“¡Lo siento, mi amor!” (I’m sorry, my love!) said the thief as he rode by on his bicycle. He had come up behind a pretty girl walking along. He reached over and snatched her expensive necklace from around her neck as he passed her. I could not believe my eyes. If I had not been paying attention, I would have missed the action because it was so quick. The girl was definitely not happy about it! The thief disappeared in seconds, moving fast.
Pickpockets usually had rings with sharp hooks attached, to cut the straps on women’s purses. Also, they used them to slice and cut their victims if they tried to hold on to their property. The necklace robber may have had one of those razor rings, but it was so fast I couldn’t tell. I think he just yanked.
Colombians in Santa Marta were being burglarized constantly, back in the 80’s. The more superstitious among the very poor would leave their Bibles open to Psalm 91 on the kitchen table when they left the house. It was supposed to be a charm against being robbed. It didn’t work very well. When the unemployment rate is 20%, young men get desperate.
We were robbed five times over the four years we were missionaries. My wife’s purse was stolen by someone who got in the taxi with her. My little 6-year old daughter had her pockets picked while she walked down the sidewalk, and so did my wife once. My wife put velcro in my back pants pockets where I kept my wallet, so it would make a noise if someone tried to pick my back pocket. I also buttoned the pocket. I never got pickpocketed, anyway.
The fourth robbery was at the beach. I was near the water’s edge with the children, and they wanted to go in the water. I got up with them, but when I got about 20 feet away from our towel on the sand with our things, two young men raced by, grabbing up my pants with my wallet and wristwatch inside. By the time I got back to the towel, these two were already a good 40 yards down the beach, running like the devil. I was not about to leave my children alone, so they got away – not that I could have caught them, nor did I want to. I rode home on the bus, embarrassed in my swim suit. The kids lost nothing and weren’t very upset about it. I doubt either of them recall it now. At least I still had my sandals!
We learned what local people did to protect themselves on the beach. They always went in groups. One person was designated to keep everyone’s valuables. A hole was dug in the sand, valuables placed in a bag in the hole, the hole was covered back with sand, and a towel was placed on top. The designated person sat on the towel while the rest played.
House robbers are known as rateros in Santa Marta, Colombia. When the police catch a ratero, however, they have a system. For a first offense, they take what he stole and let him go with a warning. That is assuming he didn’t first murder those he robbed, which was customary among rateros. If he was caught again, however, immediately he was laid down right on the street. The teniente (lieutenant) lays him down on his back, face up. The other police hold him down. The teniente takes out his .22 pistol and shoots the ratero once between the eyes, once in each ear, and once in each cheek. The bullets scramble the brain. Then they leave him there as a warning.
The fifth robbery: One night I invited one of my 20-something converts, Julián González, over for supper. He brought a friend, a teenager, who Julián said wanted to meet us. We enjoyed a very pleasant meal together. Julián’s friend seemed to be a nice kid, genuinely interested in us. However, the next morning I awoke to the calls of our next door neighbor. She was at the front door, which was wide open. “Are you alive?” she asked. I got up, said yes. I was struck immediately by all the doors of the house being wide open. We had iron grids on the front door, iron bars to prevent break-ins, and horizontal iron bars on the windows, but all were open. We were missing a lot of valuables such as an electric typewriter, lantern, blender, etc. – about $500 worth. We found the bars bent in our daughter’s bedroom, where someone had shinnied through without waking her. This explained all the open doors. I did a lot of hugging of my daughter and son for days.
Julián found out later that his new friend was a famous teenage ratero. Julián figured the reason he didn’t kill us in our sleep was the kind way we had treated him. Rateros typically take a bamboo cane, hollow it out, and stick it through the bedroom’s glass window slats. They blow the fine crystals of a sleeping powder over the sleeping victims, which puts them in a very deep sleep. Then the rateros come in the house, murder all the inhabitants, and then take their time to clean out the house of jewels, etc.
Our son, age 7, rigged up his own special burglar alarm. The night after the robbery, he tied his little blanket from his bedpost to his dresser drawer. That was to trip the burglar. Then he had his toy plastic bat in his hand, two feet long, to bop the burglar over the head. “Good plan,” I told him at bedtime that night. I welded more iron bars in all the windows to reinforce what we already had, but the piece of smoked glass I used wasn’t enough and I spent three days in the bed before my eyes healed. No one broke into our house after that.
It’s not easy to get over being robbed, especially in a culture where the victims are usually murdered first. We had ignored the almost daily gruesome pictures in the local newspaper showing people murdered in their beds. No ignoring it now. Many nights I climbed up on the roof and just watched. Taking a tip from my son, I had an iron pipe in my hand. It took a full six months before the feeling of being raped began to fade. Yet I forgave the kid who robbed us. He could have taken our lives, but he didn’t. For that I was grateful.