of cash and being a bit slow-witted…that can put a target on my back depending on how I behave. It’s like that in any tourist or expat destination in the world.
Same with houses and apartments. In relatively poor sections of Ecuador…indeed in any developing or Third-World country…huge, beautiful new homes or large apartment complexes priced well above the average means of the locals are quickly pegged as the property of foreigners and assumed to contain thousands of dollars worth of modern electronics and appliances…which is almost invariably true. These places are considered targets by any thieves in the area almost before they’re completed. And naturally, the more targets like these there are, the more attention they’ll attract. That’s just a fact of life.
So for me, the most unsafe places in Ecuador are the ones where large numbers of foreigners fail to take the basic, common-sense precautions that even the locals take to remove the bull’s eye from themselves and their property.
For example, very few locals would walk around the dark side streets of the Mariscal Sucre entertainment district of Quito with anything worth stealing and without at least looking like they know exactly where they are going. Large foreigners looking obviously lost on dark side streets of bar districts with passport cases around their necks and fanny packs bulging with cameras are going to be targets, plain and simple.
Few locals would build a home of any kind anywhere without stout doors and burglar bars on the windows. And even fewer would build anything but a basic, inexpensively furnished weekend getaway on a dark, isolated lot out in the middle of the countryside or on a deserted stretch of beach with no neighbors or street lights no matter how beautiful the view was during the day.
Also, in my experience very few locals anywhere with anything worth stealing intentionally leave their houses or cars unlocked or unattended, no matter how safe the neighborhood is billed. As one local friend told us many years ago when we first moved abroad, “In a country with much poverty, if you have expensive things and you don’t care enough about them to at least lock them up when you’re gone, it’s not really stealing to take them, is it?”
Which is why, when asked about the relative safety of any place in Ecuador, Suzan and I always start by suggesting that people look at how the locals live. You will almost always find that the locals make as small a target out of themselves and their possessions as possible. They make sure their houses not only are secure, but look secure. They don’t rely on fancy electronic alarm systems or the quick response of local authorities. They take basic, obvious, physical security measures to take the bull’s eye off their property and themselves.
And the places they choose to live full-time aren’t usually isolated…locals prefer to keep neighbors and community around them. And they don’t expect to build what would be considered a mansion by the general community without having it draw that community’s attention, local thieves included. So they prepare accordingly.
Locals have the advantage, of course. They know what appears normal and what stands out, and they have a much easier time keeping a low profile if they choose. As I said, it’s physically impossible for me to keep too low a profile… I’ll never be mistaken for a local in much of the world. But it is possible for me not to be mistaken for a lost tourist or green expat with too much money and not enough common sense. I simply think about the behaviors that might put that bull’s eye on my back and on my property and follow the examples of the locals to avoid those behaviors as much as I can. And I do this no matter where in the world I happen to be living at the time.
Ecuador is, in my experience, one of the safest and happiest countries on the planet. And by being observant and taking a few basic lessons from the locals, Ecuador…indeed, any place you choose to live abroad…can be even more comfortable and rewarding.
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