True Story: I Was Robbed At Gunpoint

I was robbed at gunpoint

Tell us a bit about yourself!
Hi, I am Lilia a 23-year-old and currently living in Ohio, though I have lived a lot of places, including New York and Istanbul. I just graduated from college with a degree in Human Geography, and am currently on the hunt for the elusive ‘real job’. I love to travel the world, listen to podcasts, garden, and make clothes and books.
Prior to this incident, how did you feel about personal safety?
I was always a little over-confident, maybe cavalier about my safety. I wasn’t stupid, but it was easy to put danger our of my mind when nothing had ever happened to me, especially since being safe often means depending on others, and I liked being self-sufficient.
If I wanted to leave a party, I would just leave and walk home by myself, instead of trying to wrangle a ride or walking partner.I had (and still never have, unfortunately) taken a self-defense class, though I now intend to. I used to carry mace when I lived in New York City, but I don’t regularly.
Tell us about what happened.
I was walking down a street in Antigua, Guatemala, by myself, in the middle of the day. It was not in the center or town, but there were people around. I felt safe. There was a group of guys walking ahead of me, but the gap expanded between us when I stopped to look at an engraving on a building.When they turned a corner ahead a motorcycle that had previously passed came back and drove up to me very fast (almost running into me). There was a driver and a second man, who jumped off the bike and held up a very large handgun (he didn’t directly point it at me).

He asked for my “mochila” (“backpack”), which I handed over, and then he felt my body and pockets. I said “No hay nada” (“there is nothing”), which was a little silly in retrospect; it was like I was trying to be helpful! He felt a paper bag I had in my hand, which was full of sweets I had bought at a bakery. I told him “son dulces” (“they are sweets”). He initially took them, but threw them at me as the motorcycle pulled away. Even in this insane moment I recognized that this was funny, in a macabre, ridiculous way.

It all only took a few seconds and was completely unexpected. Suddenly I was watching them drive away with my backpack, which contained my camera with ALL OF MY PICTURES FROM MY WHOLE TRIP!!!!, my journal, some cash and a few other of my most useful possessions.

I was not carrying my passport or credit cards, which was incredibly fortunate as I was flying home in just two days.

After the robbery, what did you do?
The robber told me not to run or scream, and I did stand there stunned for a minute. Then I ran up to the boys walking ahead of me, who were clearly also foreigners and told them I had just been robbed and asked them to walk with me to the police.

The boys, who were Americans studying Spanish, were initially considerate and helpful and walked with me to find the police, but one of the boys then tried to evangelize me! He asked me “if things had gone differently, and your brains were all over the walls right now where would you be right now?” and proceeded to tell me that I would be in hell if I didn’t cultivate a relationship with Jesus.

I am not a religious person, but I am not opposed to religion, I was just shocked that someone would take advantage of me in such a vulnerable time. This is when I began to become really upset, and the reality of the danger of the situation sunk in.

Was any legal or police action taken?

I made a report at the police station, complete with a description of the event and everything in the bag, down to color and brand name. I left my email with them, but never heard anything. They didn’t seem overly concerned or likely to make a big effort.

How did this affect you?

I definitely am more cautious and fearful, and especially aware of my vulnerability as a woman. When it first happened I holed up in my hostel for the majority of the two remaining days until my flight. I am still jumpy at the sight or sound of motorcycles, though that is better now. What scares me the most is when I can hear someone running up behind me. They are usually just joggers, but it always gets my heart rate up.

What do you think women (or anyone!) can do to stay safe when walking alone?
It is tough to say, as this experience made me realize how random violence can be. This experience happened in the middle of the day, and not in a stereotypically risky situation. In Guatemala, I met many people who were much less cautious while traveling who never experienced any violence.

Ultimately, all you can do is be prepared and aware: take a self-defense class, be aware of your surroundings, talk to travelers and locals about areas to avoid, and carry a very limited amount of valuables to minimize loss in the occurrence of a robbery. Keep your passport at the hostel, hidden or in a lock box, and keep your money or cards in different places (both on your body, in luggage or your hostel).

If you are walking alone and there are others around you, stay close behind them to deter people from attacking you, and to ensure that you have people within range if you need help.

