Theft in Zipolite, lessons on how to prevent theft when traveling
ZIPOLITE, Mexico- “Everybody steals in Zipolite,” the guesthouse owner informed me almost immediately upon my entering her establishment. “So be very careful with any computers or electronics if you have them, don’t use your computer in the street or at the restaurants. The people will watch you and follow back to the hostel.”
Hearing this come from the owner of a hippie hostel impressed me — normally the establishment of these places are far more prone to tell you to not worry about a thing, not to safeguard your worldly possessions. I was in a hippie hostel, it is true, but I choose one that at least sought to function well. My wife had also tipped off the owner that I was a traveling webmaster, so this warning was spoken particularly for my benefit: the owner did not want me luring any thieves into her den with my computer.
“Right now, they are going after computers,” owner continued. “Lots of people are traveling with computers now and many are being stolen.”
She then told me a couple of stories about how computers have been recently liberated from the rooms of guests in other hotels. One situation involved a hotel that had some sort of yoga session that most of the guests were attending — it is my impression that there was a tour group of yoga people or something — and while this bunch were contorting their bodies and pawing at the mystical world, their possessions were being pilfered from their rooms in the real world. Three computers went missing. Another incident of theft happened in a hippie eco-resort at the end of the beach. Some thieves found out that a guest had stored a sack of valuables in the hotel safe, they popped it open, removing everything.
Both of the above stories involved a network of knowledge which allowed the thieves to strike the opportune people at the opportune time. “They watch you,” the guest house owner told me. She went on to imply that the thieves here seem to know the schedules of the staff of various hotels, and they are tipped off when there is a good heist to be had.
It is easy to see how this knowledge is collected here. In the streets of Zipolite there is a collection of friendly locals who speak English, they go around befriending tourists. They are the cool dude type, tattoos, dreadlocks, some probably pretend to be rasta men. They befriend the foreign hippies, smoke them up, act real cool, and probably find out everything they can about their new foreign friends. It is easy to make the connection between these guys and the ones behind the scenes who break into the hotel rooms and do the dirty work.
A common lock in prop seems to be as such:
A cool looking local walks up to you on the beach. He opens up his hand to reveal the joint of marijuana that he has tucked into his palm. He asks you for a lite. I imagine that after you pass over your lighter and the drug is set ablaze, the first thing that is handed back is not your lighter, but the joint itself. The guy has your lighter, so you can’t just walk away — you are locked in. So you take the joint, smoke it, talk with your new friend, dropping your guard and thinking how cool and free life is on the beach of Mexico. What happens next is pure conjecture.
But I imagine that many people who are robbed here leave thinking that the guys who smoked them up on the beach were really their friends.
I have had this lock in prop tried on me too many times over a few day period to deem it a simple benevolent coincidence: if this were so, there are far too many people on this beach with joints and no lighters than probability would allow for. It is is a lock-in prop, but it is one that I am comfortable leaving the end results open to conjecture: I don’t light the joints. But a simple walk down the beach reveals many tourists who do.
Perhaps this is love the world benevolence, but it seems more like a set up to me.
“Don’t leave any valuables in view” the guesthouse owner began, indicating the common area which can be clearly viewed from the street. “The ladies here, if they see something, they come up to the gate and call my name. If I don’t come and the door is unlocked they come in.”
She then told me about how a European girl lost her camera in this way. The girl did not heed the guesthouse owner’s warnings and left her camera sitting out on a table when she went to the beach. She then returned, made dinner, and then grabbed for her camera. By this time it was just a case, the camera inside was gone.
“People come in here, smoke a joint, and then fall asleep leaving their things on the table,” the owner continued, and then told me a story of one stoner who left his computer out in plain view over night in the common room so its battery could charge. The owner herself — who lived the bulk of her life on this beach — seemed to think this was a very poor decision. It was clear that she did not want people inviting thieves to rob them in her guesthouse.
Beach hotels have to be the most insecure class of accommodation that I have observed in the world, and beach towns are the most prone places in the world for theft. Beach hotels are often constructed in an open style, people walk through them, people use them as hang out pads rather than just boarding houses, they are often party places, and it is easy to bring your new friends inside to join the party. This is just the way this type of hotel is, it is just the way these towns are. The guesthouse that I am staying at is probably one of the more secure places on the beach — there is a gate and fence enclosing the place, the rooms can be firmly locked — but this does not say too much: things can still be stolen rather easily if you do not take precautions, as the camera-less European girl found out the hard way.
