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What´s Easier Than Getting Robbed in Guayaquil?

By Emmanuel M. von Arx, KF 16, Ecuador

It happened two hours ago and my co-workers and I can still feel the shock in our bones. This day had begun like a normal day: At 7.30am Rubi Chaca – the young Kiva Coordinator of Banco D-MIRO  -, her 16-year old intern Joel Kenny Matias, and I had met outside of the bank´s headquarters, where we were picked up by Roberto, the official driver of the bank. He drove us to the branch office of Guasmo (about 3 miles from the center of Guayaquil) where we gave a training session to the local loan officers, reminding them about Kiva and explaining to them why it is so important that they keep finding micro-entrepreneurs who agree to be listed with their name and photo on Kiva´s website.

Two hours later, once the training was over, the eternally optimistic and naive explorer in me came through, also known as the guy who takes any excuse to walk into unknown territory in the hopes of discovering something new and fascinating. I believe my words to my two coworkers were something like: “Let´s save the environment and Roberto´s time by using public transport – and we will hear the birds sing and smell the flowers along the way – believe me! Yes? Yes?” Unfortunately, my enthusiasm proved so convincing and infectious that I soon persuaded Rubi and Joel to return to D-MIRO´s headquarters on Isla Trinitaria by public transport – and by that I mean the crazy rattling buses whose apparent lack of working brakes forces everybody, from kindergarten age kids to dignified white-haired seniors, to jump on and off at almost full speed.

A typical local bus, recorded at full speed, which makes it seem double as long as it actually is. It won´t even stop for a photo, even less to let passengers on or off...

A few minutes later, we found ourselves squeezed like sardines in a local metro-bus (for a lively description of another bus experience in Ecuador by KF16 Marcus Berkowitz click here), before taking a quick 10-minute walk along a street where exhaust fumes – dense as fog – barely kept us from seeing the birds and smelling the flowers, exactly as I foresaw! (Is it worth mentioning that most of the birds that we saw along the way had actually long been run over by cars and that the intoxicating flower smell came from a large cemetery, next to whose poetically graffiti-covered wall we were walking?) Having thus been sensually motivated and uplifted, we jumped a little bit later onto another local bus which was supposed to bring us directly to the headquarters of the bank.

Rubi and Joel sat down on the first row of seats while I sat two rows behind them, reading my Spanish financial vocabulary list – until the moment when I heard a loud cry and looked up to see what seemed like a mushroom cloud of feathers and dust rise above the heads of Rubi and Joel, not unlike an explosion of a small nuclear bomb. A group of three kids in their early twenties had gotten off the driving bus, and, on the way out, the last of them had caught – violently and quickly – the little back-bag that Rubi had safe-guarded in her lap. She had wrapped the bag´s strap around her wrists and when the thief tore the bag away, the cord snapped, creating the impression of an exploding cloud… After a brief silent struggle between young Joel and the robber the youth gang ran away and the bus continued its ride, with Rubi and Joel still sitting on their seats, like paralyzed.

The conductor who sat inches away from the attack, didn´t even blink – and everybody else in the bus was dead silent. Even though I am sure that many passengers in the bus had experienced crime in the past, the audacity of the attack and our total powerlessness made us speechless. This robbery – which got the three thieves Rubi´s camera, a 20-dollar note, a cheap cell-phone, and the papers of a project she was working on for her evening classes at university – just went far too smoothly. Was it really that easy to get robbed in Guayaquil?

A bloody knee...

...and a broken fingernail were the injures that Rubi suffered from the attack.

Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding yes. For me personally, this was already the third time in a little over a month that I have been confronted with delinquency. On my first week-end, a robber in the city center during broad daylight convinced me – very easily, thanks to his firearm – to bid farewell to my small pocket camera and my cell-phone. While this scene happened, the robber and I were surrounded by a dozen of neighbors looking down from their balconies who later all claimed to never have seen the criminal before.

In a mirror image, it was also very easy to replace my stolen belongings: It took me barely 5 minutes in a local phone center to get a new phone with my former phone number. And in order to replace the camera, I ventured into the local Mercado de la Bahia – Guayaquil´s well-known permanent flea market where you can find all kinds of technical equipment. I was not surprised to discover that my “new” camera already contained well over 50 pictures of a happy family idyll, including pictures of a christening and a tearful good-bye at a train station which looked like it could be in Portugal.

