They’re watching you

Not too dissimilar to the Uruguayan killer sparrows, I’d like to raise your awareness to a flock of nasty critters out there on the mean streets of Buenos Aires.

Hunting in packs, akin to starlings on the lookout for a shiny trinket here and there, Palermo or San Telmo – they don’t care – are the infamous motochorros.

Working together, two on the ground and one astride a rumbling motorbike, this tag team targets anyone and everyone who looks like they could top up their treasure trove.

My boss has had her handbag whipped away from her by motochorros twice this year, and she was inconsolable over her BlackBerry. Twice.

Four years ago, a university mate and I were preparing to order some food from a restaurant’s street tables in Palermo Viejo when she was grabbed from behind and had her 1952 Queen’s coronation, limited-edition, one-of-25-made, Rolex, pulled off her wrist. No physical harm done, fortunately (if I recall correctly, several years ago, in the aftermath of the 2001 economic meltdown, body parts were being cut off in order to attain rings and bracelets), but the frustration of losing such a dear possession, given as a 21st birthday gift by her brother, in such a way hurt her in more than ways than one. The two men who attacked her escaped on a motorbike, whose driver picked them up and burned off around a corner.

As we had meandered the rather more quiet Palermo streets, I could only think in the aftermath at the police station that we had been followed,and targeted.

And just this past week, a friend from London, visiting for a few days en route to Santiago for a business conference, took a pasting to his face in broad daylight on Cabrera and Gurruchaga streets, ended up having stitches to his eyebrow at the local public hospital… after being relieved of his Rolex. The men who attacked him escaped on a motorbike, whose driver picked them up and burned off around a corner. Again, as he idly wandered the streets, perhaps my tall, Anglo-looking chum had been followed too…

People, Buenos Aires is not a playground. Drugs may be cheap, you can party all night long, do as you bloody well please most of the time, and do it in English,  but it’s a metropolis with nasty issues and people ready to take advantage of the unsuspecting, just in like any other large city. And Buenos Aires should be treated with respect.

In both these cases I’m not pinning blame on either friend, and they certainly hadn’t been treating this capital, overflowing with social problems, like a playground. Although, as well-travelled individuals, they should have been more alert to their surroundings. And despite the fact they were both physically unharmed, relatively speaking, both stories could have ended up with far unhappier endings.

And of course, pickpocketing anecdotes not involving motochorros are a centavo a dozen. The “classic” yogurt drink thrown over a bag or coat, a backpack pocket unzipped open and its coin purse deftly removed (that was my own foolishness), a woman travelling on a bus talking on her mobile phone and a  chorro defying gravity to lift it out of her hands… they are endless.

My rule of thumb is this: if you’re going to cry over losing something, don’t take it out with you. Passport, iPhone, your best camera, your worst camera, all your cash, all your credit cards, a photo of a dead relative. Leave it at home, in a hotel safe, or locked in a suitcase. Motochorros are out there, and they’re watching you.


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