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Bus Hijackings: What you can do to protect yourself

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In the north of Brazil, bus hijackings had once become a very real problem occurring nearly every single month. Although the problem has slowly improved over the past couple years it still exists, and there is still a chance it could happen.

The bus companies have done a lot over the past while to improve the situation. They now often travel in caravan with other buses, they sometimes carry an armed security guard, they are sometimes tracked by GPS, and they do a better job of checking passenger information upon boarding. That’s what they’ve done to prepare, this is what you can do.

Keep Your cash/cards in Different Places

I generally keep fairly large amounts of cash on me in case I really need out of a jam and there is no opportunity for use of credit card or debit card. However, I never carry all this money in one place.

Generally I have about 4 or 5 different hiding spots. I keep a small wad of cash, enough to get me through the trip (to buy water and snacks) in my wallet, I keep about 20% in my day pack tucked in my work binder which is zipped, and then the rest is left in my big bag under the bus stashed in two or three different places (usually a sock in a special spot or in the pocket of a pair of pants or shorts).

You do have to remember where exactly you put this money and sometimes it’s easy to forget you stashed it at all. One time I had about 150$ stashed in an envelope in my laundry bag and then sent it out for cleaning. About an hour later, 4 girls came to the door with the envelope, I’m sure looking for a tip. I’m glad they were honest about it, and I did give them a small tip. The reason I carry the largest sum in my bag below will be explained next.

Don’t Keep all your Important Things on your Body

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When bus hijackings happen it is generally very simple and happens very fast. Hijackers will enter the bus and tell everyone to leave their valuables (cameras, cell phones, wallets, etc) on their seats and to exit the bus.

Once everyone is off the bus they will go through and gather all the stuff, and maybe go through bags left on the bus quickly.

Afterwards they may come off the bus and search you quickly for hidden items before sending you on your way. I have never heard a story where they have gone through the bags on the bottom.

Doing so would simply take them too much time and put them at too much risk of being caught. As such, you should be stashing some of your credit cards, bank cards, large sums of money, expensive electronics below the bus.

I know if feels safer to have it on you, but in my two years of being in Latin America I have never heard of anyone losing their big bags from the bottom of the buses. I have heard many cases of pickpockets on buses and slashed day bags. Most companies give tickets for your bags below the bus need to be turned back in afterwards to get your bag back. You cannot get even your own bag, until you present your ticket or in the case that you’ve lost your ticket you will have to wait until all the other bags have been given out. 

Carry a Fake Stash/wallet

On routes I worry are going to be dangerous, I carry a fake wallet.

Within it I have an expired credit card a couple of business cards and the amount of money +25% of what I think I’ll need to spend on the journey. I know people that also carry wallets with absolutely nothing in them, with maybe just a couple of dollars. They then can turn over this wallet in case of a robbery, even if not on a bus but in a mugging. Robberies don’t happen like they do in the movies. Generally, unless in a very hidden spot, the thieves just want your money and to get away. Hand over a “phony” wallet and they aren’t likely to check through it, they’ll just take it and run.

Digital Memory

It’s all about preparation on these trips. People always say things like “it’s not the camera I am sad about losing it’s the pictures.” Well, luckily there is a simple cure to that. When you get on an overnight bus take the big memory card out of your camera and put it somewhere in your big bag with a stash of your cash or your credit cards. This way, if your camera gets stolen your pictures won’t be gone with it.

This is also important if you pack a laptop while traveling. Even if, like me, you take your laptop on board the bus to work, listen to music, or watch a movie, Before the trip make sure you’ve backed up everything on an external hard drive and stored that in your big bag you wont lose any of your valuable information or work even if your computer is stolen.

Get insurance

People often think of travel insurance as health insurance and, essentially, this is its most important function. However, you can also apply travel insurance to your electronics and cash stolen in theft. Many of us shrug off travel insurance under the thought that nothing will happen to us, but it could end up being a costly mistake. Be sure as well to keep your receipts for big items stowed somewhere back home with someone you trust as most travel insurance companies don’t payout unless you can prove receipts.

In Case of Robbery, Don’t Stress Out

In the case of a hijacking, you can’t freak out. You need to maintain your calm or you may actually place added stress on the hijackers. It sounds backwards, but if you stress out the hijackers it will increase the possibility that they may use violence. Generally, these types of robberies are completely non-violent. They aren’t interested in murder or abuse, they are simply looking for some cash and cell phones. It might be easier said than done but don’t stress out, everything will be alright.

Don’t be a Hero in a Hijacking

I love action movies, and I love when the hero strategically thwarts the plan of the criminals or thieves with a nice karate chop or twist of the wrist that is holding the gun, but trying something like that is just not worth it. You are not Bruce Willis, you are a backpacker, a traveler or just someone looking for a cheap holiday to the beach, just hand over your money and let it go. And remember, that if you try to be a hero, it might not be you getting hurt, but someone else on board, and that is worse. By being a hero, you’re putting everyone at risk. Give the bad man your wallet and let karma deal with the rest.

Remember that it’s just stuff

If you do all the things said above you won’t lose anything but maybe some stuff, and a small amount of stuff at that. Yes, your nerves might be shaken and your hope for humankind jaded, but you will escape with the thing that is most important the ability to leave the situation and see the people that you love and care about. Stuff can be purchased, but the cost of your life has no value.