Friday, October 8, 2010

Travel Alert: It's Safer Abroad

Earlier this week, Europe travel guru Rick Steves published an online commentary on the US State Department’s travel alert for the Old World. In his article Steves, who is one of the world’s best ambassadors for international travel (and whom I know slightly), tried to put it all in perspective: the previous week, there were 500 firearms deaths in the United States alone and, as he points out, “Each year 12 million Americans travel to Europe and 12 million return home safely. I can’t remember the last time an American tourist in Europe was hurt by a terrorist.”

In my own writings, I have tried to deal candidly with the topic of personal security in the Southern Cone countries, and have concluded that Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay are at least as safe as Europe for foreign visitors. Still, it can be a hard sell in a region with a stereotypical reputation for drug violence (as in Colombia and Mexico), erratic authoritarian leaders (as in Venezuela), and a legacy of brutal military dictatorships (as in 1970s Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay).

Latin America is diverse, though, and in today’s Southern Cone, political violence is almost unheard of, even if intemperate language between (and even within) opposing political factions is often the rule rather than the exception. It doesn’t help, though, when locals themselves, spurred by sensationalist coverage of gruesome but atypical crimes, exaggerate the issue of “insecurity” even if, statistically speaking, their chances of being a victim are miniscule.

Every city and country, of course, have bad neighborhoods, such as Buenos Aires’s so-called Fuerte Apache (actually just outside the city limits). Still, foreign visitors are unlikely to even see those neighborhoods except at a distance - they’ll be visiting tourist-friendly barrios such as Palermo, Recoleta and San Telmo instead. In remote areas such as Patagonia, serious crime is nearly non-existent.

As Steves implies, though, Southern Cone inhabitants might have more to worry about in visiting the United States. If 35-year-old Adolfo Ignacio Celedón of Santiago (his hometown's placid Parque Metropolitano is pictured above) had not traveled to this country, he would not have been shot to death by yet unknown assailants last September 18th in Berkeley, California - only a couple miles from my own home in Oakland - in the presence of his American fiancée. In the aftermath, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry K. Lee found himself inundated with requests from the Chilean media for information about the senseless killing, and the story made the front page in the Santiago daily La Nación.

One commentator on the article recalled another instance in which a “hateful racist” killed two vacationing Chileans and wounded three others in Florida in 2009. Another reader, charitably enough, countered that “assaults, robberies and other crimes take place everywhere, in every country.” Still, this provides some perspective on the often mistaken notion that staying home is safer than traveling.

Moon Argentina on the Road
After a brief respite, I will have two digital slide presentations on Moon Handbooks Argentina this weekend. The first will take place Saturday evening October 9th in Sacramento, California, at Tango by the River, at 7 p.m. The second takes place Sunday afternoon October 10th at the legendary Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, at 1 p.m.


Molly said...

Excellent points and very sad about the Chilleans victimized by violence in the U.S. I wrote some pieces for my new site South America Living about safety issues as well, including traveling with children ( ). If you check it out please leave me a comment with your input! You are definitely one of the most knowledgeable SA travelers out there and I have recommened folks read your blog. Cheers, Molly

SaltShaker said...

I think it comes down to what we're talking about in terms of safety. While true here in Argentina that really violent crime against tourists is a rarity, that's generally true in most places that have high tourism rates. The flip side is that petty crime, generally non or minimally violent crimes (though often with the threat of violence) are quite common. Dealing with folk who are visiting here on a near daily basis I literally can't recall a week in the past year or two when I haven't encountered at least one of our guests who hasn't been robbed of something, be it pickpocketing of cash or a wallet, having something removed from a backpack (or the whole backpack/luggage stolen), or a purse/phone/watch snatching, or a break-in wherever they're staying. A group of ten of us expats were out to dinner last week and the subject came up and every single person at the table had been either the victim of a break-in or a robbery at either knife or gunpoint in the last two years. Not one had been hurt, but all of us have been questioning the safety level of living here recently. Strangely, none of us were truly alarmed, but we're all far more concerned than we used to be, tend to go out less at night and/or are less likely to head to neighborhoods we don't already know well, and for at least several people at the table, considering leaving.

Wayne Bernhardson said...

Thanks for sending this, Dan. I don't think it necessarily invalidates what I wrote in that post - that petty crime, in Buenos Aires, is a far greater issue than violent assault, and that we need to be alert wherever we are. For m part, I've never experienced anything particularly close to an incident, though we once got threatened by a taxi driver who was a total thug and, in a very unusual incident, I was once the target of verbal aggression on the Subte. In Santiago and Montevideo, I've never experienced anything out of the ordinary.

SaltShaker said...

I'd have to agree - I've felt, and feel, completely safe wandering in Montevideo and in Santiago.

The one thing that I think has changed here in the last couple of years has been that the petty crime has started to come accompanied by either the threat of violence, often with a weapon, or an actual beating, at least of a punch or two - whereas it used to be much more of the pickpocketing or snatch and run variety.

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