Last Sunday, I left my building and noticed two federal police walking into the café across the street. As they entered, Leo, one of the mozos who is very helpful to us, was gesturing in a manner similar to describing the height and build of a man.
Helen and I stopped in for coffee yesterday and I asked him why the police were there Sunday. He told us he had been robbed. It was pretty much the classic MO I hear very often here in Buenos Aires. According to Melissa, a man walked in acting very friendly, “Hola! Qué tal? Como te va? Then his pulled out a pistol and stuck it in Leo’s ribs and said, “Darme todo de la plata!” Leo handed all the money over and the guy left the café and hopped on the back of the motorcycle driven by his waiting accomplice.
We told José Luis, the portero in our building, what happened and he told us, “ésa es tres veces” (That makes three times now). I don’t feel unsafe in this neighborhood; I am always cautious, but when it happens that close, it is disconcerting.
Another favorite is the “Bird dropping” trick. Almost every week someone posts on the BAnewcomers discussion board that it happed to them or someone they know. It is so prevalent that the police call them “The Bird People.” Here is how it works: a kind man or woman comes over and points out that you have a pigeon dropping on your clothes. On cue, an accomplice arrives with water and paper towels to assist (paper towels in Buenos Aires should be your first clue that something is not right). As the accomplice distracts you with the cleaning, the other goes through your pockets or purse helping himself to your wallet, money, credit cards and digital camera.
Our only experience, that we know of, as potential victims, happened at the bus station in Retiro when we returned form Córdoba. I was waiting for our bags when I felt a hand go in the front pocket of my pants. I thought Helen had joined me, but when I looked over, I saw a woman moving swiftly away. Nothing was taken.
Helen was given, and unwittingly tried to pass, counterfeit money. She gave the pharmacy a 10 peso note and the cashier handed it back to her and said "falso", then made the action for her to tear it up. We kept it to bring home.
We have been told that this was not so much of a problem before the 2001 economic crisis. People here became so desperate that many turned to petty crime. Still, it is not an unsafe city, and you just need to take the same precautions you would take in any major city.
I do feel badly for Leo, though. When he handed over the money there was not quite $1000 pesos. The robber was angry that there was not more money. No one deserves to be threatened with a gun for a few hundred pesos. I am sure he was frightened. He has a young daughter and a child on the way.