The first picture taken on my "new" camera, showing the dealer on the Bahia Market who sold it to me.

I had bargained hard, negotiating the camera´s price down from $140 to $85. So naturally my first feelings were  of triumph: “Hey, yes! I can beat the thieves in their own game, playing by their rules!” Yet, these thoughts were soon superseded by a sudden attack of guilt, nourished by a reprimand of Banco D-MIRO´s pastor: Was I not myself fomenting the vicious cycle of delinquency by buying a stolen camera? But after having been robbed, did I not have some moral right to do so? In any case, I expect during my next visit at La Bahia to find my first camera or Rubi´s to be offered to me at a discount price…

The second incidence happened two weeks ago, on a bright Sunday afternoon, when I was walking over the campus of a local university: Dressed casually and without any bag, I was only carrying a book in my hand. I was approached by a young man – and in this city, where the fear of crimes is so very omnipresent, there is no reason whatsoever for a stranger to approach you, except if he has bad intentions. As I was sprinting away, the guy tried to hold me back on my wrists but I ultimately managed to escape by rotating my arms like a bird during its first attempts to fly, finding shelter in the midst of a nearby group of students…

Can one draw a lesson of these three experiences? To say that Guayaquil has a problem with petty crime is nothing new. Maybe a bit more disconcerting is to know that you cannot count on the help of strangers, because everybody is just too scared to interfere. As an outside observer of this society, I am tempted to link this rampant violence to other typical features of this city and its people: the city lives by the day and its streets are absolutely void of pedestrians shortly after dark, well before 8pm; Guayaquileños’ fondness of highly-policed shopping malls as their preferred place of meeting friends, having dinner, spending an entire week-end, and taking their children to play – all that without ever actually buying anything; the impatience of all local car drivers who would never consider slowing down (even less stopping) to let a pedestrian cross a street, which may be explained by the fact that standing cars have long been prime targets for express-kidnappers (in 2010 alone there were 887  such crimes reported in Guayaquil, out of the 896 in the whole country); and the fact that everybody with a more or less stable and well-paid job immediately moves out of the city, into one of dozens of gated communities in the northern suburbs which are as generic and impersonal as you would expect.

A street in downtown Guayaquil at around 7.30pm - a lonely morocho vendor is waiting for clients...

But I want to resist the temptation to generalize or psycho-analyze an entire city, solely based on my brief experience here. Rather, I want to connect this extreme delinquency to the work of Banco D-MIRO and those of its employees who have to face the risks of becoming crime victims on a daily basis and as a basic part of their work: our loan officers. They leave their branch every morning at around 8.30am, visiting new and former borrowers, listening to their needs and problems, believing in the good of their work and the positive change they can bring to this city and the neighborhoods most in need of positive change. By 1pm they all return to the bank – not because it is time for lunch, but, to quote several loan officers: “Porque a la una salen los ladrones.” – At 1pm the robbers come out! They clearly love to sleep in! At the beginning I used to laugh at this statement, considering it overly dramatic… But after hearing loan officer after loan officer repeat it to me and listening to their own crime stories of stolen cameras and cell phones, I have definitely reached the conclusion that there is more than a grain of truth in their fears.

Last but not least, I also want to highlight those people who are most affected by this delinquency: Banco D-MIRO´s borrowers and micro-entrepreneurs. Countless borrowers tell us that they have been confronted with delinquency in the past and – nevertheless – keep on following their dreams and working themselves out of poverty. Among them Carlos who has been a crime victim while at work in his taxi – he is currently looking for funding for his $1,075 loan; or there is Agueda who has been robbed in her humble store -she is seeking an $875 loan to expand her business. These cases make clear that, yes, there is delinquency in Guayaquil – but this is also a city where people raise their families, live, work, dream and hope… Please help to give hard-working micro-entrepreneurs their chance in a life-time to realize their dreams and stay away from delinquency and crime, by lending on Kiva. KF15 Fellow Jason Jones has coined a brilliant term for this strategy: Fighting Crime Kiva Style. There are not many things that are easier than getting robbed in Guayaquil. But one of them definitely is making a loan on Kiva!

Emmanuel M. von Arx is a Kiva Fellow working with Banco D-MIRO in Guayaquil, Ecuador. To learn more, please visit Banco D-MIRO´s partner page or make a loan to one of their clients.

About the author

Emmanuel von Arx