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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Crime & Corruption in Ecuador

Eyes Wide Open

Crime & Corruption are very extensive, and a severe problem in Ecuador. Dealing with increasing crime, and reducing corruption remain the Government's main challenge for 2011. Crimes in the past year ranged from petty theft to violent crimes, including armed robbery, home invasion, sexual assault and homicide. Low rates of apprehension and conviction of criminals – due to limited police and judicial resources – further contribute to Ecuador's high crime rate. While there has been some improvements over the last several years Ecuador ranks very low out of the 180 countries ranked in the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI). 2010 Survey results

Denmark and Canada receive the strongest ratings. The polar opposite environments which we have experienced may explain why this has clearly being our most significant challenge/ adjustment to our life in Ecuador.

Crime is much worse in the large cities. Guayaquil is the largest city with about 2 million people and harbors the worst crime in the country ( also the poorest people - particularly on the south side) . Quito with about 1.3 million is the second largest and also has pretty high crime. Tourists, residents and club owners complain of rampant crime in La Mariscal, Quito's nightlife district where some bouncers are now Russian and many of the customers African and South Asian. The 3rd largest is Cuenca, a mountainous city of half a million that once was quite safe but is only 3 hours from Guayaquil and lately has been a weekend stopover for delinquents looking for easier, less wary prey. After over two years living here in Ecuador, and our tranquil coastal community of Bahia de Caraquez, we have first hand experience to increasing levels of crime and high levels of personal frustration with corruption.

Non-violent crimes, including pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, robbery, bag-slashing and hotel room theft, are the most common types of crimes committed against foreigners in Ecuador. They occur in all parts of Ecuador and incidents have increased in the past year. Pickpockets and other petty thieves are particularly active in airports, restaurants, public transportation, crowded streets, bus terminals and public markets and grocery stores. Backpackers are frequently targeted for robbery and "snatch and grabs;" business travelers carrying laptop computer bags are similarly targeted.

Almost everyone here ( including ourselves ) has experienced the theft of a wallet, cellphone, watch, laptop, bicycle, or chicken. Several of the boats in  the Bahia harbour have experienced thefts. In fact this type of theft is so common that theft of anything less than $ 500 in value is not even considered a crime or pursued in any way. Reporting petty crime to the police is useless. As these thefts are never reported they cannot be in any crime statistics you may find on this country. Statistics are also difficult to compare as crimes are classified in different ways, and cultural differences mean some crimes are less likely to be reported in one country than another.

What is significantly more disconcerting is the increase in violent crime in broad daylight. Armed robbery is a constant hazard throughout Ecuador. Throughout coastal Ecuador, the rate of violent crime against expats continues to rise. In the last several weeks there have been 6 occurrences of home invasion robberies in our coastal area. Friends of ours experienced an armed home invasion where at gunpoint they were tied up while thieves emptied their home of all valuables in front of their eyes. There have been several rapes and several local women were robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight while walking on a downtown street, and several reports of cameras and purses being snatched. These examples are not necessarily the " complete picture " - it is the incidents in the area that we know about.

We have a growing number of " middle-class " expats from around the world arriving to experience life in Ecuador. Many seemingly have made that decision after a " brief tour " or after doing their research on the internet ! In either case they have had no life exposure to these harsh realities in Latin America. Whenever there is such a wide divergence in income levels there is a corresponding increase in crime irregardless of where you are in the world.

Most expats seek the safety and security provided by an apartment, condominium, or gated community. Those few who venture out into the community to live in a house, will find the perimeter of their property is secured with a " glass sharded topped " wall. In addition most will employ " live on the premises 24 / 7 " armed guards and have guard dogs and guns.

"Secuestro express" or "Express kidnappings" are a common crime in Ecuador and are on the increase in Quito and Guayaquil. Both wealthy Ecuadorians and foreign visitors are targets.The kidnappings involve short-term opportunistic abductions aimed at extracting cash from victims who are selected at random. They are held while criminals empty their bank accounts using the victims' bank cards. Once the money has been taken the victim is usually released in an isolated area. However, criminals have started to force victims to take them to their homes once they have withdrawn the cash, and violence is becoming more common. From latest reports, these crimes have taken place especially at night in the Mariscal District in Quito and most of them have involved illegitimate taxis and complicit taxi drivers. Travelers should be particularly aware of the dangers in Guayaquil and in Quito, as well as in the south of Ecuador, including at the Ecuador/Peru border crossings of Macará and Huaquillas.

Ecuador has become a significant transit country for cocaine originating in Colombia and Peru, with reportedly over half of the US-bound cocaine passing through Ecuadorian Pacific waters; importer of precursor chemicals used in production of illicit narcotics; attractive location for cash-placement by drug traffickers laundering money because of dollarization and weak anti-money-laundering regime; increased activity on the northern frontier by trafficking groups and Colombian insurgents. Ecuador has become particularly attractive for money launderers because of its combination of weak laws and use of the American dollar as its currency. The International Assessment and Strategy Centre, reckons that it has become a hub for Russian and Chinese crime syndicates.

