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Anatomy Of An Armed Robbery in South America

Barrio Belen

Barrio Belen

Confronted with my own mortality, in the form of a silver revolver held fifteen inches from my face, the world around me came to a quiet standstill.

Instinct took over.

There was no time to think.

There were no options to consider.

I did what I had to do, and I did it without delay.

Warning Signs

On March 5, 2011, Freddie, a twenty-something UK man was riding in a friend's car in the Belen neighborhood of Medellin.

At a stoplight, two men tried to rob him of a gold chain. According to reports, he resisted and was shot fatally in the chest.

When I read the news on Colombia Reports earlier in the year, it sent chills down my spine.

Belen is a large, working-class neighborhood on the Western side of the city. I lived there for five weeks in 2010 and visited monthly to extend my tourist visa in Colombia.

The story reiterated my conviction that if I was ever robbed in South America, whether the assailant was visibly armed or not, I would hand over whatever was in my possession.

Monthly Routine

June 15 started like any other day. I roused myself out of bed around 9 AM and opened the blinds to expose the western mountains of Medellin, as well as my view toward barrio Belen.

I'd been back in Colombia for four months and was due to extend my tourist visa for another 30 days.

After three years in the country, the process was second nature to me.

June 15 also happens to be payday in Colombia, which means more people are visiting ATM's to withdraw cash, and more thieves are on the prowl to take advantage.

I showered, dressed, and walked out the door with 150,000 pesos ($40) cash.

Half this sum would go toward the 72,350 peso deposit required to extend my visa.

The other half would help pay for taxis to and from the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) office.

In addition, I was carrying my four-year-old passport, the one I'd taken around the world with me to more than 22 countries since 2007.

In my front left jean pocket was my Blackberry.

In my back, left pocket was a pack of gum, and in my back right pocket, my Virginia driver's license and a few business cards.

Aside from the passport, these were the things I normally carried around with me.

Leaving my apartment complex, I walked ten minutes north, through discoteca-laden barrio Colombia, to the Premium Plaza mall.

I stepped inside the cool, air-conditioned Banco Davivienda and waited in line for a teller.

I deposited the pesos and collected my bank receipt to take to DAS.

Outside Premium Plaza, I walked to the first yellow taxi in a long line, got in the front seat, and instructed the driver.

Both of the front windows were down, as is often the case during the day given Medellin's amicable climate.

In 2009, I spent my last night in Medellin dancing with friends at La Rumbantela, a small salsa bar on Calle 33.

In 2009, I spent my last night in Medellin dancing with friends at La Rumbantela, a small salsa bar on Calle 33.

Armed Robbery

It was 11:15 AM as we pulled into traffic. I was fiddling with my Blackberry — checking Twitter no doubt.

In the past, I've had the occasional taxi driver warn me to keep my phone away from the open window, as to prevent theft.

Usually, that's not an issue, as I use my phone more for messaging and internet access than talking to people.

We crossed Rio Medellin, the river that bisects the city from north to south, and were heading west on Calle 33, a  thoroughfare known for its nightlife on the weekends.

The taxi came to a halt at a traffic light.

We were close to a large intersection, but there were cars in front of us, to the right, and possibly to the left as well.

From my peripheral vision, I noticed a dark shape moving up the right side of the taxi toward my window.

Thinking it was a beggar, street performer, or vendor selling something, I instinctively moved my Blackberry toward the center of the car.

There was no thought involved. I was operating on some primal intuition that a threat was approaching.

When I looked back to the right, the man had stopped in front of the window, blocking my entire view in that direction.

At eye level, I was looking straight at a dull, silver revolver being held flush against his stomach, pointing toward the front of the car.

He was holding it in his left hand, which I imagine was on purpose to leave his dominant right hand free to collect my belongings.

The gun looked cheap and old.

He was wearing a helmet, and I don't recall if he said anything, but when I saw the gun, words weren't necessary.

My number was up, I was being robbed in South America.

As quickly as I'd moved my Blackberry away from the window, I swung it back to him without hesitation.

I reached into my front right pocket and pulled out the 75,000 or so pesos ($40) still on me.

I gave that to him too, and then he reached into the car and felt my pocket to see if I was holding out on him.

It was then that I was most scared because I was acutely aware that if he perceived any resistance on my part, he could decide to shoot me.

I pulled out my passport, while at the same time saying “solo pasaporte” to in some way indicate that there would be no value of that item to him, only frustration for me should I lose it.

