Advice for the Extranjero in Ecuador: Guys with Guns

How to avoid gun welding men getting angry with you

Living here requires getting accustomed to seeing a ridiculous number of people armed to the teeth on a daily basis. It’s not just the policemen. If you go to the mall, there are men at the doors and in ‘bird nests’ in the parking lots, armed with rifles. If you work in an office complex, there is a heavily armed guard at the booth where you drive in, and another one in the lobby of each office. If you walk through a nice neighborhood with gated communities, or by nicer hotels and hostels, there are guards holding rifles at the entrances. This is all in addition to the police and military guys who are all over the place in the cities, and also heavily armed. I’ve never been totally comfortable with seeing all these guns, but was recently completely freaked out when I was waiting for a friend at a movie theater and 3 heavily armed men walked by from emptying the ATMs to their armored car. But that wasn’t the strange part. What freaked me out was that one of them was holding a large hand gun, with his finger on the trigger and his armed slightly raised, glaring at me and everyone else as he walked through the crowded mall. I can’t imagine why that would be necessary.

Through the ‘sink or swim’ learning process of living in a foreign country, I have gotten into several scrapes with men carrying guns. There are certain rules that locals don’t think to warn you about, since it’s all common knowledge to them. Here are the rules that I’ve learned:

Stores

On April’s first day in Ecuador, she is in Guayaquil wandering around and looking for shampoo. She is wearing a small backpack. She finds a big superstore and enters. After walking up and down the aisles for a minute, she is approached by a large burly guard wearing a large bulletproof vest on the outside of his uniform, and carrying a large automatic rifle. Since April can’t speak any Spanish at this point in her life, the conversation goes something like this:

Guard: Excuse me miss, you need to check your backpack at the front desk.

April: I no understand.

G: Your backpack, you can’t have that inside the store, you can check it in front.

A: I no speak Spanish.

G: Jesus Christ! These damn gringos…

When the guard finally gets fed up, stops being polite, and starts waving his rifle, April realizes that she is missing something. Luckily for her, a nice stock boy comes along and pulls April to the counter where everyone else is checking their bags.

Rule: Larger stores require that you leave your bags so that you’ll be less likely to steal merchandise. There will be either lockers with keys that you can use, or a check-in desk where they’ll give you a number.

How I Bend the Rule: I don’t bring backpacks with me when I’m shopping. If I need to carry more stuff I bring a larger shoulder bag and tell them it’s my purse, since you don’t have to check purses.

Banks

April accompanies her chico to La Libertad to visit the bank. After waiting outside on the hot pavement for 10 minutes, April decides to go inside to enjoy the air-conditioning. She wanders into the bank and sits on the first couch she sees only to be approached within seconds by a large burly guard wearing a large bulletproof vest on the outside of his uniform, and carrying a large automatic rifle. Since April can’t speak Spanish very well at this point of her life, the conversation goes something like this:

Guard: Excuse me lady, why are you here?

April: I here with friend.

G:  Are you a client of this financial institution?

A:  Friend there. I here. Outside cooks me.

G:  Lady, if you are not in the bank as a client making a transaction, you need to wait outside.

A: I okay. I no need help. Friend there.

G:  Lady will you please leave the premise. You can’t be in here.

A: I fine. I here.

G: Jesus Christ woman! Please get the hell out of the bank.

A: Seriously, I okay. I only for waiting.

When the guard finally gets fed up, stops being polite, and starts waving his rifle, April realizes that she is missing something and flees the bank. Later the rule is explained by her chico, who was watching everything and laughing at her from his place in line.

The Rule: If you are not a bank customer making some sort of transaction, you are NOT ALLOWED IN THE BANK for any reason.

How I Bend the Rule: If you want to wait with your friend inside away from the heat, walk in together and stand in line together. If the guard asks you something, say you are making a transaction together, or that you’re a translator or something.

Traffic Stops

April gets pulled over while she’s driving to San Pedro for a meeting with the director of a clinic where she places medical volunteers. She is approached by a large burly policeman wearing a large bulletproof vest on the outside of his uniform, with a large handgun on his belt. At this point she has been in Ecuador a long time and speaks Spanish very well, but she figures it will be in her advantage to frustrate the policeman so he’ll get fed up and let her go. She puts on a really cheesy American accent, and the conversation goes something like this:

Policeman: Your car’s documentation and your license please.

April: I’m sorry, what did you say? My Spanish isn’t too good.

P: Documents. License.

A: Here you go.

P: Okay well… why don’t you have an Ecuadorian license.

A: I’m sorry I don’t understand. Come again?

P: You need an Ecuadorian license.

A: Well, the US consulate told me I didn’t need one. (Not true).

P: Well… okay.

A: Is there anything else?

P: well…

A: …

P: …

A: So…?

P: Fine… move along.

April later realizes when speaking with her coworkers back at the office, that the cop had pulled her over in order to get a bribe. When April didn’t make a move to give him any, and then countered his only claim on her by denying that she needed a Ecuadorian license, and then put on the ridiculous accent, he must have decided she wasn’t worth his trouble and let her go.

Rule: This scenario is by no means the norm. The rule usually is, you get pulled over, the cop bullies and threatens you over some BS or another, you hand him between $5 and $20 depending what he’s threatening you with, and then you go on your way.

How I Break the Rule: The police here no very little about what the law actually is, especially when it comes to laws governing foreigners. This is partly because of lack of education, and partly because the government changes the laws governing foreigners constantly, and has different laws for foreigners from different countries. Use this to your advantage, as I did when I said I don’t need a Ecuadorian license. Another friend of mine was pulled over and asked if he had a motorcycle license. He said, “Oh yes sir,” and handed the cop a color copy of his passport. The cop looked at it, nodded, and let him go. Feigning ignorance helps as well. But if he’s being super aggressive or threatening, I recommend you just give them the money. I know it seems super awkward, and luckily I’ve never had to do it, but that’s what they are expecting.

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5 thoughts on “Advice for the Extranjero in Ecuador: Guys with Guns

  1. April, I am really enjoying your blog!

    I am taking the CELTA at Southern Cross starting on August 5th. I’d love to hear more from you about life in Ecuador, and Montanita. I’d like to stay and teach in Ecuador after my class, but it looks like the new visa requirements are making it hard to stay for longer than 6 months!

    Gracias!
    Julia

    • Congrats!!!!
      It’ll be an amazing experience. The location and staff are different than when I did it but I know you’ll have a great time. The visa thing is a huge pain in the ass, but if you want to stay in Ecuador, there are schools/institutes that you can apply for jobs at that will sponsor you for a cultural exchange or student visa.

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