Robbed in Xela, Guatemala

I’ve done a lot of stupid things on this Central American trip, but I’m surprised on the one night where I didn’t do anything wrong, that’s the night I get robbed.

There isn’t much to do at the house where I’m living. Because I’m trying to do everything in Spanish, I don’t even have a book to read. I decided to go out. I had two Sprites at two different bars in town. Just before 10 p.m., I was bored and started walking home.

I’ve taken this route home several times in the dark, with my backpack and much later at night. I wasn’t flashing a Rolex, and I wasn’t stumbling through the street drunk. There was no reason why anyone would have targeted me except for the fact that I’m a gringo.

After four months of traveling, my luck ran out. I was crossing an intersection when a teenager put his hand firmly on my back. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I didn’t feel comfortable. I tried to get away quickly on the sidewalk, but his cohorts were blocking the path.

Within 10 seconds, I was surrounded by five guys right next to a hotel with good light. The robbers ranged in age between 15 and 22. Most were wearing hoodies. Some wore earrings. Most were as tall as me, although one of the robbers did have a few inches on me.

The robber who led me into the ambush talked in a soft, smooth voice as his hand dug inside my right pocket. He pulled out Q60, my pen and chapstick. I didn’t understand another guy who was standing next to me, but it sounded like he was making promises that he wouldn’t hurt me.

When Robber No. 1 was convinced that I didn’t have anything else in my right pocket, he searched my back pockets and grabbed my paper notebook, while Robber No. 2 grabbed my wallet from my front left pocket, my keys, some change and my Coleman watch.

Robber No. 2 fished through my wallet and saw an old picture of a friend. I think he asked who the man was in the picture. “Está mi amigo,” was all I said.

I saw a couple returning to a hotel next door. I asked them for help in Spanish, but they walked inside. I finally accepted there wasn’t going to be any way out of this situation.

The robbers lifted up my hoodie to check if I was wearing a money belt. I think they also wanted me to take off my shoes and socks to look for money there. I just acted like I couldn’t understand them, which is mostly true.

Once they put my hoodie back down, I convinced the robbers to give me back my notebook, driver’s license and wallet. They made a point to tell me they left one card inside. It’s a good thing that I only kept Las Vegas casino cards in my wallet as a decoy. I know these guys are going to be high rollers at the Bellagio.

I gave the robber on my left a dirty look as I walked past them and into the street. The calmness I had felt instantly dissipated. I turned around to make sure these thieves heard me.

“Pendejos,” I shouted.

“I don’t think so homey,” one of the robbers said in English.

My first instinct was to run, but I looked behind me and saw that the robbers weren’t going to follow me. I walked into the darkness.

My mind raced at 500 miles per hour.

They didn’t have any weapons. I can go back and take them.

If only I had run when I realized the situation was bad …

Why didn’t those people stop and help?

The situation could have been worse. I could have died.

What did I do to deserve this?

I yelled and swore at the top of my lungs. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Apparently, I sounded like a deranged lunatic because I saw a woman walking home burst into a sprint on my street corner. I walked briskly behind her and saw her rush into a pharmacy with a man, presumably her boyfriend, by the door. I passed him, but stopped to turn around.

“Lo siento para mi gritar. Anoco de … robo … Lo siento … if I scared su novia.”

I don’t know if my broken Spanglish came across as an apology, but I knew I would have to do much more with my host family. They normally go to bed before 9 p.m., and I was going to ring the doorbell after 10 p.m.

I first knocked on the window hoping the other student staying with me would get the message to let me in. He didn’t.

I knocked on the front door and rang the doorbell. The father answered, and I tried to explain the situation in Spanish. But how do you explain what happened when you don’t know have the words?

I tried to act out the situation, but I realized it wasn’t working. I said I lost my keys and money, and it wasn’t until the morning that I was able to more appropriately explain what happened in Spanish. I’m still without a key to the house or my room.

This morning, I filled out a report for the tourism police. The main officer spoke English, but I was able to explain what happened for the most part in Spanish. Tonight, they say they’re going to stop young men in the streets, ask for their names, take their pictures and e-mail them to me for identification.

I know that these robbers will never be caught for this crime. I did my own investigation this morning, and I found out the robbers were staying at the hotel that I walked by last night. They left this morning, and I wasn’t their only victim.

The thieves robbed two people last month and another man last night. He told me this morning that he lost Q100, his glasses, ball cap, sweater and a necklace. They also punched him in the face.

I am lucky, and I’m thankful that the situation didn’t turn out worse. At the same time, I’m upset because I feel like I should have been able to defend myself. Logically, there wasn’t going to be any way that I was going to take on five guys, especially if one of them did indeed have a weapon.

The only thing that I could have done differently was run or made a scene the moment the first robber touched my back. Who knows if that would have worked? It could have, or it might have made the situation worse.

It’s just stuff that I lost, and $13 worth of money and junk isn’t worth fighting for. All I can do now is move on.

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7 Responses to “Robbed in Xela, Guatemala”

  1. Ryan,
    I can’t imagine how terrifying and frustrating this must have been for you. Your writing made me feel like I was really there with you. My heart hurts for the helplessness you must have felt in the moment. It’s so confusing that they, too were so calm and that no one stopped to help. I’m glad to hear that you so keenly kept next to nothing in your wallet. I’m also glad to hear that you weren’t harmed. I’m just so sorry that it happened. I would love to read about how this will change your journey as a backpacker overall? Do you feel that it will?

  2. No, it hasn’t changed my views on traveling. Being robbed can happen anywhere in the world.

    It did sour my opinion of Xela, but I’ve had good things happen here as well. I’ve met several great friends that I do plan on staying in touch with long-term.

    However, I’m just another example of why you need to be vigilant when you walk alone at night. First, don’t do it if possible. Walk with friends, but if you have to be solo, stick to streets with a lot of people and light.

    Sometimes, as in my case with the light, that doesn’t matter. Wearing a money belt doesn’t matter. Keeping a few bills in your sock doesn’t matter. But should that keep us from exploring? No.

    There are so many reasons why someone would tell me not go somewhere, and I’m sure that some of my friends reading this are probably thinking, “I told you so.” However, I’ve enjoyed my time in Guatemala. It is an extraordinary country full of great people. I still encourage anyone to visit.

  3. Just going back through your blog and am glad that you didn’t get hurt or have anything too valuable stolen. Nice call on the fake cards!

    Sometimes you just get robbed. It happened to me twice in China, both times I was out with a big group of friends and it was done while I wasn’t paying attention. The first time was a guy sitting at the table next to the group I was a part of (at least 12 people) and he grabbed my purse while I was in the bathroom. He was getting up to leave when I came back and I knew something was wrong and there was nothing I could do about it.

    Proud of you for all of your efforts with spanish and video blogging! Congrats on traveling so long solo! Good luck with your efforts in Canada and all future travels!!

  4. Where did this happen in Xela?

  5. I’m not certain about the exact intersection, but I believe I was next to 7a Calle and Diagonal 11. It was on the edge of Zona 1. I feel the city is safe, but just remember to travel in a group at night.

  6. Ryan:

    I lived in Xela with the Peace Corps from 1976-1978. It was much less dangerous back then.

    My contacts there tell me you have to be careful, as you have indicated.

    Be well.

    Jim F.

  7. I understand the fear but this is nothing some junks and $13. I got hit robbed more than this in Brazil and Mexico and by the police. In Latin America when they attack, no one will intervein it’s something very common. The same hapen to me, daytime and nighttime as well.