I am the last person to warn people off traveling alone, because I think it is rewarding and totally worth it! I just think people should really understand what they are getting into. We have to trust many individuals every day with our safety but it only takes one dangerous or negligent person to violate that trust. Being by yourself is significantly more dangerous than being with others, at home or on the road.

Take the extra step to be safer, even if it is inconvenient, but don’t let your fear stop you from living.

Also, back up your pictures while traveling! Possessions are just material, but memories are irreplaceable, and photographs are a form of memories, or at least a memory aid. I mourn the loss of those pictures every day!

Thanks for sharing your story, Lilia.  Have any of you ever been violently robbed?  How do you stay safe?

P.S. Check out these other True Stories: I witnessed a shooting & My home burned down and I lost 90% of my belongings.

photo by thomas hawk // cc

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  1. Alicia Johnston

    Yikes! Lilia, I'm so sorry you went through that- especially in a foreign country, where it's even more stressful to have to deal with a difficult situation. I agree with you about losing pictures…they're such a wonderful part of the memories from any trip. I met an older man while traveling who said he never takes pictures on any trip, because when he forgets what a place looks like, it means it's time to go back. Maybe you'll head back to Guatemala yet!
    xo Alicia

  2. Gigi

    Wow. So sorry that happened to you. Glad you are okay!

  3. Zelde

    I'm sorry to say that I have ended up in a very similar situation. I was robbed on the streets of Quito, Ecuador, together with another (also female) friend of mine. In our case a car drove up to us, 3 guys jumped out and waved weapons at us. They took our backpack, anything we held and checked pockets and under our t-shirts (for those traveller belts that people wear). Like Lilia we didn't have anything particularly valuable, except a camera with all the pictures on it and a small amount of cash.

    As for the advice you gave: I don't think self-defence classes help in a situation like this. When you the attacker has the advantage (and the almost always do) don't be stupid and give up what you have. My life is more precious than any amount of electronics, money or papers.

    I would second keeping copies of things in different places and not carrying valuables when you don't absolutely have to. The other piece of advise I can give is the following:

    When you feel like you shouldn't be somewhere then you shouldn't be there.

    In countries like South America, just get a taxi. Even if it is just a 5 minute walk. It's super cheap and definitely improves safety.

    • Kaitlin Marie

      I agree with this 100%. Going into self defense mode is NOT a good idea unless the theif is trying to drag you off somewhere. If they just want your stuff…in the end, it's just stuff.

      I never got robbed when I lived in Costa Rica, but stories like this are pretty commonplace. (Although their gun laws are fairly strict, so thieves use machetes a lot) You've got to keep an eye out for motor bikes, definitely! And the robbers also like to target bus stops from time to time.

      Unfortunately there's no one tip that will keep you safe from this. It's just luck. I wouldn't deter anyone from walking around in South/Central America. I was broke and walked almost everywhere. Just trust your instincts! If you're feeling kind of squicky, there's probably a subconscious reason for it!

      The main takeaway for ladies traveling alone is:
      -ALWAYS leave your passport locked away somewhere SAFE when you travel. Don't keep it with you! And take cash, leave your credit cards with your passport. (Or put them in your bra–I did that fairly often, especially when walking back from an ATM)

  4. Girliest Nerd

    It's funny because I was warned not to take taxis…

    Really you can't win here. You can try to take precautions and make yourself less of a target but ultimately the onus is on the other individual to not rob you.

    The religious guy is horrible. Totally horrible. That kind of sanctimony and tactlessness is why I'm not religious anymore and never will be again. Sorry about what happened to you!

  5. Haddock

    That is an experience. But I think that advice of "If you are walking alone and there are others around you, stay close behind them to deter people from attacking you" seems to be one of the practical ways to avoid such things.

  6. Christy@SweetandSavoring

    Wow, you must have been so frightened! I feel so lucky that nothing has ever happened in my solo travels to make me feel unsafe. And those photos! I would have cried and cried!