Either I was wrong, or at that moment he didn't care what I was giving him, so as long as it was everything.

As soon as he grabbed the passport, he was gone.

Aftermath

I sat buckled in my seat, stunned at what had just happened.

The light changed green within seconds, and traffic began to move.

The whole interaction didn't last more than 30 – 60 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

I didn't think to look back to try and get the motorbike's license plate (an accomplice was driving it), nor did I see which direction they sped off (but I believe it was to the right of us…not in front).

The taxi driver, a middle-aged man, said and did nothing during the interaction. If ever there was a picture of calm and collected, it was this man to my left.

And while some may consider him complicit, as far as I'm concerned, when a gun is involved, it's in everyone's best interest to stay out of it.

My initial response was anger. Anger that I was holding my Blackberry out in plain view, albeit in my lap. 

Estupido” I proclaimed, (wrongly) blaming myself for inviting the theft.

I asked, rhetorically, why he would want my passport?

Maybe he could sell it to counterfeiters, but it was just as likely to end up in a trash bin when he realized there was no immediate value to it. 

Meanwhile, I would have to take time away from work and incur the travel expenses to Bogota, and the administrative expenses of obtaining an emergency, and later regular, passport.

I felt bitter that a city I was trying to help would repay me with such a terrifying experience.

I felt sad that this experience only served to justify other people's preconceived notions about the safety of Medellin and Colombia.

The taxi driver said little, nor did he offer to call the police at any point.

But I wasn't going to let my only witness go without giving an official account.

Arriving at DAS

Upon reaching DAS, he parked his car and came to the entrance with me, where he relayed the robbery in Spanish to the female guard.

She took his name and license plate and asked that he wait for us to return.

Inside the DAS office, which was all but empty, the guard relayed the story to a man with a shiny silver badge hanging from his neck.  

He immediately called the local police. We walked back outside to the sidewalk, and within a few minutes, a motorbike arrived with two young police officers.

One of the officers immediately began to reassure me, and then we both walked over to the taxi driver who gave his best account of what happened, including a limited description of the perpetrator.

As he was wearing a helmet, and possibly sunglasses, I knew the chances of catching him were slim to none.

But I also knew it was important to get these details for an official police report.

As the taxi driver was giving his account, a police car arrived.

When he was finished, he reached into his taxi and gave me a business card. His parting words, “not all Colombians are bad.”

I climbed in the back seat of the air-conditioned cop car.

Two men got in the front and drove us to the nearby Belen police station.

The one in the passenger seat made small talk, asking me where I was from and what I thought of the city.

I imagine that's something they teach in the emergency services.

A kind of redirection of thought for those who've just experienced a traumatic event. Either that or it's simply human nature.

Despite being surrounded by police, I was on edge. Hyper-sensitive to everything going on around me.

Belen Police Station

As we entered the police station, a Volkswagen minivan was filling up with police and heading out.

I wondered if VW had won a recent contract with the city's police force to supply new vehicles.

Inside the station, I was introduced to an officer who spoke a little English.

Two months worth to be exact, but I was happy to have his assistance.

I was brought to another room where I had to wait for a woman to finish her business with a large man who appeared to be a senior level officer. Jefe, he was called by the others.

The small talk continued, and the translator asked my thoughts of the police station.

I had already taken note that it was a handsome building, with exposed concrete walls giving both a sense of strength and austerity.

I asked if it was new, and he said yes. I responded that it was nice.

When the woman had completed her report with el jefe, I switched seats and recounted the story, including the items stolen from me.

The chief was annoyed with the slowness of his computer, but after ten minutes, an official one-page report was printed off.

I was given a copy, which would be required to explain my loss at the US Embassy in Bogota, as well as the DAS office when I returned to get my visa extended.

If I had travel insurance, I would've used it to file a claim as well.

Unfortunately, a lot of insurance policies do not cover Colombia because it is on the US State Department travel warning list (along with other popular destinations such as Mexico, Israel, and Kenya).

Two new police officers were tasked with driving me home in another of the new VW minivans. More small talk ensued.

What did I think of the city? Did I have a girlfriend? Aren't the women in Medellin beautiful?

Home, Sweet Home

When we reached my apartment, I climbed out of the van.

The officer in the passenger seat did as well, taking a moment to write his name and phone number on a piece of paper, should I need anything.

Later that night, I mentioned the theft to my new Colombian roommate. He asked if I would be leaving the country.

No, I responded, I would stay until early August as planned.

Travel is my life now, and I've worked too hard to give that up out of fear alone.