Crime is not the same everywhere. Certain types of crime that are common in the northern hemisphere can be rare in Latin America. That can put travelers at a disadvantage as they enter a new country where their safety habits are no longer sufficient to protect them and their property. This is certainly true for European, Canadian, or American travelers to Ecuador.

Unfortunately culturally it is accepted here. To illustrate here is an excerpt from an Ecuadorian lady who was recently robbed " it was traumatic to have a gun shoved against my cheek and a knife up to my neck. But, all the Ecuadorians are telling me that I´m ¨weak¨ for being upset about this situation. Further, I´ve heard ¨a veces te toca¨ so many times that I just can´t take it anymore. The police told me that it was my fault for traveling with a group of gringos. Other people have told me it´s a rite of passage in Latin America and I should just accept it. " There is a saying in Ecuador regarding things left unattended "I may as well take it because if I don't, the next person will. " It is a part of the culture here that is very uncomfortable.

This article is written to make you fully aware and enable you to properly prepare yourself to enjoy your visit, or enjoy life in this beautiful country. We have met wonderful, warm, hard working, trustworthy Ecuadorian people.

Here is a checklist of helpful tips when visiting Ecuador.

1.) Do not display your wealth by wearing gold jewelry, diamonds or other precious stones, designer handbags, expensive clothing, using your blackberry, or carrying an expensive camera in public. Simply being a " gringo " already makes you a target, blend in as best you can. Shorts are not normal here, and loud print tourist clothing will be very conspicuous.

2.) Do not carry large amounts of cash on your person at any time, carry only what you need for this outing. Billfolds or wallets should be in a front pocket. When paying for goods or services open your wallet discretely. It is a good idea to either carry a " throwaway " wallet or $ 20 in another location to provide your thief in the event of a robbery. This strategy may enable you to successful escape losing your primary billfold and identification. Count and inspect any change received to ensure it's accuracy and the bills are not counterfeit. Counterfeit bills are quite common. As a result large denomination bills are not readily accepted even at banks.

3.) Criminals often use drugs to subdue victims. Home-made versions of the drug 'scopolamine' or 'escopolamina' in Spanish, which can be administered in food or drink, cigarettes, aerosols, or powder. It will leave victims sedated, compliant, and cause amnesia, making you obey anything anyone tells you to do, further, you'll appear to be acting normal. In at least one incident the drug was administered through a chemical soaked into a leaflet handed to the victim on the street. Be wary of unsolicited approaches from strangers offering you food, drinks, leaflets, telephone cards or cigarettes, no matter how friendly or well dressed they appear.

4.) The number of reported attacks by drivers of unregistered taxis has risen. For your safety, use only authorized taxis (yellow cabs) that display their taxi registration sticker on the windscreen and doors, as well as the orange license plates.

5.) Unlike the Northern hemisphere countries, in Latin American countries you do not extend trust before knowing someone. You needn't be ashamed about it being insulting as it's a way of life here when dealing with strangers.

6.) Both Ecuadorians and foreigners are regularly robbed when leaving banks. Avoid isolated cash machines and/or ATM's in the street. Be vigilant when using ATM's . Be aware of your surroundings and make sure the machine has not been altered or tampered with.

7.) Be vigilant when traveling on buses at night throughout Latin America. Buses travel through remote areas and frequently stop for passengers enabling a thief ready access. Armed gunmen regularly hold up buses at night.

8.) If any polite young fellows on the street point out that you've got mustard on your jacket or backpack, be aware it could be the start of a trick to get you to drop whatever you're carrying. The next step is for a few accomplices to cause confusion during which one of them snatches your belongings. Yes, thieves don't just work alone here, they can work as a well organized team.

more details on these organized crimes of opportunity
9.) Scan all your important identification and credit cards for electronic storage and also make photocopies. Store each in independant secure locations.

10.) Carry your identity documents at all times. If driving, always ensure that you have your driving licence, vehicle insurance papers (SOAT) and registration card (matricula).

11.) Finally simply be aware that you often will be quoted a higher price for goods and services simply for being a rich foreigner. Prices are not posted here and bartering with vendors is common cultural practice. They know that you're used to higher prices so you may be charged the "gringo rate".

Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. There is a lot of bureaucracy here and the collective experience of many here would say most laws, and regulations can and will be different dependent on who you know, and what you pay !

Corruption clearly holds Ecuador's development back. A recent survey of business managers throughout the world showed in excess of 70 % ranked corruption, and the lack of confidence in courts to uphold property rights as major constraints for business here. A major business leader here has indicated this country is currently in major turmoil.

