Robbed at gunpoint

Dec 22, 2014

Do you ever get the sudden feeling like something is about to go wrong moments before it does? Even minutes before it actually happens? I do, in fact on December 20th the feeling was so strong that I almost told everyone to turn round and go the other direction although I’m not sure it would have helped.

We arrived in Guayaquil from Puerto Lopez late with just enough time to make it to the next bus that was departing for our destination of Mancora, Peru. That bus was to take us through the Ecuador/Peru boarder and on to Mancora without stopping at any of the dodgy towns in between. We all booked early and were feeling confident in the fact that we would be riding a nice overnight bus in relative comfort with as little hassle as possible.

As fate would have it, two of our bookings didn’t go through properly. Even after a preemptory e-mail exchange with the bus company about the possibility of a booking problem and receiving their assurances that everything was ok, we only had two seats on the bus booked by Matt and Elissa. They ran off to board their bus with only minutes to spare as I hurried through the terminal in search of an alternative. After a little frantic running around and some frustration we (Jen and I) found tickets on the next bus going into Peru. It wasn’t direct to Mancora but for that we’d be waiting for a whole day and we were on a bit of a timeline so we decided to get to the next closest town and just take a local bus from there. The impatient guy at the ticket window assured us that connecting busses are frequent and cheap so this seemed like our best option.

We waited for the bus and boarded when it arrived two hours later. We could tell upon entering that this bus wasn’t up to par with the bus we had booked but the cost was $20 less per person and we had been on far worse busses for longer. After taking our seats we settled in and tried to fall asleep for the long ride through the border and on to Tumbes, Peru.

The boarder crossing was uneventful and the bus drivers and staff assured everyone was accounted for and things went smoothly. Upon reaching Tumbes, we sat in the small private terminal for CIFA bus, exchanged a few dollars for Peruvian Soles and chatted with two girls who were going to Mancora as well and needed to catch the next bus. I offered to ask where the terminal is (they didn’t speak any Spanish) so we could all go together and split the taxi cost. The woman at the CIFA bus terminal who was exchanging money said the terminal was just five blocks down on the left so we all agreed to take the short walk together and catch the next bus/collectivo (a large van that collects passengers as it goes reducing costs for everyone). We gathered our things and headed out the door.

We started walking at around 5:30am and at first everything seemed fine. People bustling about in the early morning on their way to work and taxis driving by beeping to offer rides. After the first block we could see an overhang to our left beyond a bend in the road that looked like the type of thing you’d see at a bus terminal. The sight gave us some reassurance that we were headed in the right direction and that the walk might be a little shorter than we thought. I noticed as we walked just how secure and fortress-like some of the buildings were. One had small bulletproof windows with gun ports covering 180 degrees. You might think this is a sure sign of a bad area but they are very commonplace down here and are usually found at government buildings. They are seldom ever needed or used. The sight of such precautions did, however, make me slightly more aware of the kind of place we were in especially given how many buildings had them. The time was now 5:33am

Upon reaching the next corner I realized something wasn’t right. The overhang we saw was just over a median where I assume busses sometimes stopped to pick up passengers but it wasn't a bus station. From this point I could also see much further down the road into a more gloomy looking neighborhood. We all stopped for a moment but it was clear that there was another road a few blocks away bustling with traffic where I’m sure we could have found a bus or collectivo (later that’s exactly where we found transport to Mancora).

We stepped off the curb and crossed the road. Upon reaching the next curb I immediately got this feeling like something bad was about to happen. About 30 seconds later a small car pulled up with four younger passengers and I knew then that this wasn’t right. As I passed, I saw one of the guys look at me and sort of use his head to point with his chin as if to say “that guy.” I was sure at that moment, before they got out, that this was a robbery.

The first words out of my mouth were “Ah shit.” I don’t know why but when something bad happens that’s the first thing I say. Immediately I called for Jen to catch up simply saying “Jen! Jen! Go! Move! Follow me!” Just then I saw 9mm pistols held by two of the men and the guy who motioned with his head was now pointing his gun and one arm at the girl behind us. I moved quickly passed the car and to the rear of it into traffic while calling for Jen to keep up and keeping watch over what was happening out of the corner of my eye. I caught sight of one of the girls dropping her large bag and running behind me while the other girl was being held at gunpoint and everything being methodically taken off her and thrown into the car. She was sort of holding her arms out to her sides staring down the barrel as one guy went behind her and slipped her backpack off and the other removed her shoulder bag.

