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Petty crime in Bogota: the day I witnessed a phone robbery

People often contact me asking about safety and crime in Bogota. One of the things I say is that if you are careful, you can decrease your chances of becoming a victim of crime. For example, don’t wear an expensive-looking watch or jewelry; always pre-book taxi cabs; avoid using your phone on the street or on the bus; in short, don’t give papaya‘. In Colombia, ‘giving papaya’ or dar papaya means giving someone the opportunity to rob or somehow take advantage of you. It’s the notion that if you give someone the opportunity to do something bad to you, then it’s your own fault if something bad happens. Essentially, it’s blaming the victim for the crime as opposed to the perpetrator. I hate this expression, but it’s important for foreigners to be aware of this attitude.

Last weekend, I saw someone being robbed

My boyfriend Javi and I were at Alcalá TransMilenio station waiting for the bus. Javi has always warned me about the different types of crime in Bogota and how to avoid trouble. One of the things he always says is “Don’t take your phone out on the bus or at the station.” This weekend, I learned why. We were on the platform waiting for our bus, and the platform doors were stuck open. Normally the glass sliding doors are only supposed to open when a bus arrives, but sometimes they just stay open (and equally, sometimes they stay closed when they’re supposed to open!). A young woman in front of us was using her phone, and when she raised her phone to her ear, a young guy behind her whipped it out of her hand, jumped off the platform into the bus lane, and went sprinting across the road. Within seconds, he was out of sight.

The victim of the crime barely reacted

This was the first time I had seen something like this happen. My jaw literally dropped and I said, “That guy just stole her phone!”. Javi shook his head and said, “I knew that guy looked dodgy.” The victim barely reacted. That was the strange thing. A few seconds after, I started to doubt whether I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen because the woman remained expressionless. Javi nudged a woman next to him and said “Did he steal her phone?” and the woman nodded gravely. The lack of a reaction from the woman – the lack of any kind of obvious fury that this guy had just robbed her – made me think that, in her head, she was already blaming herself. Blaming herself for her unwise decision to take out her phone in the TransMilenio station.

These guys are professionals

What you have to remember is, these pickpockets and street robbers are professionals. This is partly how they earn their living, and they have heaps of experience. They know exactly which stations to target, which platform doors are stuck open so that they’ll have an easy escape, and which areas of the road are easiest to cross quickly. They know where and when the traffic is likely to be slow because of traffic lights or rush hour. They walk through the stations scanning people’s bags, looking for a purse sticking out. I have seen them do this. They look for the people who have their phones out and will usually target women as they are less likely than men to chase after them.

So, crime in Bogota: something to be scared of?

The point of me relating this anecdote is not to spread fear – you don’t need to be afraid. It’s to show how easily this situation can be avoided. If this woman hadn’t had her phone out and visible next to an open platform door, she would probably still have it now. I’m not blaming her, I’m just stating the facts. I have also heard a story from a friend who saw a man jump on the TransMilenio bus, grab the nearest person’s phone, and jump off again as the doors were closing. Just a couple of months ago, Javi’s cousin was on her phone while waiting for a bus on the street, when someone stole it, and hit her too.

How to avoid becoming a victim of phone crime in Bogota

The lesson we can learn from these anecdotes is that we should avoid taking out our phones on the street, on the bus, and at bus-stops and TransMilenio stations. If you really need to check your phone, have a look to see who’s around you first. If possible, stand close to a police officer or step into a shop doorway while you take it out. Then zip it away in your pocket or deep inside your bag. Most importantly, if you do get into trouble, it’s not worth resisting. You’ll risk becoming a victim of violence too.

What to do if you get robbed

If you become the victim of a crime in Bogota, you should go to the nearest police station or ‘CAI’. CAIs are glass booths situated in each neighborhood, usually attended by one or two police officers. You won’t be able to report the crime here but they will be able to give you the address of the nearest police station. I recommend typing ‘CAI’ into Google maps to find one near you. Alternatively, there is a new website and mobile phone app which allows you to report a crime without having to go to the police station. I found out about this on El Tiempo, which explains the process (in Spanish). You can go to Seguridad en Linea, select “Hurto General” (for a street robbery) and then enter your details. At the end of the process you get a reference number for the report, and supposedly the police will then follow up.

