Stupid Gringa: robbed twice in three days in Cartagena, Colombia :-(

15 Nov

Only four days ago I was very proud that I had been traveling for almost eight months without being stolen from. Since then I have been robbed twice! That deserves lots of exclamation marks !!! !!! !!!

Roughly translated into English, the police report that I filed after being robbed on Wednesday night reads something like;

On 10 November 2010 I was in Plaza La Paz watching the Parade of the Gays (which was pretty bloody small and boring when compared to Sydney’s Mardi Gras) when someone sprayed bubbles in my eyes and robbed my purse and phone from my handbag.

Yes, that’s right, you read correctly; I was sprayed in the eyes with bubbles or soapy foam that one may conveniently buy in an aerosol can to spray on friends and / or strangers in the streets during the celebrations of Cartagena’s independence from Spain which take over the city for a week or so every year. In Spanish, or at least Colombian Spanish, this party-in-a-can is called espuma, which sounds like sperm, and kind of looks like it too.

Here is a photo of me covered in espuma. I’m smiling because I haven’t yet realised that I’ve been pick-pocketed.

Kristie, covered in espuma

When I did take note of my missing possessions only a moment later I felt very stupid for not having immediately caught on to what was going on.

Although I was annoyed at myself for being naive and off-guard after only two beers, the experience of being robbed wasn’t too traumatic. Firstly I wasn’t upset about the phone. It was a Nokia brick two plans old, that Alex and I thought we might be able to use as a phone during our world travels but never did, and in the past few months it has served us only as an alarm clock. Actually the worst thing about loosing the phone is that it contained a lot of photos from the time we lived in Redfern, including one of Alex and Julia Gillard circa 2007. We hope the PM will be nice enough to pose for another photo when we have the opportunity to share our tragic circumstances.

In my purse I had my bank card, which I canceled without too much fuss, and the equivalent of $150 in Colombian Pesos. This is not an insignificant amount of money, and it certainly goes a long way in South America, but I took comfort from knowing that my travel insurance should refund the cash I lost, and that at least I wasn’t rolled when carrying the $1000 that I had on my person last week when I needed to pay for our sailing adventure from Panama to Colombia.

I must have jinxed myself on Wednesday night when I told my friends that “at least I didn’t loose my camera” because it was stolen from my person on Friday afternoon at the crowded Parade of the ‘flowers’; the women competing for the title of Miss Colombia. The competition coincides with the celebrations of Cartagena’s independence.

When I set off to the Parade ground this time around I thought I was being a savvy tourist as I only brought along a few dollars tucked into my bra, and my camera which I held in my hand. Also, Alex and I, and my friend school friend Cynthia who joined us for a few days in Cartagena were accompanied to the Parade by Mr Fox, the big, muscular owner of our hotel, and we all felt a bit more secure in the company of a strong Colombian.

The streets were busier then usual on the way to the Parade Ground; a temporarily converted beachfront avenue that was lined on one side by Cartagena’s high sea wall and temporary grandstands which were overflowing with people. There were so many spectators squashed in to this space that it felt like a mosh pit in a rock concert. We were pushed and shoved as the four of us moved deeper into the crowd looking for a place to watch the passing beauties and here I gripped my camera tightly because I felt like it was about to be stolen. My instinct was right. Some arsehole jumped out of the throng of people that surrounded me, grabbed me by the arm with one hand and proceeded to wrestle the camera out of my hand with the other. I was furious and determined not to let go of it. I screamed for Alex who turned around just as the thief managed to snap the camera strap that connected it to my wrist and run into the crowd. He didn’t get very far; turns out that it was more difficult than he anticipated to move quickly through such crowds.

A few metres away Mr Fox and Alex caught the thief. Mr Fox tackled the guy to the ground and punched him in the head. This happened right in front of the police (a whole posse of them) who hauled the thief to the side of the road. There they searched the thief for the camera but it was no longer in his possession. The bastard must have passed it on to his mates before he was brought down. The police also caught another kid (aged about 15?) who was running along with the thief and trying to stop Alex and Mr Fox from keeping up the chase.

