Tourists and New Rich, Magnets For Thieves in a Country Not That Safe

The most common crimes in Cuba are robbery with force, theft, injury, possession and illegal possession of weapons. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 25 January 2018 — It’s 11:00 in the morning when two Germans show up at the Zanja y Dragones Police Station in Havana. A man has stolen their camera in the vicinity of Hamel alley, an area much visited by foreigners. The officer on duty seems to be accustomed to these cases and begins to fill out the complaint for “a robbery of tourists.”

“It’s like this every day, in this part of the city this is our daily bread,” says a uniformed officer who stands guard outside and is happy that the sun is not punishing him too much this week. “When I see a foreigner approaching, I know what is coming because here, in Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja, there is a lot of theft from tourists and scams.”

A short distance from the historic center, the area of the city most visited by tourists and the most densely populated place in the country, the Zanja y Dragones station is a good barometer to measure the most common crimes in a place where poverty, criminality and opportunity meet.

Near the Inglaterra Hotel, in front of Central Park, an independent tour guide “lays down the law” to his customers. “Do not go into any hallways or stairs with strangers, especially if they offer you cigars.” Before the attentive look of the foreigners he adds: “Do not exchange money except in the Cadecas (government currency exchanges), and hold on tight to your bags and backpacks.”

The lesson also includes other tips for less dangerous situations. “If someone tells you that today is their birthday and that’s why you should give them a gift or money for a party, demand his identity card to check the date of birth. Watch out for those who say they will take you to see where the Buena Vista Social Club is because that is a very common scam.”

The list of warnings is long and ends with advice to the bewildered tourists that they should go “as soon as possible” to the police station if they are victims of any of these events. “Do not try to confront anyone if they take your purse, do not chase anyone who has stolen from you inside a house or vacant lot, instead look for a police officer.”

These warnings contrast with the recent statement by the American journalist and specialized tourist planner in the Island, Christopher P. Baker, who considers Cuba among “the safest countries for tourists,” a classification Cuba also received last week during the 38th International Tourism Fair (Fitur), in Madrid, Spain.

“It is true that we do not have many cases of tourists wounded with knives, or firearms or murdered,” a police captain, who preferred anonymity, told 14ymedio, “but the rates of robbery and fraud have grown in recent years because more and more visitors are entering the country.”

The official believes that “more work should be done on awareness so that agencies and guides alert foreigners not to make certain mistakes such as going into neighborhoods that are not recommended at night, and not walking the streets with large sums of money or trusting the first person who smiles at them. They should not carry their passports, just a photocopy.”

The Germans at the police station had to go through a long interrogation separately. “What did the man look like, what clothes was he wearing, what model was the camera, why did you go to that place at that time, do you have any proof that you entered the country with that camera?” were some of the questions asked of the travelers. On the day of the robbery, it was already night when they left the  Zanja y Dragones Police Station after trying to identify a face from a book full of suspects.

When they returned to the rental house where they were staying in Centro Habana they breathed a sigh of relief when they noticed something they did not notice on the night of their arrival in the city: the bars and railings on the doors and windows, next to a double bolt at the entrance that the owner closed with zeal every time he entered or left.

The houses that rent rooms to tourists, the families that have a relative abroad, the more prosperous self-employed, the musicians who travel abroad and the new Cuban rich also suffer the pressure of robberies. The “emptying” of a house is one of the recurring nightmares of this emerging social class.

“They entered through the roof and took the video player, the flat screen TV and the rice cooker,” says Ricardo, a neighbor of a tall building in Nuevo Vedado who thought he would “be safe” because his apartment was more than 40 feet above street level.

“They were like ninjas and they risked their lives to steal those things,” the victim comments. Ricardo reported the theft, but a year later “they have not caught anyone.” When the police arrived at the house, after the crime was committed, the fingerprints of the thieves were found in several places because they got their hands dirty on the roof.

“When I told the cops to take the prints to check against the database, they laughed and told me I was watching a lot of CSI.” Shortly afterwards Ricardo withdrew the complaint because the police began to question the ownership of a computer that the thieves did not steal, which had been augmented with parts purchased on the black market.” They saw that and I immediately went from victim to victimizer.”

Last December, the president of the People’s Supreme Court, Rubén Remigio Ferro, confirmed to Parliament that the crimes most prosecuted on the island continue to be cases of “robbery with force, theft, injury, possession and illegal possession of weapons, among others.”

Remigio Ferro did not give figures, perhaps because he did not have them since the Government has hidden them for decades. In Cuba there are no official reports on crime levels and the official press lacks a police blotter, as if crime did not exist.


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