Crime In Buenos Aires, Argentina

Last modified on August 1st, 2013

One of the biggest questions people always ask me about Buenos Aires is whether or not it is a safe city. Buenos Aires has an international reputation (at least lately) of being riddled with petty crime. Prior to coming here, I did quite a few scans on the internet and there is no shortage of sites talking about people’s personal experiences with crime in Buenos Aires. In fact, many of the locals talk about it like getting something stolen is almost a rite of passage in this city.

Upon landing in the city for the first time, you’re immediately bombarded with stores covered in iron bars and graffiti as far as the eye can see. On the surface, it definitely looks like a potentially unsafe city, at least compared to cities back home. But what’s the reality of the situation?

The Publishing Bias

In university research there’s a term called the “publishing bias”. It basically means that more research is typically published where the hypothesis was proven true, and often discarded when the hypothesis was proven false. That means the research has an implicit publishing bias that needs to be taken into account when evaluating the results.

Likewise, most people who have a bad experience in a city or a restaurant don’t hesitate to write about, but since the expectation is to usually have a good time, people rarely write about those experiences with the same intensity. So when you scan through the forums and the blog posts, you need to be conscious of that fact.


I read a lot of entries before coming, many of which talked about just how bad the situation was here. There’s a well-known scam here where someone will spray a bit of mustard on you, and then a few people will come up to you and offer to help clean it off. While they are cleaning, someone else will usually be emptying your pockets or waiting to snag your bag when you put it down to better clean your jacket. So I was told to look out for scams involving that.

There are plenty of warnings about the subway system here (called the “subte”) regarding pickpockets. Most of them basically make you feel like if you bring anything at all of value on the subway that you should be prepared to lose it. As a result, I didn’t go anywhere near the subte for my first few weeks here, fearing the worst.

Cab drivers are rumoured to often take foreigners “the long way”, resulting in larger fares. It’s also said that when you give them a 100 peso bill, many will exchange them for a counterfeit one quickly and hand it back, stating that they can’t break a 100 peso bill – you’re left with the counterfeit, and they have the original.

The Bad

When George Bush’s daughter was here a few years ago she had her phone and her purse stolen, all while being surrounded by secret service agents. So, it does happen, and the people perpetrating the crimes are good at what they do.

I personally haven’t been exposed to any crime while I have been here. The only scenario that made me uncomfortable was when I was at the Alto Palermo mall trying to get money in my first week. I went up to use the bank machine and I did a quick scan to see who was around. There was a rather seedy character sort of lurking in the shadows by a stairwell looking directly at the ATM machine. Upon noticing him, I decided to take a walk through the mall and came back about 15 minutes later to make sure he was gone. When I got back I didn’t see the guy in the same spot he was in, so I did another thorough scan, and sure enough, he was hiding on the opposite side of the mall, still lurking in the shadows and staring at the ATM machine. So I left the mall without getting any money there. I’ve been in cabs and never been cheated or scammed, and my experience with the subway system here is no more scary than riding the skytrain back home.

So other than the guy at the bank machine, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in the city or been overly concerned with having anything stolen. That said, I’ve met a fair number of people who have been exposed to crime here. I met a guy in a local bar near my house who was here from Montreal, and he has now had two iPhone’s stolen while in the city. Since Apple products are at least twice as expensive here as back home, they are hot commodities.

Another girl I know who is here from Vancouver had her wallet stolen from her backpack a few weeks ago. She was doing a bit of work in a library when she later noticed that someone had been in her backpack. She lost her bankcard and some money, but thankfully the thief didn’t take her passport or her iPhone, both of which were also in her bag.

My friends Rus and Gus brought their backpacks on the subte for a walk down Florida street, and later on they noticed that their bags had been “looked at” (see comment by Gus below).

The worst example I have heard about crime so far involved an Irish guy. He was out clubbing in a pretty seedy part of town and decided to walk back to the hostel from the pub at around 2am. He was fairly drunk and decided to pull his iPhone out and start texting people while walking down the streets toward the hostel. Sure enough, he got jumped by a few guys, and ended up getting cut by a knife – I don’t think they were trying to stab him since it was just a surface scrape, I think they were just trying to scare him and it got out of hand. He had his phone and his wallet stolen, and ended up getting a few stitches. Other than being in a financial pinch, he took it rather well, and blamed himself for being rather stupid about where he was walking late at night.

The Good

You’re probably reading that and thinking this city is really unsafe now. Truthfully though, it’s a city of 14 million people, and I suspect it’s as dangerous as most places. I consider Vancouver a really safe place, yet since I’ve been here I’ve heard a few people have died in gang related shootings, and also a few instances of other crime back home. So I think it happens everywhere. Unfortunately since tourists are usually the ones walking around with fancy phones and expensive cameras, they are predominantly targeted in cities such as these.

That said, I’ve also encountered a lot of scenarios where locals have gone out of their way to be good citizens.

Just this afternoon I went to a store and bought a pop. I asked how much it was and the guy said “ocho pesos” – that means 8 pesos. For some reason, it went into my brain as “once pesos” – 11 pesos, so I gave the guy 12 pesos. He gave me the pop, mentioned my mistake, and gave me all the change. He could have just as easily pocketed the rest and I would have never noticed.

Another expat here named Andrew dropped some pants off to get drycleaned last week. The cost of drycleaning was around 10 pesos, so he was surprised when he went to pick up the pants that they guy gave him his pants plus around 200 pesos. Apparently Andrew had left 200 pesos in the pockets of the pants and didn’t even notice. Had the person not given it back, Andrew would have never been the wiser.

So, there are good people everywhere.

What To Do

In almost all cases of theft here, the person is usually targeted because they are flaunting their valuables. The Irish guy was walking down the street in a seedy part of town with an $800 USD phone – that’s about as much money as a local would make in two or three months here. He didn’t deserve to get it stolen, but you can understand the motivation for opportunity crimes such as these.