I was taken aback by the police violence towards the thief; they took turns punching him in the head and slapping him hard on the back in full view of the crowd. Random members of the public also laid into the guy. At one point while we all waited for the paddy wagon to arrive the thief stood up and pulled down his pants, shaking his penis in my direction, shouting that he didn’t have the camera anymore. See! I only have this in my pants. This earned him a couple of more kicks to the head and upper body. I haven’t had too much to do with the cops in Australia but I imagine that they might do the same to someone who decided to flash the public after being arrested for theft.

Soon a paddy wagon drove by and some police hailed it down and we all jumped in; the accused in the back and the rest of us in the front. It was a bit awkward to be driven around Cartagena with only a metal grate between me and my assailant.

Our party waited in a police station that was really just a shed in a park for two hours before one officer told me that there was nothing the police could do as my camera had not been recovered; no camera, no case. During this time the cops had been having fun humiliating the thieves by spraying cans of espuma in their faces and calling them names. The younger kid was clearly distressed by all of this. Big tears ran down his cheeks as he swore on his mother’s life that he was innocent.

In my best Spanish I argued that the thief should be arrested, since he didn’t just rob me, he also assulted me on the street in front of witnesses, and that surely there were laws in Colombia against such acts of violence. Another officer agreed that I had a case and shortly afterwards we all piled in to the paddy wagon again and drove off to another police station with the thief in the tray.

When we arrived at Station No.2 I made a formal statement about the theft and assault, and was interviewed about the crime as were my two witnesses (Alex and Mr Fox). A police officer suggested to me a little earlier that if I wanted to, I could say in my interview that the thief had flashed a knife or a gun when he robbed me, which would ensure that he would go to gaol for a long time. I decided to tell only the truth but realised that other victims probably choose to embellish their stories with violence to achieve revenge against those who hurt them.

We had calmed down a bit by this late stage in the evening and started to have a friendly chat with the police and detectives on duty. They were eager to show us the cool features on their mobile phones and photos of their children, while trying to pick up my friend at the same time.

Before the night was over we piled back into the police car for a final time, minus the thief who was left in the lock-up at Police Station No. 2, and drove to the Juvenile detention Centre to identify the kid. I think that by the time we arrived the kid had been permitted to go home, and finally we were too. I hope his few hours of humiliation at the hands of the police taught him that he needed to find new friends.

I am still angry about loosing my camera, and more so about the way it was taken from me, but I also feel bad about effectively sending someone to gaol. I have no doubt that we put the right man behind bars, since I looked directly into his eyes while we fought over my camera and he never left my sight between taking the camera and being detained. Though when I reflect on our different circumstances, my privileges and his disadvantages, I feel sad about what has happened. Maybe I will feel more guilty as my anger about the camera subsides. Of course I can easily get a new one, and he will never be able to recoup the months that he spends in prison.

I think I have come to a conclusion that Colombia really isn’t a safe place to travel. While getting a report for travel insurance earlier today (I had to make a separate report to obtain the document that I need to make a claim) I met an Australian couple from Perth who had been robbed at gun point the day before on bus trip from Santa Marta to Cartagena, at 1pm in the afternoon. They lost a lot; passports, an ipad, two ipods, their camera, cash, credit cards, and wedding rings. Although the couple had planned to be in South America for two more months the violent robbery left a bad taste in their mouths and they have decided to return home as soon as they get new passports. They are the second and third Australians who I know personally that have been hijacked on a bus in Colombia.

Mum will be happy to know that we have bought flights to Bogota, which cost about the same as a bus trip to the Capital, and then probably on to Quito.

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One Response to “Stupid Gringa: robbed twice in three days in Cartagena, Colombia :-(”

  1. Susie November 15, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    If you feel bad about it when the anger subsides, just remember that *this* time it was a relatively well-off tourist he robbed. The time spent in prison may help the guy to straighten out his life, meaning your pursuit of justice may save any number of less well-off Colombians from being similarly robbed.

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