  7. Pearl Jolly

    Awwwe that's such a horrible thing to have to go through. I can't believe that American guy tried to evangelize you – it's those kind of people that give religion a bad name -( Great to hear that you're OK though and that you haven't left that experience deter you from traveling alone again. All the best for your future adventures!

    x Pearl

  8. Dogtown Vintage

    You poor thing; what an awful experience. I hope the lasting effects get weaker and weaker; you deserve to be able to live without fear. Thanks for sharing <3

  9. Sky

    Hey Lilia,

    I'm so sorry that this happened to you. I live in Guatemala, and while it is generally safe, I've heard similar stories to yours.

    Your advice about knowing self-defense is good in the sense that it is empowering and you get a really good idea of what you are capable of as a strong woman. However, I would never resort to that when it comes to being mugged unless completely necessary. If someone pulls out a gun, just give them your things. Its just "stuff" and can all be replaced. Your safety is the most important thing.

    I got mugged in Chile a few years ago, and am very proficient in martial arts. I still ended up losing my camera, and while my assailant and I both walked away with injuries, I would never, ever do it that way again. I was reminded shortly after that he could have been armed with a gun or knife, and would have likely used them, regardless of the fight I put up to get my things.

    Ugh, I hate hearing stories like yours. Thank you for sharing.


    • Jamie

      I've been robbed at gunpoint. I too, am extremely well trained in multiple martial arts. I won against my attacker (it only takes a split second of distraction) but I do NOT EVER recommend a woman taking a couple self-defense classes and thinking she's bad ass. It takes YEARS to become truly proficient.


  10. Anonymous

    Sorry this happened to you. Speaking from experience, the paranoia and anxiety that arise from thinking about future threats slowly goes away over time. The good thing is that the sensible cautions stick around. I never go anywhere with excess cash, and I have no problem putting an expensive phone in my pants instead of my pocket on the way to the car in a bad neighborhood even if it might seem a little silly to others.

    I am glad to see it mentioned in the comments, and I agree that the self-defense route isn't really all that practical. In most situations, you should comply with any demands regarding material possessions. If things seem like they might escalate beyond that, running away or at least creating distance should become your top priority. It's unfortunate, but it isn't unheard of for people to end up with assault or man slaughter charges in a situation where they see themselves as performing self-defense.

    It's good to think through what you would do in a robbery or other dangerous situation (right now), even if the event is statistically unlikely, because you'll be much too scared to think clearly when it happens.

    Glad you weren't harmed.

  11. Courtney

    How terrible!

    For what it's worth, I really take your tips to heart.

  12. Caitlin Venczel

    I'd like to make a note on using taxis. Especially outside the US (though in the US is a good idea too), when you enter a taxi, text the taxi ID number/taxi driver name/license plate number to a family member or friend. When I was in Mexico for an anthropological excursion, a friend and I got into a taxi and quickly realized the driver was not taking us to our requested location but to a location of his choosing, in the middle of nowhere. We asked him to pull over, and if he was going a different route and we just got silence and he increased his speed everytime we spoke. We both jumped from the car as he made a turn and though we saw him hit his brake lights to stop and get us back into the car, we were able to run to the main road and find some people to help us and take us to the police station. When we got there, they treated us for injuries and asked if we had taken down any information on the taxi. And of course, we hadn't. They recommended taking down the information listed above and even by indirectly showing the cab driver that you're documenting items like that, a kidnapping and/or robbery can be dissuaded. Obviously, most taxi drivers are not robbers or kidnappers, but these things can happen, so it's better to be safe than sorry.

    • Sarah Von Bargen


      I'm so sorry this happened to you! A trick that I use is to text that info to someone but then also pretend that I'm calling someone and giving them the info so the taxi driver can hear me doing that. If I don't have a phone I talk into my camera! Sounds ridiculous, totally works.

  13. Lilia

    Hello Everyone, I am Lilia from the interview above. I wanted to thank everyone for their kind words, it made sharing this story much easier.

    A note on self defense classes:

    I agree with the other commenters that self defense classes would not have helped me in this situation, and even if I had taken them, it would have been stupid to try to fight back in this situation. BUT, there are many bad situations in which knowing how to fight back, or how best to escape, would be very useful, and sometimes lifesaving. I regret not taking classes sooner, as it is just one more thing you can do to be more prepared to keep yourself safe.


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