Ecuador / Ecuador Culture / View from the Roof

View from the Roof: Crime in Cotacachi–Is Serious Crime on the Rise? Petty Theft Certainly Is

By Linda McFarlin

Gary—I decided to release my chair on our Cotacachi rooftop overlooking th e cathedral to Linda today to comment on crime in Ecuador.  It is a question that is frequently asked, so here is our perspective.

An email from a man in Panama lit a fire under me.  He was considering a move to Ecuador but after reading some contributions on forum from someone living in a town near Cotacachi and talking to her in person, he changed his mind.  He said that her candid tale of break-ins, robberies, cattle thefts and police who don’t show up convinced him that Cotacachi is not the place for him.

We have heard of more thefts in Cotacachi in the last few months, so Gary and I have decided to do some detective work of our own. We will talk to the mayor, long-time expats and locals to get a wide-range view of crime in Cotacachi.

We’ve personally had a few petty thefts of personal property—Gary’s cell phone was lifted from the case on his belt by a gang of kids working the Quito local bus we were on about three years ago.  A bed frame and several items left on our porch were taken when the deck was painted and things have gone missing from our laundry room because I left the door open while hotel workers were around.

I’ve learned to lock up things and watch personal belongings much more carefully when traveling around. That’s simply good advice for anyone, anywhere.

There is a saying in Ecuador regarding things left unattended: “I may as well take it because if I don’t, the next person will. “ It is a part of the culture that is uncomfortable for many Americans, and often we learn the hard way.

People often comment on the fact that many houses have high walls around them, some with glass shards embedded in the top of the wall.  This is common in all Latin American countries we have visited, and Ecuador is no exception.

But I wanted to know—Is serious crime increasing in Cotacachi? I already know that petty theft has gone up.

When we first arrived four years ago, I heard about incidents that occurred in the past—a mestizo woman living in the country was robbed and attacked with a machete and her arm had to be amputated because she didn’t get the hospital care she needed in time to save it.

There were stories of robberies and the occasional attack.  A gringo at a party was hit over the head and robbed in the wee morning hours.  By his own admission, he was somewhat inebriated.

An indigenous family’s house was invaded by several men who beat up the husband when no money was found.  Not to make light or excuse any kind of crime, but frankly, these seemed mild to me in comparison to tales of drug wars and battles between drug lords and police in Mexico, gangs moving into the southern border states of the U. S. and murders in Phoenix, L.A. and Chicago.

A recent article said that 34,000 people in Mexico have died in drug wars in the last 4 years.  For comparison, in the U.S., during the twelve years in Viet Nam, more than 50,000 of our soldiers died.

Now the stories of theft and attack are increasing in places in Ecuador such as Vilcabamba, Manta and the coast of Ecuador, and Quito.  I called an expat friend who’s lived in Cotacachi for almost fourteen years, longer than any other gringo I know.  She is a professional who lives alone outside of Cotacachi.

Her property is walled and guarded, plus she has large dogs that are let loose at night. About 2 1/2 years ago, her car was stolen in Quito when her driver left it on the street.   Around this same time, her house was broken into and many items stolen while she was away.

Here’s what she had to say about robberies, “Yes, crime is increasing in Cotacachi, but it’s increasing around the world. It’s certainly safer here than in New York City, Denver or Chicago, or most any big city in the U.S.

“I just read about a head being cut off in Miami and body parts turning up in Florida canals.  There are increased shootings, one just happened in which 2-3 people were shot to death in a Washington state Wal-Mart.  I feel much safer in Cotacachi.”

“Crime here is mostly petty.   Recently several televisions, cell phones and computers have been taken from gringo residences, one in town and another in Colonia El Batan.”

In the four years Gary and I have lived here in Cotacachi, we have never heard of a gringo being mugged on the street, day or night.  Street crime is almost unknown.

In my next blog, this experienced expat gives her opinions as to why crime is on the increase and several very good suggestions for handling the situation in your own life.  And later we’ll report our findings from the current mayor and others who are in a position to know the answer to the crime question in Cotacachi.

The mayor of Cotacachi asked Gary to set up a meeting with all expats for Feb. 18 at 5:30 p.m.  The location hasn’t been set yet.   We don’t know what the meeting is about, but we can be certain that someone will ask the question about the  crime increase in Cotacachi and what the city government is doing about it.

We will report on that meeting in this column.   Watch for it!

And that’s today’s View from the Roof!



  1. Currently we live in rural Washington state, about 12 miles beyond a town of 3,000. The next town is 1 hr away and has 14,000 pop. Two hours from Portland Or and 4 hours from Seattle.

    In our rural area cars are left unlocked, sometimes running with the ignition in them, homes are never locked. Our town has petty crime, break ins etc and we notice that as population increases so does crime.