Throughout Ecuador, the Government has recognized the pervasive corruption that permeates this society, and recently passed legislation in an attempt to make change. There are laws in place to fight official corruption, but enforcement is lacking. This past year we have seen several high profile leaders removed from their office due to corruption. Bribery and theft of public funds is common. An inefficient and nontransparent judicial system adds to the problem.

Investigations into the abuse of public funds are at times politically motivated, and oversight of autonomous agencies is lacking. In December 2008, President Correa issued a decree that created the National Secretary for Transparency, to investigate and denounce acts of corruption in the public sector. Both entities can conduct investigations into alleged acts of corruption but responsibility for prosecution remains with the Office of the Prosecutor General.

Here in Ecuador, bribes paid to bureaucrats,( customs, airports, building, health, & fire inspectors ) judges and police happen regularly. Payments to bureaucrats arguably vary in moral standing as it could be made simply to get past some plainly unreasonable paperwork requirements, expedite a task that might take longer than desired, correct an administrative mistake made by the payer, or to obtain some kind of permit that otherwise would be denied.

Payments made to police would usually be to avoid some kind of official punishment or traffic violation, such as at a traffic stop where one's license or insurance has expired, or for the return of your stolen property. It could be considered an on-the-spot fine as far as the payer is concerned, but while the money would go to the officer, the government would not receive anything.

Court decisions are not necessarily correct or just, they can depend on your network of contacts and money. Payments made to judges are not uncommon as a way of having civil matters come into ones favor. This is clearly the worst form of corruption among those mentioned as it obviously adversely impacts a specific party. After using several lawyers to expedite a legal matter we have discovered that judicial bribes have been made to both delay and sway the final decision.

epic legal battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Real estate salespeople misrepresent the property, inflate the asking price, collect commissions from both buyer and seller, and often utilize the language barrier to manipulate the transaction.

Businessmen must compete on an uneven playing field when the competition has been provided a significant advantage with " free utilities, free water, or some other incentive " from corrupt community leaders.

Culturally integrity and trust are very foreign concepts here. Most people here will lie to save face, escape blame, or to " please you " Believe it or not, some people will try to sell property that they don’t own and once you give them the money – they’re gone. Common folks will pay to get ahead in a bank service, electoral, or common service line. When purchasing property you must ensure that all municipal, electrical, water, and other service fees have been paid to the current date or you will inherit these extra costs. Even after extensive investigation we had unpaid bills that were in another family member's name, and one agency that's records were not up to date when questioned. In the process of buying a used vehicle you will discover the previous owner's unpaid bank loan, traffic fines, police fines, annual inspection fees, municipal charges, Soat, and matricula for all prior years transfer to the new " registered owner." It is very common to inherit many hidden charges, in addition to whatever risks you will inherit with the condition of the used vehicle. Preventative maintenance is not common in this culture.

When we purchased our property here in Bahia the owners were supposed to be returning to the United States. It represented some convenience for us as the negotiated package included all of the furniture and domestic items which they would not be able to carry in their suitcase. After the transaction was signed they announced they were constructing a small house immediately adjacent to our new home. They did so without any municipal permissions or building permit, and proceeded to build on someone else's property ! For us this was incredible, but the locals say it is pretty common. The property dispute is in front of a judge who has received paola but apparently a resolution may be years away. These unscrupulous neighbours not only stole building materials from us to build their house, but transferred the furniture and other domestic items we had purchased from them to their new home ! In addition to many unanticipated costs and repairs, due to misrepresentation and lack of maintenance, and many other problems, we now have these devious folks as neighbours !

In order to successfully live, or do business in Ecuador, an individual is simply unable to refuse and stand on their moral grounds and survive successfully here. (it is pervasive at all levels and isn't going to change overnight – if in our lifetime ) Unfortunately it is a way of life here, and while it is abhorrent, it must be recognized and accommodated.


  1. I have been looking at Salinas area as a place to retire, probably a condo. I have gotten feedback from Expats that crime is much lower than larger cities. My concern is that your article is very negative and any sane person reading it would cross Ecuador off their list or get out. I have not heard of mass exoduses from Expats, even from Cuenca or Cotacachi where they are in strong numbers. I don't want to retire in Ecuador and become a hermit.

    1. This is not a negative article this is reality. A VICTIM OF ECUADOR. Hope your experience is different

  2. Thank you for your observations. The article was not meant to be negative rather simply represent the situation accurately. Very little is said or written on the subject especially from the biased parties with an agenda to entice you here. We would rather you be prepared with " eyes wide open " than unpleasantly surprised. It also will depend on your involvement in the community, and travel about Ecuador. Many retired gringos have little exposure to the business world other than their initial home purchase.

    We do find many of these things very disconcerting but there are many other positive benefits, and it has not yet tipped the scales to where we wish to leave. The armed home invasions are the most troublesome, especially when it involves personal friends.