Note down your phone’s IMEI number now and keep it somewhere safe. This increases the chances of the police being able to get it back to you if it’s recovered. This is not entirely unlikely. I was once interviewing a student at the British Council when his phone rang. It was the police calling to say that they had raided a second-hand mobile phone store in San Andresito, and had checked the IMEIs of all the phones they had confiscated. One of these IMEI numbers matched that of a phone which had been reported stolen – this guy’s phone. So the guy got his phone back.

As well as going to the police in person, you can also report your phone lost (perdido) or stolen (hurto) on the police’s website. You can check for phones that have been found by entering the IMEI number on this web page.

If you go to the police station, make sure you take a Spanish speaker with you. It’s unlikely that they will speak any English or other language.

Have you been a victim of crime in Bogota or somewhere else in Colombia? Is there any advice you would give to others about how to avoid this happening to them? Please add your comment below. 

7 Comments on Petty crime in Bogota: the day I witnessed a phone robbery

  1. Visiting a CAI is useless. Reporting such things is done online. SIGIN is the only office you can report such a crime.

    • On the police website it says you have to go in person to report the crime too – as CAIs are all over the place and are easy to spot, they could point people in the right direction, but I’ll look for the address of the proper place. As it is, I think the justice system is so poor here and so often works in favour of the perpetrators that I actually think it’s a waste of time going to the police here. That’s what I really think, but I also think we should strive for the ideal world where crime gets reported, muggers are caught and dealt with and people get their property back (or, for example, all politicians that steal public money are fired and face appropriate prison sentences we can dream).

      • Agreed to a certain extent. I wouldn’t have much of recovering anything stolen. I remember sitting in an internet cafe right after an incident completing a stolen property report. As for corruption. The less government has its fingers in the pot the better for all.

  2. Actually, reporting the crime it is a waste of time, as i was a victim some time ago. i went to the police station waited for like 4 hours and was interviewed by an officer that has this lazy look, filled the complain and told me that i will heard from them. i never heard nothing, so as i said it is a waste of time, it seems that the police are with the criminals too.

    • I know Samuel, I’ve heard the same story from a couple of other people too – I’m pretty sure it’s a common story! But there are a couple of reasons why I think it’s worth reporting crime. Firstly, so there are more accurate statistics about the levels of petty crime, to show the scale of the problem; secondly, travellers may need to file reports in order to make insurance claims; finally, I think it’s good practice as we strive for a more efficient justice system in Colombia. There’s crime and corruption at every level of society in Colombia but if we don’t take the necessary steps to try to change this, nothing will ever change.
      It is also apparently easier to report crime now, via the website I mentioned in the post – hopefully that will encourage more people to do so.

  3. Hello,
    There was a problem in Floresta area. Me and my GF were walking on the street. It was 10 pm. Some group of young men stopped us and had talks to my GF like you are nice blonde chick etc. I defended her and leader of this so called group tried to beat me up. I fought back and beated him up very well. I served in airborne troops of the Russian army. It is basic training. Problem was, that someone called police. They arrived – 4 police officers and we were all arrested. At the police station we explained the situation, but problem was that, me and my GF did not get any harm, but the guy I beated was injured. Not bad, but it lasted several hours and we were finally released. If you are in such situation CALL YOUR EMBASSY AND THEY WILL TAKE CARE OF YOUR. Russian embassy called a lawyer and he speed the things up. Some of these guys had a criminal record as we learned from the lawyer from the embassy. I suppose it was reason why they released us. If you hurt criminal you may be in trouble…it is ridiculous.

    • Hi, wow, I’m so sorry to hear about what happened but well done for defending yourself and your girlfriend! Great advice about calling your country’s embassy or consulate if you get in trouble! I hope that you can enjoy Bogota and Colombia from now on! All the best!

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