____________

Medellin Travel GuideMy 138-page, all-original Medellín Travel Guide is now available for Kindle and PDF.

 

 

 

 

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Mary

Tuesday 13th of October 2015

So sorry this happened to you and glad that you made it out safely. Thanks for such a detailed account that can help others know what to watch for

JUANCORNEJO

Wednesday 21st of September 2011

HOLA DAVID  YO ESTUBE DE VICITA , EN LA MISMA EPOCA  EN MEDELLIN.   VICITABA A UNA AMIGA Y TU HISTORIA  ES LA MISMA QUE YO TUBE EN MEDELLIN.  A LA MISMA  HORA.

          YO  CON MI AMIGA  FUIMOS A CAMBIAR UNOS DOLARES AL  MALL.

    A MI ME ASALTARON  A 400  METROS ANTES DE PASAR EL TOLL EN MEDELLIN.      ME LLEVABAN A CONOCER UNA PARCELA AL PENOL.        MI AMIGA MANEJABA EL  JEEP , Y YO ESTABA  A SU LADO.        AL LLEGAR CERCA DEL TOLL , MI AMIGA PREPARO EL DINERO PARA PAGAR        Y ME LO ENTREGO PARA CUANDO ESTUBIERAMOS FRENTE YO LE PASARA          EL DINERO Y ASI MANEJAR MAS TRANQUILA, ES ESE MOMENTO            SE JUNTARON MUCHOS AUTOS Y CAMIONES  PARA PASAR EL TOLL            MI AMIGA EN ESE MOMENTO BAJO EL VIDRIO PARA   ESTAR MAS COMODA              PARA PAGAR,              EN ESE MOMENTO  FRENTE AL VIDRIO HABIA UNA PISTOLA , CON UN HOMBRE              MONTADO EN UNA MOTOCICLETA CON OTRO ADELANTE COMO CHOFER               LA PISTOLA LA TENIA EN LA MANO IZQUIERDA  ,,               DECIA QUE LE ENTREGARAMOS TODO EL DINERO.                CON LA MANO DERECHA  TRATABA DE SACAR EL SEGURO DE L;A               PUERTA   Y JUNTO CON ESO LE PEGABA A MI AMIGA EN LA CABEZA              CON LA CACHA DE LA PISTOLA.               AL VER A MI AMIGA LLENA DE SANGRE  YO ME FUI EN  ENCIMA DE ELLA           A PROTEJERLA   Y EL HOMBRE ME PONIA LA PISTOLA EN MI FRENTE Y              ME  DECIA QUE LA DEJARA .            EL TRATABA DE HABRIR LA PUERTA  Y A LA VES ME PEGABA CON LA             PISTOLA.              YO EN NINGUN MOMENTO  SOLTE A MI AMIGA  E HICE  RESISTENCIA              A QUE NO LA SACARAN  DEL AUTO.

               ELLA Y  YO SANGARABAMOS MUCHO  PERO YO NO  ME RENDIA.

            ERA A LA MISAMA HORA DE TI.            HABIAN  MUCHOS AUTOS Y CAMIONES   Y NADIE SE METIA  A DEFENDER

             POR SUERTE COMO SE JUNTARON MUCHOS AUTOS  A LOS LADRONES

            SE LES TERMINO EL TIEMPO Y SALIERON  HUYENDO TAPANDO CON

            LAS MANOS LA PATENTE.

               COMO YA  CASI ESTABAMOS FRENTE AL PAGO DEL TOLL

               NOS PERMITIERON  PONER EL AUTO A UN LADO DONDE LLEGO

              LOS PRIMEROS  AUXILIOS , A  ATENDER A MI AMIGA QUE  SU CABEZA

              SANGRABA MUCHO.

              TAMBIEN LLEGARON LOS POLICIAS  Y DIERON LA EXCUSA  QUE ELLOS

             NO ESTABAN EN EL TOLL  PORQUE HABIAN BAJADO VUSCANDO A OTROS

               MI  AMIGA RECIVIO VARIOS  PUNTOS Y QUEDO CON SU CARA              MUY MALTRATADA.

               LOS GOLPES QUE YO RECIVI  HICIERON MUCHOS MORETONES.

            DESPUES , TODOS LOS COLOMBIANOS QUE CONVERCE , ME DECIAN

             QUE TUBE SUERTE  YA QUE  AQUI NADIE HACE RESISTENCIA

              YO CREO HABER SIDO UNO DE LOS UNICOS  QUE RECISTIO               ROBARCE POR ESOS DELICUENTE COLOMBIANOS

                   !!!  QUE SON MILES EN MEDELLIN !!