    From your perspective perhaps we may be insane still living in Ecuador. Hopefully others will comment and provide their thoughts as well.

  3. This is very true without sigle bit of exaggeration. When people are in shopping mood, they don't want to hear any negative things for what they want to buy and get mad when told so by others. Luckily I passed that period. I've been to ecuador and dreamed about moving there and observed for couple of years and decided not to. If anyone attempts to go anyway, do it at your own risk and blame nobody except yourself.
    I highly compliment the author for his honest and accurate detail.

  4. Appreciate your kind words of support, and sorry your dreams did not materialize for you in Ecuador. We all assume risks in life - it is simply important to be aware of them to enable you to successfully prepare and manage them.

  5. Perfection doesn't exist. There are no perfect countries, cities, people, animals, laws or customs. Crime is rampant everywhere, including small town USA. However, outside small town rural USA, it is not. We're perceived as armed, and many are. There are much easier pickings in any town, big or small and for people that aren't observant.

    I believe that irrespective of the good aspects of a country, home, person etc. The crux of it gets down to can we live in Ecuador with the worst of everything? If so, then we deserve the best as well. If we can't accept a person at their worst, then the connection won't work.

    Corruption is explosive in the US, not to mention the sexual assaults to board a plane, the chance of being tazered if a cop is testy that day. It's no secret where the US is moving or so many people would not be looking to move away from it.

    Generally the reasons sited for moving from the US are:

    Better lifestyle for less
    more stable climate & food security
    not appreciating the direction of the US

    Once the decision to move away from, we need to be sure that we're not just running from, but are realistic about where we are going to. It won't be perfect, no matter where it is.


  6. Just returned from our first trip to Ecuador, spending time in Quito & Bahía. Carried all of my money on me at all times, wallet with chain in front pocket, money belt. Never once felt in danger, but made a point of being situationally aware at all times. In crowded markets, wore backpack in front. Look people in the eye as I walked. rarely took my wallet out, because 1) I always have a few dollars in another pocket for incidentals and 2) Ecuador is so cheap, I found you don't need more than a few dollars available at one time. Never went near a cash station. Avoided unknown areas, questionable establishments, seedy bars. I have read many articles about crime in Ecuador, and I'm not so naive as to think it does not exist. I know it exists all over. That being said, I think one's attitude and behavior can have a significant effect on their experiences. Discretion, situational awareness and common sense are powerful defense against crime.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to provide comments. We are very glad you enjoyed your first visit to Ecuador, and hope you will return again soon. You are absolutely right when you say " behaviour & attitude can have a significant effect on their experience. "

  8. Tonia, thank you for taking the time to provide your thoughts.

  9. Just recently we visited for the first time Ecuador for 8 days driving coast from Guayaquil all way up north to Manta and spending 4 days in Salinas. Based on our observations, almost each and every post here is complete truth even if statements posted are completely opposite. To my opinion everyone looks at things around them from the different angle, different prospective and compares what he/she experience in Ecuador with own background, place where they came from and many other different factors that influences on how they accept Ecuador.
    Crime and corruption of course are an important issue and not just in this country but all around the world. Nevertheless, it is not equally spread across the Ecuador or even a city or town and you need to be informed on what areas to avoid. Awareness, behavior and attitude helps a lot. In addition, if you look like a victim, if you act lie a victim, most likely you'll be a victim. Of course, it is not guaranteed insurance policy not to become a victim, but based on my experience it helps a lot. Originally from Lithuania, in Ecuador I felt like I am back home again 25 - 30 years ago, you give a cop few dollars and he lets you go, it is much less expensive than in US where you go to court and most likely it will cost more than a hundred plus your insurance goes up. Of course, it is not right, but you just accept as a new life style and deal with it. For me it's nothing new, this is how we lived for many years back in Lithuania and was a norm of life. Now we in US for over twenty years and yes, we like so many things here so much, but dislike many things as well. We are strongly considering to relocate to Ecuador some time very soon, but not just because low living cost or low prime ocean real estate pricing. We love people, at least those that we had an opportunity to meet, we love climate and most importantly we feel that is a time for a change. In addition I see many different business opportunities there in many sectors that makes sense to explore to the mutual benefits.
    Everything in the eyes of the beholder, understanding of the situation and willingness in advance to adapt to the situation. For those who think that they will be living on the ocean like in the Florida just way for less without any sacrifices they need to think at least one time more.

  10. Thanks for the article. While some of us would rather keep our heads in the sand, it's a good reminder to be ever vigilant, maintain situational awareness, and trust nobody, especially someone who is trying to sell you something. None of this is a reason to avoid Latin America...but you need to be smart about everything you do. Sadly, many of us make a lot of mistakes.

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Bahia de Caraquez, Manabi, Ecuador