Tall Tales of La Paz

10 Jan, 2013 | Caroline Risacher

Tourism and Social issues

How to Avoid Getting Mugged in the City

'Boteros, lanceros, monrreros, descuidistas, cuenteros, jaladores, pildoritas, secuestro express, cumbreros, carreros, cogoteros, documenteros....’ Thus began Lieutenant Llusco’s enumeration, upon being asked what types of criminals roam the streets of La Paz. Carefully taxonomised and all-too familiar to the Police’s ‘Crimes Against Property’ department, those are the types of delinquents you might encounter in the city. Some are your usual pickpockets. Others are physically aggressive, or try to drug you. And the more creative bunch, the ‘cuenteros’, are good with words, knowing how to extort unholy sums of money from us their unsuspecting victims.

Last week, for instance, the police disbanded a group of ‘pildoreros’ operating in nightclubs. Their modus operandi involved drugging their victims unconscious before emptying their pockets.

One can sit and admire the versatility and creativity of petty thieves in Bolivia. They constantly fathom new tricks to deceive and rob their innocent victims. Even though La Paz is hardly as dangerous as other South American capitals; tourists and locals are well advised to avoid falling prey to these crooks by taking the necessary precautions.

Please behold some scams you might experience here in Bolivia:


VICTIM: Your usual tourist

WHO AND WHAT: an accomplice ‘gringo’, a false police station, a policeman impersonator, and a taxi or a car.

MODUS OPERANDI: This is one of the more elaborate scams.

Step one: The innocent tourist - generally alone - is accosted by another such tourist looking for directions or asking to take a picture.

Step two: the victim is quickly befriended by the new tourist when a police officer appears, asking for their papers as a routine check-up. The other tourist complies easily, but when the victim shows his/her papers (passport, immigration sheet) something appears to be wrong.

Step three: the policeman asks both of them to follow him to the station to sort out the situation. The accomplice acts as if it’s perfectly normal and follows without hesitation.

Step four: the clueless victim is taken to some recluse location where he or she will be lightened of all valuables: credit cards, passport, camera, etc. In some variations the victim is taken to a cash machine where he or she will be prompted to give up their PIN number.

DO: Ask for proper identification and only talk to a police officer in uniform.

DON’T: Ever follow unidentified strangers into a vehicle (or anywhere for that matter).


VICTIM: The elderly

WHO AND WHAT: a well-spoken and persuasive perpetrator, an accomplice, false documents, counterfeit money

MODUS OPERANDI: These thefts are quite elaborate and extremely diversified. The name comes from the tale of the far away uncle who just left a considerable inheritance.

In one version of this scam, the con man asks for money for the trip and promises to return a bigger amount - which, of course, never happens.

In another version, someone drops an envelope in sight of you and the perpetrator. He goes to inspect and finds it is filled with cash. He comes up to you and says that, as you are the only ones who saw it happen, you should split the cash. You agree and he takes you to a place away from the public eye. Here his accomplice is waiting. Together they immobilise you and free you of your possessions.

DO: Follow the maxim: ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.’

DON’T: Ever give money to strangers.


VICTIM: Your typical tourist, specially when inebriated

WHO AND WHAT: an ordinary looking taxi, a driver, one or two accomplices, sharp/hard objects and weapons

MODUS OPERANDI: The innocent and disoriented tourist coming out of the bus terminal hails a taxi, thinking it will lead him to a nice and comfy hotel. However, he is being taken to a cash machine under the threat of a sharp pointed object.

DO: Call for a radio-taxi if possible, check the car’s licence plate number is printed on the insides of the doors, engage the driver in conversation before you get on (to negotiate a fare). If you look at his face for long enough he’ll be scared of being identifi ed.

DON’T: Ever get into a taxi that gives you a bad feeling. Vague advice, we know...


VICTIM: Any potential buyer and, of course, the smiling tourist

WHO AND WHAT: black market vendor, electronic equipment box, plastic

MODUS OPERANDI: You think you are buying a proper piece of equipment, a laptop, a camera, speakers, a telephone. You are shown the ‘display item’ and given a ‘brand new box’ complete with cellophane wrapper, but when you return home, possibly boasting about the bargain you just got, realise that the interior of your purchase is simply full of plastic and junk.

DO: Check the merchandise if possible

DON’T: Buy electronic equipment from the black market


VICTIM: Bag-carrying pedestrian

MODUS OPERANDI: A helpful passerby, warns the clueless victim of the (usually mustard) stain on his jacket/bag/ shirt that has been subtly placed there by an accomplice. Embarrassed, the victim is offered help to clean the stain with tissues proffered from the passerby. When they place their bags on the fl oor to remove their stained item of clothing, the accomplice runs past and steals the bags. The ‘helpful stranger’ offers to chase after the thief, never to be seen again.

DO: Wait until you’re somewhere safe and private before wiping off a clothing stain.

DON’T: Accept help from strangers on the street, or leave your bags on the fl oor for a single second.


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