    Did I mention that rurally, it is a given that we are armed and not considered such easy pickings as in town.

    I’m curious if it’s the trend toward gated communities in Ecuador & the implied separation from the local society, that is driving the crime increase? Is it just the economy or some other combination of factors?

  2. Tom is right on this one. We do stick out like sore thumbs, especially in Cotacachi. We are changing the climate in Ecuador at an alarming rate. But you can’t stop a moving train. We’ll just have to adapt.

    It is sad when you live in such a small town as Cotacachi and you have to completely wall your house and get guard dogs. Really sad. I love people, why would I want to wall myself from them? Know your neighbors, invite them over, break bread with them, they’ll look after you.

    I’ve lived in Ecuador for six months now, in Cotacachi, Quito and Cuenca, and I’ve personally never had a problem with any type of crime. I’m careless about my stuff, I leave my cellphone and keys on tables and go to the washroom, I even left a brand new leather jacket on a chair in a crowded discotheque in Cuenca and they kept it for me. When I went back, they were taking turns trying it on and taking phone pictures, it was funny. I left my Blackberry in a change room of a clothing store at Mall del Jardin in Quito and got it returned that evening. I go out at night, have some fun, and walk home if I live near. The streets are pretty deserted at that time…

    I refuse to live in a state of fear about anything, including crime. I’ve never had anything stolen or been mugged (and I lived in the Lower East Side in New-York when I was in school, with junkies in the alleys with baseball bats), and at this stage of my life, I figure, by the law of averages, that if I do get something stolen, it’s kinda due, ha!

    When I lived in California, I never locked my door because I worked weekends in a 5 star French restaurant where all the movie stars and producers came, and I used to leave the most delicious leftover food on my kitchen counters or in the fridge for my buddies to sample if they were in my neck of the woods. Vichyssoise, house smoked salmon, foie gras ravioli in a cognac truffle sauce, amazing stuff! I did, however, have a (rescue, gentle, gorgeous) pitbull who knew all my friends, so I guess that was better than an alarm system. I used to have after hour parties all the time, my living room Flokati shag rug was dubbed “the passout rug”, and nothing ever disappeared. I just kicked people out in the morning when I had to go to work and the cleaning lady was coming.

    Crime and theft are behaviors I do not understand. Why on earth would you want to take something that isn’t yours? Bizarre. My friends have repeatedly urged me to be more careful about my belongings, but c’mon, if you’re so desperate in your life that you need to steal my stuff, maybe you should have it.

    I don’t believe crime is on the rise anywhere except in drug/war zones.

    Ecuador is no different than any country, and I’ve lived in many countries. People are people. Now I’m not saying anybody should be as careless as I am (can’t change my spots), but maybe if you let out a deep feeling that you trust people, that feeling somehow comes back in actions and in life situations. I don’t know exactly how that works, but I have a very spiritual friend who keeps saying that if you live in fear, you will always attract what you fear.

    Fear: I refuse to go into the darkness. It’s up to you to come into my light.

    It’s strange, people feel when you trust them and they act accordingly. I’ve been told to bargain for everything in Ecuador, and this is how I do it: I tell the people, sincerely, “whatever you think is a good price”. And it completely disarms them. Completely. They’re like “wait, no, that’s not how it works…”. And I end up with great prices. They’ll actually keep lowering the prices if I say I want to buy more. You tap into their good side. Works every time. Everyone is happy and they remember you and smile and wave when you pass by.

    So all I am saying is that there are a lot of ways to look at the world, and if you focus on crime, then that’s what you focus on and that’s what becomes your reality. You start seeing it everywhere.

    Thank you Linda for the article and I do have to start being more careful, and I also think we should focus on the beauty of Ecuador and its people. :)

  3. Wasn’t someone murdered here recently? Maybe not a gringo, but a native? I think that alcohol is a big problem here just as it is with the native American population in the states. My kids had never seen a drunk person lying on the streets in their lives in the states, but here it is an almost daily experience.

  4. Our own banks in the USA managed to steal 800,000,000,000 (Billion) probably leveraged into the trillions, without firing a shot or being confronted by the people, many unborn, from whom they stole the money. When we think about losing some personal items like computers this story brings another perspective.
    I have lived in Cotacachi two and a half years and feel as safe as I did in a small Colorado town in the fifties.

    A personal story about theft. My first night here I accidentally left my brand new expensive rain coat in a taxi. Although the taxi company was called there was no response .. I happened to mention it to my new Ecuadorian friend Edison in the Cafeteria. The very next day I was walking through the park and a taxi driver pulled up and in a gruff tone said: ” Get in” and drove me to his house where he went up stairs , retrieved the missing coat, came back and threw it in the back seat…. with another gruff comment: ” Edison told me that , just because you are a gringo , I have no right to steal from you… He then took me back to the park.