         LO MAS TRISTE   DE TODO PARA MI  FUE QUE CUANDO REGRESE A  USA.

              DONDE VIVO .

        LOS   COLOMBIANOS QUE ME PREGUNTARO SOBRE MI VIAJE               ME DIJERON QUE YO  LO ESTABA EXSAJERANDO.

             QUE EN MEDELLIN  NO PASA ESO Y ELLOS Y TODAS SUS

            FAMILIAS CAMINAN SIN PROBLEMAS  POR LA CIUDAD.

                 YO TENGO FOTOS Y VIDEOS 

                LASTIMAS POR LOS COLOMBIANOS  QUE CADA DIA  SON

                MAS MALOS  !!!!                                 YO ENTIENDO POR LA POBRESA DE ESA CIUDAD  .          TODO EL QUE VIAJE A MEDELLIN  TENGA MUCHO CUIDADO.  !!!            YO HE VIAJADO POR MUCHOS PAISES DEL MUNDO

        JUAN   CORNEJO

      

                                                   

Dave

Thursday 22nd of September 2011

Gracias por tu estoria Juan, y lo siento por tu experiencia mala.

Catoni52

Tuesday 20th of September 2011

It probably wasn't a silver revolver.  I don't know if silver has ever been used to make a gun.  Most likely either a stainless steel revolver, or nickle-plated regular steel. Scary thing to have happen definitely. I would have had the shakes afterwards.     Glad you're okay and back home. You did the right thing just letting him have your stuff. Things can be replaced, even if with difficulty. Our lives can never be replaced. Thanks for all your efforts with the blog.

Dave

Thursday 22nd of September 2011

Agreed...I was just saying "silver" for lack of a better word. Stainless steel sounds more like it. Whatever it was made of, it certainly didn't look like it cost much.

Lori

Sunday 31st of July 2011

Wow. I can't believe that happened to you. I give you a lot of credit for staying. I was robbed at knifepoint in Quito and nearly deported after customs officials found drugs on my bus into Ecuador, and I decided to skip heading to Colombia viajando sola. After reading your blog, I think my decision was justified... Hope the rest of your stay goes nice, easy and seguro!!

Dave

Monday 1st of August 2011

Thanks Lori. I've heard tons more theft stories about Quito then Colombia, but the difference seems to be Ecuadorians use a knife whereas Colombians are more likely to have a gun. Either way, I am crossing my fingers for safe travels in Ecuador (I was originally going to skip the whole country).

Kelly

Thursday 14th of July 2011

Hey Dave, sorry to hear that happened to you. Medellin, Colombia is still on my list of places to visit along with Cartagena. Luckily, I've never had my passport stolen, but a girl I was walking with had hers pick-pocketed our first day in Ecuador. I was told, at the time, that U.S. passports are worth $10,000. With regard to being robbed at gunpoint while inside a taxi, I know while I was traveling in Brazil, drivers never stopped at red lights; they merely honked their horns to warn traffic and continued through the intersection. When I asked why, they said it's because there's a high risk of carjacking if your vehicle is stopped. Sadly, my friend's sister was carjacked at gunpoint by a fruit vendor on the freeway leaving the Rio de Janeiro airport. She'd just arrived in Brazil (from California). Literally everything was stolen (the car, her money, passport, clothes), but she escaped with her life.

Safe Travels, ~Kelly hiptraveler

Dave

Friday 15th of July 2011

Hi Kelly, thanks. Needless to say, I'm going to be on especially high alert for the foreseeable future.

Carjackings use to be a huge safety issue in South Africa too, so it's not uncommon for drivers to pass through red lights there as well. I think it had gotten better by the time I was there (2008), but I still felt more on edge traveling there than I did my first 6 months in Colombia (2009).

Medellin and Cartagena are wonderful cities, and I hope you get to enjoy them soon too!

Dave

Friday 15th of July 2011

Hi Kelly, thanks. Needless to say, I'm going to be on especially high alert for the foreseeable future.

Carjackings use to be a huge safety issue in South Africa too, so it's not uncommon for drivers to pass through red lights there as well. I think it had gotten better by the time I was there (2008), but I still felt more on edge traveling there than I did my first 6 months in Colombia (2009).

Medellin and Cartagena are wonderful cities, and I hope you get to enjoy them soon too!

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