We all have different levels of risk we are willing to live with. I have friends who feel that traveling anywhere outside the U.S. is risky. Which is funny, because I’ve also met Europeans who think travelling to the U.S. is very dangerous. Watching movies and TV shows from our country has given them the impression that just about everyone here carries a gun. Sadly, their impression is probably more correct than that of my U.S. friends, as statistically the U.S. is certainly more dangerous than most countries in Europe.
In a previous article I took the macro view and talked about choosing safe travel destinations and touched on avoiding countries, or regions of countries, which are unsafe, either due to human risks or other dangers. In this article I’ll take the micro view and talk about things you can do in your day-to-day activities to avoid becoming a victim of violent crimes, which includes assault, rape, kidnapping, and murder.
State Department Warnings
As I mentioned in the first part of this series, one source of information about potential dangers in countries you plan to visit is the U.S. State Department website here which has travel advisories for all the world’s countries. Usually the information from this website is very general, but sometimes the information gets specific enough to be useful in helping reduce risks in your day-to-day activities. For example, the current Mexico travel warning has information about specific regions and areas of cities to avoid which could be useful. They also provide information on particularly types of threats, such as kidnapping and carjacking, as well as the methods commonly employed by criminals doing these crimes. Seasoned travelers often scoff at these advisories, saying they are overcautious and make the countries seem much more dangerous than they really are. To some degree I agree with that assessment, however even though these advisories may be overcautious they are still a good source of information about particular areas that are worse than others in a destination country. One thing I usually do pay more attention to on the State Department site is when they have a warning “avoid all travel to this country” list. Also, if a warning mentions that State Department personnel are “prohibited from travelling” to a particular area you should definitely take heed and strongly consider avoiding these areas. These are stronger red flags than the normal “exercise caution” type of warning. At worst, if you were to follow State Department warnings to the letter you would certainly be traveling in a safer manner than travelling uninformed into dangerous areas you weren’t aware of.
Other sources of Information
Another source of information on different countries is the United Kingdom Foreign Office’s travel advice site at https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. The advice at this site about potential dangers in various countries is often even less detailed than the information at the U.S. State Dept. site, but I find it is also less alarmist.
In addition to checking these sites, the best and most specific information you can get about the safety of your specific destinations will be obtained by Googling for each city or area. Choose a search phrase like “how dangerous is Guatemala City” or “neighborhoods or places to avoid in Guatemala City” and you will get a wealth of information about the dangers of that specific destination which you can use to help you avoid getting mugged, robbed, etc. In fact, this is really the best information you can probably get because it will usually be written by people living in these cities right now who have information about dangerous areas down to the neighborhood level.
Be informed about predators and typical threats
You should seek to become as informed as possible about the types of predators that might target you in the countries you are planning to visit as well as the typical methods and weapons they are using, whether it’s street gang muggings, taxicab kidnappings, car or bus jacking, pickpocketing, or whatever. Each country has different rates of one or the other of these types of crimes. In some countries there may be terrorist groups operating who might specifically target U.S. or Western tourists. In Honduras and El Salvador, for example, gangs have become a serious problem and may be the most dangerous threat to your safety. In Mexico, you may need to be more cautious about kidnapping and carjacking threats, as well as avoiding areas where drug cartels are very active. Often the threats are situation or location dependent…in a crowded train station or crowd at a festival you worry about pickpockets, but not as much about getting mugged. There are many YouTube videos on various safety and security topics which I recommend viewing, such as Bob Arno’s videos on pickpockets and how they operate.
Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time
From the above discussion it should be obvious that the first step in avoiding becoming a victim is to be informed about dangerous areas and generally avoid those areas, or, if you absolutely have to go through those areas, do so quickly, during the day, and preferably in a group. It’s almost always the case that certain regions, or cities, or parts of cities that are more dangerous than others. That is true in the U.S. as well, so just apply the same caution you would exercise in your own country once you know that a particular area is dangerous. In addition to avoiding dangerous countries, regions, or parts of cities, you need to avoid specific situations even in safer areas.
Understand your predators
Depending on where you are and whether gang activity is common, you may be more or less likely to be robbed or mugged by a lone person vs a group. Gangs are more likely to use strong arm tactics to rob you, without using weapons. A lone robber is much more likely to use a weapon. In the U.S. about 40% of robberies are strong arm muggings, often from one or more robbers who overpower a weaker victim. 60% of robberies involve a weapon, with about 40% using a gun and 20% using a knife or other weapon. In other countries, the percentage of robbers using guns depends on how easy guns are to obtain in that country. In countries where there has been a lot of recent military activity guns may be readily available, like Guatemala. In countries where gun control is strong, like England, gun robberies are a much smaller percentage.
Don’t make yourself an attractive target
Muggers go after the low hanging fruit. They want a victim who looks like they might have something worth stealing and who looks easy to overpower or subdue. They want to get that person into an isolated location, preferably after dark, with no witnesses or other people to interfere. If you want to avoid becoming that victim, then you need to do all the right things to make yourself not look like an attractive target. Most of these you probably already know, but they bear repeating:
- Don’t look like you have something worth stealing, or even better, don’t carry anything worth stealing. Don’t wear jewelry, expensive sunglasses, expensive clothing, camera bags, designer purses or daypacks. If you carry a purse or bag, choose a cross-body type that you can hold in front of you, preferably one that doesn’t look expensive. If you don’t need to use your smartphone, tablet, or camera while you are out, leave it in in your room. If you have to carry them with you, use cameras, smart phones, tablets and other items likely to attract thieves very selectively when out in public. Don’t wear your camera around your neck. If you can keep your camera in a bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag, that’s better. Pull out the camera to take a picture and put it back in the bag when you’re done.
- Avoid being alone when walking in isolated or sketchy areas. If you are dealing with a lone mugger, more than one person is more difficult for them to approach. If you are in a group of several people, even a gang may think twice about trying to rob you and go after easier targets.
- Look like you know where you are going and actively scan your environment. A person being vigilant is a less attractive target and harder to approach.
- Carry a “potential” weapon. If you are carrying an umbrella, extended selfie stick, photo monopod, cane, or other item that could potentially be used against a mugger, the mugger may pass on you as a target, particularly if the mugger is unarmed or carrying only a knife.
- When you are evaluating your personal safety you should constantly be asking yourself how well you stack up as a potential victim. It goes without saying that stumbling back to your hotel or apartment drunk late at night by yourself is an open invitation to get robbed.
Learn to be observant and vigilant
This is probably the number one thing you can do to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. But the suggestion probably seems silly or obvious. After all, aren’t we all observant? Well, no. I was riding on a subway recently and many of the people on the train had their noses buried in cell phones, books, newspapers, whatever. A few were even dozing in their seats, oblivious to everything around them. I’d say fewer than 10% were being actively observant about what was going on around them. Being observant all the time when you are out in public is actually pretty difficult and something you have to train and force yourself to do. Actively scanning your environment for threats is even harder. You need to be constantly be examining each person in your potential threat zone, the area from which you could potentially be attacked, and making judgments about whether you should take steps to protect yourself from that person or persons. By being more observant you can often head off becoming a victim by avoiding people who cause your danger signals to spike, or wandering into a bad location because you weren’t paying attention.
The next several times you go out, observe yourself critically. How many times did your thoughts wander and stop you from paying attention to your environment? How many times did you get close to people or allow them to get close to you without realizing they were there? How many times did you find yourself walking alone in an isolated street, or after dark? You can start learning to be more observant and vigilant about your safety right now…just choose to do it and the more you do it the better you will get at it.