Is it safe to live in South America?

Written by Lisa Mercer
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Dateline: Atlantida, Uruguay

A few weeks ago, I met a social media friend in person. She had just arrived in Uruguay and was planning to spend the next few months in the Maldonado region.

My friend Allison planned to work with Alex, another social media friend who owned a blueberry farm in the area, and Allison was going to help him expand his farmland and develop some exciting, profitable projects.

Unfortunately, upon arriving at his home, she found him lying unconscious. He died a few hours later. The intruders had beaten Alex over the head with a blunt object. But they didn’t steal anything. Not even the cash he kept on his desk. The two suspects — one in his 30’s and the other in his 50’s – were Alex’s employees.

The story went viral in the expat social media community. The prevailing reactions led many to suggest that living in Central America is not safe. I wanted to dispel these notions as, with a few exceptions, living in Latin America is very safe.

Let’s take a few common myths…

Rant: Now is the time to get out. When all hell breaks loose, you don’t want to be a gringo in a Third World country.
Reality: Like it’s easy to be a Jew in Europe, or a US citizen who just happens to be in the wrong movie theater, office building schoolyard or McDonald’s at the wrong time?

Alex was a Chilean with Argentinean citizenship. Nothing in his appearance spells “gringo.” Furthermore, many people in Uruguay are of European descent. The majority look European, not South American. It’s not easy to find the gringos in Uruguay. And finally, with a 98 percent literacy rate and a thriving tech industry, Uruguay is hardly a Third World country.

Rant: Latin Americans are thieves and untrustworthy.
Reality: As soon as the incident happened, Allison contacted a friend and asked her to contact people from their social media expat group to let them know what was going on. One Uruguayan woman was enjoying a romantic getaway in Paloma. She and her boyfriend jumped in the car and came to Allison’s aid. Another Uruguayan Maldonado local accompanied Allison to the police station and hospital and acted as a translator. If you choose to move to another country, and then make stereotypes about all of its citizens, perhaps you should leave.

Rant: All of South America is dangerous.
Reality: Most of the crime occurs in the capital city. Here in Uruguay, that means in Montevideo. Crime does happen in the coastal towns, but incidents usually take place during the tourist season and are usually petty in nature.

I won’t try to create a false image of a Latin nirvana. Crime is an issue here as it is in many parts of the world. Everyone has their own comfort level about how much crime – as well as what type of crime – they can deal with.

It depends on who you are, and you’re relocating with.

For example, a fit, 25-year-old male martial arts expert might feel safe in most cities. In contrast, a family with a sexy, precocious teenage daughter might feel uneasy in some Latin American locations. On the other hand, some people will hear about a few incidents and use them as an excuse not to move abroad. To make an informed decision, you need to evaluate the crime scenario and separate rant from reality.

How to Evaluate Latin American Crime Statistics

Many potential expats simply read the crime statistics, and decide where to live. This type of over-simplification will not help you make informed decisions.

Crime prevention in Latin America involves situational awareness. Unfortunately, the situations in Latin American countries are in a constant state of flux. What was safe yesterday could be unsafe today, and vice versa.

In order to evaluate the safety of any country, city or rural area, you need to understand the who, what, when where, how and why of each situation.

“Who” pertains to who commits the crime, and who are the victims.

“What” defines the specific type of crime. You might be able to deal with the idea of pickpocketing, but rape, murder, and home break-ins would qualify as deal-breakers.

“When” refers to both the time of day and the season.

“Where” describes the specific country, city, neighborhood or location.
How do most crimes occur? Pickpocketing is less frightening than being held at gunpoint or knifepoint. Arson is probably another deal-breaker.

“Why” is perhaps the biggest question. Some people say inflation and poverty increases crime. In other cases – as we’ve recently seen in France and the United States – the motivations are political.

When doing your research, look at the big picture. Study the inflation patterns and increasing or decreasing poverty levels. Learn about the country’s relationship with its immediate neighbors. How does the rest of the world perceive the country?

Here is an overview of the crime situation in the most popular expat destinations. Since I opened this article with an anecdote about Uruguay, let’s start there and examine several expat-friendly countries in South America.

Safety in Uruguay

The Uruguayan government reported 257 homicides in 2014. While this is a relatively low number, Uruguay has seen a 60 percent increase in homicides committed under Mujica’s administration, as compared to the first presidency after the country’s 1984 return to democracy. Then, there’s the juvenile delinquency dilemma.

During the 2014 elections, Uruguay introduced a constitutional amendment that would lower the age for criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. This proposal resulted from concern about the rise in juvenile delinquency; particularly the increase in violent, drug-related crimes during the last decade.

Unfortunately, the amendment failed to receive the required 50 percent of the votes. As such, Uruguayan law continues to confine youth under 18 years old to a juvenile detention facility for a maximum of five years. That’s the bad news.

On the other hand, Uruguay is a secular nation, with strongly defined boundaries between the proverbial Church and State. Religious warfare does not take place in Uruguay, because religious organizations are not allowed to make laws that would affect the lives of those who do not share their beliefs.

As for its military, Uruguay is one of the world’s largest troop-contributing countries to the United Nations peace-keeping missions. Consequently, Uruguay has avoided the hate lists of any country or terrorist organization – even when former president Mujica referred to Cristina Fernandez as an “old hag”. (As we do here.)

Safety In Panama

Many expat publications tout Panama as an ideal expat destination. This Central American country certainly has its benefits, but criminal activity is an issue. Panama’s Public Ministry reports that the country is home to 204 active gangs. However, Insight Crime notes that three successful anti-gang operations occurred in the past few months. As a result, the police arrested 200 people.