Once over the median I looked back and saw Jen on my heels along with the other girl who dropped her main bag and took off. Everyone was a little shell shocked by the explosion of danger that just took place but we couldn’t see the other girl who had been held up. Our minds all raced with thoughts of where to go next, what to do, and where the other girl was. I watched the car speed away and just then the other girl, the one who was robbed of everything slowly walked over. Her face was completely white and her eyes were sort of glassy as if she was about to burst into tears. To her credit, she never did. She only cried a little much later and kept it to herself. She was more emotionally hardened than I would have thought just looking at her. As she walked up, I asked her if she was ok and she simply answered “yes.”

On the other side of the road, a few guys were sitting there having a chat in their car with another taxi driver and witnessed the whole thing. I recognized one from the CIFA Bus Company and he quickly said “get in, get in!” We all looked at each other as if to ask “do we trust this guy? If we don’t do we stay on the street?” The decision was made quickly as everyone piled into his small car and we took a short drive to the police station. Before leaving, I noticed that the taxi driver who they were talking to looked a little disappointed like he had missed out on an opportunity. This made me watch the driver and his companion, the CIFA Bus employee, as we drove.

We arrived at the police station at about 5:37am maybe 2-3 minutes after the robbery (I check my watch often). There, the police were of no use. They couldn’t have cared less and instead seemed a little annoyed that we had been taken to their station. The cop had a look on his face that said “I must be the unluckiest guy in the world to have to deal with this shit on a Sunday morning only hours before shift change.” He proceeded to explain that the girl would need to first go to a bank and pay $7.60 Peruvian Soles (about $2.50) for a temporary traveler card then she could file a report. This seemed ridiculous but banks are responsible for all sorts of state affairs in South America so we accepted it as fact.

Once that was all sorted out, the helpful “good Samaritans” found their chance to take advantage of the opportunity. They offered to drive us to Mancora for $80 USD. The first thought that went through my mind was “get fucked? I’m not stupid.” Instead of saying that, I simply replied “no” and they proceeded to lower the price. I now knew why the taxi driver from before was so disappointed. The cop walked away and was probably happy to have narrowly avoided the hassle of dealing with the whole situation. As we haggled with the two guys who were now asking what we would be willing to pay I noticed other people had gathered to observe the situation and decided we needed to go. We settled on a price of about $10 per person. I agreed to pay half now and half when we go there to which the driver agreed.

We hopped in the car and took off only to stop at a collectivo waiting to make the trip with several others. We had been scammed again. The collectivo cost about $3 USD per person so paying this guy a total of $40 for a $12 ride for all four of us was a nice little profit. I decided these two guys, while there when we needed them, were just crooks without guns and instead gave my $20 to the driver of the collectivo so they wouldn’t make out with as much as they wanted. The collectivo driver was very pleased.

From here everything went smoothly and we arrived at our hostel after about a 1.5 hour drive down the coast. We checked in and Jen headed off to bed as we only slept for about 4 hours during the bus ride. I stayed up with the two girls and tried to help them as best I could offering them my laptop to use so they could report stolen cards, items, passports, etc. I sat with them for a few hours drinking coffee until they seemed to be on a roll and then left them with the laptop for a few hours.

Jen and I were very fortunate. Aside from the guy scamming us for the ride we lost nothing accept some respect for Peru. I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the two girls who were robbed, especially the one who had everything taken as they followed us. Who knows, maybe left alone they would have taken a taxi and been fine. If that were the case, then this story surely would have been different as Jen and I would have been the ones getting robbed.

I told the girls I was sorry and that I felt bad about the whole thing but they assured me that I just saw what was happening first and moved more quickly than they did. It was nice to hear and settled some of my guilt but who could help but feel sorry for them, not me. To their credit, they both handled the situation well. They came away physically undamaged and sorted everything out as best they could without feeling sorry for themselves.

Before they left I learned they were from the Ukraine and were studying at Cornell in Ithaca, NY just a stones throw from home. I told them that if they ever need anything or want to see other parts of NY they should let me know and I’ll connect them with my family for some fun at the lake house. We exchanged contact information and they left.

So what did I learn from this? The obvious lessons I guess but first and foremost, take precautions to keep your passport and credit cards safe on your person not in your bags. It’s easy to get complacent and you’ll sorely regret it when you do and the unexpected happens. Also, if you read that a town is dangerous and you need to be extra careful, take a legit taxi even if it’s only a short walk to your destination. The extra two to three dollars you spend could save you.

Hopefully this doesn’t discourage anyone from traveling. The same thing could have happened at home in the wrong neighborhood so don’t think that the world is scary and you should stay confined to your own borders. Most of the time, people are helpful and good-natured but you have to keep your wits about you.




Written by Teague O’Connell
Teague is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and Operations Management/Workforce Management expert with a passion for travel, adventure and the magnificent journey that is, life.

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