I wondered what the police did in such circumstances, and the owner of the guesthouse told me simply: “They take money.” She said this while rubbing her fingers together. Of course, the police are in on the action, and they take their cut.
It has been four days since I came to Zipolite, and I have not seen ANY semblance or sign of law enforcement — not even a police truck driving through town. “It is lawless here, you can do anything” an expat friend told me who has been living on this beach told me a couple days ago. It is my impression — open drug sale and use is so common here as to be rendered a normal part of the scenery, and stories of theft are common — that he is correct.
I can’t say that I am complaining, as it has not been my observation that the police in Latin America do much to curb theft anyway — and they often do a lot to aid it. This place is probably better off without them.
“If an American is robbed they can just buy new things,” a guy on a beach in Costa Rica once said to me years ago. He was cocksure in his assumption, so much so that he spoke it openly to me, an American, without the intention of offending. Everybody knows this here: Americans are rich and can just replace anything stolen from them.
The American who whines about being robbed here is a nonsensical self pitier– Why don’t you just go buy new things?
The logic is clear, but its foundations are fictitious. But unfortunately, this is the position that many people take here, and it serves as justification of theft. Who weeps when a rich guy gets robbed? Robin Hood sentiments are in the literary foundations of many cultures, but in Latin America I find myself the Prince John. Knowing this is the first step towards preventing theft: I am not a cool, working class bohemian here, I am a rich white dude.
I can just buy new things.
But to prevent myself from having to buy new things, I follow the follow standard operating procedure:
1. I don’t show my valuables. Thieves try to steal what they know you have.
2. I need to work on this website and need access to the internet, so that means that I need to leave my room with my computer. The first day that I arrived in town I did not take out my computer, rather, I cased the town for the most secure looking places with WIFI. I found a secure internet cafe and a decent cafe with WIFI. Both establishments don’t have a street view into them.
3. When I leave my room I make sure that all windows and doors are locked.
4. When I leave the room I lock up my computer and all valuables into a sturdy messenger bag. I then lock this bag to the bed or another unmovable object in the room.
5. I don’t tell anyone who comes up to me in the streets or in the beach where I am staying, what I do for work, or that I have a computer. I do not want to seem any more worth robbing than any other hippie.
6. I try to stay out of bars late at night.
7. Don’t do, take, buy, carry, have anything to do with drugs.
8. I use caution as to who I enter into private circumstances with. This means getting into private cars, houses, walking down dark streets. Now, these private circumstances often lead to the sweetest moments in travel — there is no reason to travel if you are not going to make any friends and learn from people — but there is a line between being overly trusting and not trusting enough: finding this line is one of the true skills of travel.
None of these procedures will outrightly prevent theft — this is not really possible — but they will inhibit theft. It is my strategy to lower my chances of being robbed down to the point that a thief will choose an easier target and leave me alone.
Places often seem secure until you are robbed.This is one of the great paradoxes of world travel. You can easily walk around a place freely for a week or two, proclaim it safe, and then get a knife to your throat. I know that it is possible that I could walk up and down beach of Zipolite for ten years and have nothing happen to me — many people do. But many are also robbed, and knowing that this potential always exists is a major part of preventing it from happening. Few places in the world are secure, and all should be approached as I do Zipolite.
Added on January 1, 2011
I greeted an acquaintance from the USA in the street yesterday in Zipolite. She is of solid stock, but is fully gunning for the “Zipolite experience” while on vacation. She is exploring the boundaries of spirituality, intoxicants, campfires on the beach, Mexican boys too, perhaps — having the typical run through this town.
She told me that she lost her camera.
“How did you lose it?” I asked.
“Oh, I was clumsy and left it sitting by a fire.”
This was all that needed to be said. She lost all the photos from her trip to Mexico, lost her camera.
It is a real buzz kill to worry about being robbed when having fun, but I am sure that it is even more of a buzz kill to BE robbed.
It is my impression that 90% of tourism theft is “by opportunity.” If you give someone the opportunity to steal from you, they will often do it. It is easy to prevent 90% of theft when traveling.