In 2014, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela introduced the Secure Neighborhoods program, which offered gang members free technical training; as long as they were willing to disarm and integrate with the rest of society.

Still, Panama has a long way to go before it achieves Utopia status. The most dangerous areas in Panama have been said to include Panama Viejo, Cabo Verde, Curundu, San Miguel, Barraza, and Chorillo. These areas have an unacceptable gang activity to police presence ratio.

Safety in Ecuador

Ecuador was the expat’s darling destination of 2014, but is it safe? Limited police resources contribute to the low arrest and conviction rates. Quite often, expats are afraid to report the crime, for fear of retribution.

Many non-violent crimes occur in tourist areas. Thieves will distract a victim by spilling something on them. While one thief attempts to clean it up, his accomplice steals the victim’s pocketbook or wallet.

Then, there’s the express kidnapping. This happens when you get into an unlicensed taxi cab, and the driver takes you to an ATM, holds you up at gunpoint and makes you liquidate your bank account. It’s happened to two people I know, but expats can largely avoid this and the issue has died down greatly since the early 2000s.

Ecuador expats Bryan and Dena Haines wrote a blog post that identifies the most dangerous sections of Cuenca, where they were actually robbed at gunpoint. Fortunately, action has been taken and the issue is being resolved.

However, what’s interesting about Ecuador – in contrast to Uruguay – is the fact that its coastal areas are more crime-prone than its cities. The results of a research study indicate that expats living in Ecuador’s small towns and rural areas are more vulnerable to crime than those inhabiting cities.

One of the biggest ways to reduce crime on a local basis has shown to be an expat community that gets involved in local events and becomes part of the community. This sounds like a game plan for any expat destination.

Lisa Mercer
Last updated: May 21, 2020 at 3:55PM

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16 Comments

  1. Sigurd Kvernmoen

    Interesting contribution.
    I think South America can be largely safe if you take your precautions. For example you can drive with UBER in most South American cities now, avoiding any dangerous cabs. I’ve been robbed three times in Brazil though, one time me being reckless in an unsafe neighborhood, other two times I see as unavoidable… Probably I would recommend girls to travel with somebody in Brazil.

    Reply
    • Daniel Anastacio

      I am originally from Brazil, and not only the corruption in the government but mainly the violence in the major cities are a few of the reasons that caused me to join the expat community.

      Reply
  2. englishvinal

    Why isn’t Nicaragua mentioned in this article? Nicaragua is the most “safe” nation in Central America… but the US promoted “black-out’ apparently STILL works.
    Nobody ever talks about Nicaragua…

    Reply
    • Christoph Heuermann

      Nicaragua, just staying here, is indeed very safe. Can be measured by gun size of security and police which is the smallest I encountered yet in Latin America. But you can have a great, safe times in No-Go-Areas like Michoacan, Mexico or San Pedro Sula Honduras as well. Just know where you go and you’ll be fine^^

      Reply
    • Lisa Marie Mercer

      Look at the blog. There are seven articles about Nicaragua, thereby disproving your “nobody talks about Nicaragua” remark. Also. since this article was about crime, I covered areas that have some kind of real or imagined crime issue — not ones that are considered relatively safe.

      Reply
  3. Myburg

    Sounds safer than where i grew up in South Africa !

    Reply
    • Ultima Choice

      Yes its safer than South Africa but that isn’t saying much. I would never travel in South Africa.

      Reply
  4. Lisa Marie Mercer

    Update Lisa Marie Mercer, the author of the article. The local police have solved the blueberry farmer murder. Due to a family dispute, the victim’s sister had ordered a hit on her brother. This could happen anywhere in the world.

    Reply
    • MH

      The man is a sociopath, and i will add, that kind of people are a very good liers, and manipulate very well too. So i will wait and see if its true. And yes can happen any wheres.

      Reply
  5. Working Nomad

    I have always tended to go to Southeast Asia and never felt unsafe there even wandering around a huge impoverished city like Jakarta. In Mexico and Costa Rica I felt less safe than most Asian countries. I love being able to stroll around on my own too and the thought of having to take cabs everywhere doesn’t appeal.

    Reply
  6. me_me

    The “who” include tourist/foreigners who are seen as easy targets by local gangs and local girls (scammer/thieves girls never work alone, think about that)

    Reply
  7. Ultima Choice

    South America is not safe. Don’t kid yourself. Make sure you take plenty of precautions. Of course there are plenty of no-go zones and countries. Do your homework.

    Reply
  8. Richard Delightful

    Safe is a relative thing. The only country in South or Central America with a homicide rate lower than the US is Chile. Some of these countries have homicide rates more than ten times that of the US. You really should decide what level is tolerable for you and look them up, in Wikipedia, for example.

    Reply
  9. flavio

    very good of parabens for the matter

    Reply
  10. katz

    Oh not another fake BS about Latin America being “safe”: all of it is a dangerous hellhole. And I’m originally from a place with “reconsider travel, Level 3” State dept. warning myself, can compare. Seems like another realtor who’s trying to sell overpriced something (with bars on windows, like everywhere in South Am).
    No one in the right mind would believe these ridiculous tales. US, Canada, Australia, NZ and most of Europe are safe: the rest is crime-ridden dump.

    Reply
  11. seeker

    Well, it’s not only about safety, there are many factors that push people away from Latin America.
    it’s a combination of factors that make the continent unappealing.
    The place has the safety level of Middle east, tax level of Scandinavia, Corruption and Bureaucracy level of Eastern Europe.

    Reply

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