I generally don’t take out anything valuable to any areas I’m not familiar with. If I take my digital SLR out, I also bring my backpack with me and make sure I put the SLR away when I’m not using it. I also have a backpack that loads from the top, so everything inside is buried way at the bottom and not easily accessible unless you’re standing over me.

I leave my watch at home, and my iPhone buried in my pocket. Unless I’m sure there’s no one around me, I don’t bring my phone out and start using it. Many people who arrive here with expensive phones end up going down to the store and buying a cheap $100 phone that they wouldn’t care if they lost. I haven’t bothered since I keep my iPhone well hidden, but some people do.

I’ve hit the half way mark on my trip, and am hopeful that I’ll make it through my time here without getting anything stolen. So far I haven’t seen anything that would make me think that will happen, but you never know. But if you’re coming to Buenos Aires, just make sure you use some common sense. If you’re going to a part of town that is poor, don’t bring expensive items. If you do bring these items, make sure they are out of site most of the time and out of mind. When in doubt about an area, get in a cab and go to somewhere familiar.

Enjoy the city!

9 responses to “Crime In Buenos Aires, Argentina”

  1. Darren says:

    People are incredibly anxious about crime when traveling, and it’s almost always unnecessary. As long as you’re sensible, listen to your intuition and don’t drunkenly whip out your iPhone in the middle of a busy, nighttime street, you’re likely to be fine.

  2. shawns says:

    Huh, I didn’t start reading about crime in BA until this week. In Bangkok, I feel insanely safe no matter what areas I’m in, at any time of day (for the most part). Looks like I’ll need to switch back into American-city mode +1.

    What you say about expensive gadgets make sense. I imagine that applies to cameras too. Hopefully no one will notice my little elph canon camera. I’d hate to get that stolen.

    Bangkok has its share of pickpockets, but they aren’t confrontational. You’ll enter a market with money and walk out with none and you won’t have noticed.

    I keep most of my stuff in a sling bag on my chest (yes, very dorky) when walking in crowded areas. So far, it’s kept my stuff pretty safe. Looks like I’ll be doing that in BA too.

    good report!

  3. Duane says:

    Not that dorky – many people here wear their backpacks on the chest instead of their back, simply so people won’t try and steal stuff out of them.

  4. I definitely agree with Darren on this one. I actually felt very safe everywhere I went in South America with the exception of Rio (which is in the top two places for me for where I’ve felt the least safe).

    The people I talked to who were BA natives believed their city is very dangerous with an extremely high crime rate, but the vast majority of it is non-violent crime (such as pick pockets). If you keep up your guard and maintain an awareness of your surroundings you’re a lot less likely to be a target.

    Also, try and dress an act like a local if you can. This is why I always travel with jeans… they’re the defacto standard pant in almost everywhere in the world. If you want to dress like you’re going on a safari and wear a full tilley outfit then again, you’ll probably be a higher target for crime for the reasons you stated above.

    A couple tips… alway act like you know where you’re going. Walk with a purpose if you feel like you’re in unsafe surroundings. I also always try to keep about $50-100 in local currency on my person in case the worst case scenario does happen and I get held up like your irish friend. I’ll happily give someone $100 if they’re holding a knife to me and be happy to walk away alive. If you’ve got nothing to give them they may get upset, which is the last thing you want.

  5. GusF says:

    I’ll have to correct you on your post here Duane. Russ’ and my bag were “looked at” not on the Subte, but on Florida Street as we walked it. Luckily nothing was stolen from them as we didn’t really have anything in them. It did surprise us that we don’t even remember feeling anyone that close to us to even open and search our bag.

    I still feel safe in Buenos Aires, and just as Darren stated if you are sensible and listen to your intution, you will be fine.

  6. Duane says:

    @Gus – corrected, thanks

    @Scott – I’ve actually had two different people who were from Rio tell me that I shouldn’t go alone. Even they are afraid of their own city

    I would argue that non-violent crime is still crime though, so it’s tough to say whether or not a place is safe if it includes lots of pickpocketing or theft. I mean, would you carry around extra money in your pocket in the odd event you were to be robbed in Vancouver? I don’t so. So if you’re doing that in South America at some level you must feel like it’s less safe than home.

  7. Oh ya, absolutely. I definitely felt less safe walking around BA than I do pretty much anywhere in Vancouver. I guess in my experience most people put places into two categories, safe and unsafe. Which is too black and white for reality. In almost all of Buenos Aires it’s safe to walk around with almost no risk. In Johannesburg the same isn’t true and you’d generally be a lot safer driving places instead of walking (assuming that you only needed to go a short distance and actually could walk it).

    I would personally categorize BA as a safe city, if I needed to choose safe or unsafe.

  8. We walked around Boca after dark and that felt rather dodgy but overall I would say if you keep your eyes open and use common sense Buenos Aires is fairly safe. I only bring a small amount of cash with me and maybe one credit card. But I’m very nervous about my camera. I replaced my old camera bag with very much looks like with something like a messenger bag and carry it over the shoulder with the bag hanging upfront.

  9. Eric says:

    I don’t know when this blog was published by Buenos Aires is a very dangerous city. San Telmo and “La Boca” are definately places to avoid at night. Almost everyone I know here in Argentina has either been victim of a home invasion or been mugged on the streets and it definately seems that violent crime is also up in Argentina. I’ve been here 6 years and I think it’s gotten alot worse then when I first arrived. I even had a friend of mine tied up during a home robbery and then when he tried to resist, they shot him 3 times, once in the back. Latest UN statistics say there are “1000” violent robberies for every 100,000 citizens in Argentina, and climbing, one of the highest in south america.

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