    To me that story illustrates what I have come to experience many many times in Cotacachi… An underlying core value of respect. That is not to say that there is not petty theft, and theft of opportunism, but it seems to be the exception to the basic core value of respect that I have come to expect and experience from my friends in the Latino Community.

    • Thanks Dale, nice post. However, I think you are a bit behind in the number of dollars stolen from the American people. Here’s a quote from Mother Jones:

      The price tag for the Wall Street bailout is often put at $700 billion—the size of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. But TARP is just the tip of the iceberg of money paid out or set aside by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve. In her book, It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street, Nomi Prins uncovers the hush-hush programs and crunches the hidden numbers to calculate the shocking actual size of the bailout: $14.4 trillion and counting. (Figures current as of October 31, 2009 Click here to read the link.

  5. I have just finished a three week visit to Cotacachi and would like to comment. I felt very safe in Cotacachi but there are some issues that I hope someone will bring up in this meeting with the Alcalde. It concerns the police or lack of them. While walking past the cuerpo de bomberos (fire station) one day, I met the jefe de policia (police chief) and the fire chief.

    I was surprized to learn there are more firemen than police with all the construction being concrete the fire danger is low. In my three weeks in Cotacachi I did not see one police officer on the street. A couple of times at night I saw a couple officers driving around in their truck with the lights flashing (warning the bad guys) and once or twice an officer on a motorcycle. This police force does nothing, and alot of the locals I spoke to in Spanish agreed with me.

    There is a big problem with noise in Cotacachi from un-muffled motorcycles (dirt bike – competition style) especially at night when they like to ride fast on the streets because the streets are lit and they have no headlights on these type of motorcycles. This would be so easy to control if the police were out.

    I also attended a recent celebration in a plaza that had a large stage set up for the event. There were people selling jars of some home-made liquor concoction and beer. There were several hundred people there and not one police officer. I left early to avoid any problems that ususally occur when indigenous people and alcohol mix in public. Cotacachi must have been a real tranquil place before the curse of car alarms decended upon the latin world!

  6. Isn’t it obvious? Crime is increasing because the number of expats living in Cotacahi has increased dramatically. Gringos stand out like a sore thumb and their new houses, condos, cars and all the other things we bring or buy have changed the climate. The riches are there for the taking and it looks like they are being taken. I would say that the increase in crime is in direct proportion to the increase in the expat population.

  7. I spent all of September and October of 2010 in Quito. I did not feel safe for one second. Not one. I have traveled a a lot through South American and Mexico but this was the first time I ever felt haunted by potential crime. Ecuador is seething just under the surface and there is a lot of resentment towards gringos who the locals think have it all. Politically it is a bullet away fro a coup. I was there during the last attempt and it was not a flash uprising. The police are corrupt and lazy. Don’t get sucked into thinking this is an tranquil paradise it is not. I’m just saying.

    • Hi Mark,

      I’ve lived in Ecuador for four years. Linda and I often go to Quito for cultural events, movies, and fine restaurants. Some very good friends of ours are selling their condo here in Cotacachi and moving to Quito because they love the city. Like most any city in the world, one must be alert. But also like any city, as you become more familiar with it, it loses it ability to frighten you, just as the comment from the people below regarding New York.

      My experience with the Ecuadorian people is that they are warm and loving. We have been invited into peoples homes, including indigenous, frequently, almost as members of the family. I suspect that those who don’t see this warmth, are seeing a reflection of their own fear. What you put out, you get back.

      From my years in Latin America, my sense is that Ecuador government right now is one of the most stable in the area, with a president who has a very high approval rating, a rating that Obama would swoon over.

      And if you want to talk about police corruption in an educated sense, click here to see a map of reports of police corruption in the U.S.

      I agree with you fully, that Ecuador is not a tranquil paradise. Unfortunately, Ecuador is populated by people, and where ever you have people, you are going to have greed, corruption, and violence. A good place to start is looking at the Congress of the United States of America. How many innocent people has our government killed in the last 72 hours in Afghanistan with our remote drones dropping indiscriminate bombs? I hope you get my point. Don’t get me started. haha.

  8. grace araujo says:

    Linda, thanks for your honesty informing what is going on in Cotacachi. It is a responsible act to have a meeting and do something sooner, rather than later. Hope you will come up with a good solution. Regarding crime in other cities, though it may seem silly, I feel safe when I am in NYC, it is perhaps because we can, more or less, ‘feel’ when there is danger. My husband and I are still considering Cotacachi but are not sure when.

    Good advice to give everyone to secure personal property and not leave tempations to those who in the past may not have even thought taken someone’s possessions. I love your updates and the lovely photos published. Enjoy that Paradise while it lasts.



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  10. Linda, thank you for addressing this so openly and honestly.