There is something I have been suspecting more and more, the longer I live in Asunción, which is the palpable fear of Asunceños of their own city. I have been trying to determine, since my arrival, if this fear is warranted, or if it is fear for fear’s sake. While I haven’t come to a definite decision on the matter, I have certainly narrowed down the possibilities – and received confirmation from other ex-Pats who now call Paraguay home.
Paraguayans are terrified of their own capital city. They see it as a crazy jungle where you can be robbed and pick-pocketed or killed just for stepping out after dark, taking the bus beyond 7 PM, or wandering past the Government Palace to where the Paraguay River lies. I have been lucky enough in my short time here not to have seen violence or crime – but if you were to go on the stories and emotions of the locals, you might feel that these things happen every single day right in front of your eyes. It is because of this lack of visibility that I believe Asunceños live in horror, fear, and intimidation of their country’s major cities – waiting for the next bad thing to pass, but most being fortunate enough not to have experienced crime or violence targeted at them.
Upon arriving I received a laundry list of things to look out for, things not to do, people not to approach, places to avoid, times of day that are acceptable for various parks, buses, shopping malls, and a very hearty warning against use of any modern technologies outside of the safe quarters of my bedroom, (cameras and phones included.) I lived my first few weeks in terror of leaving my house, and would rush home on the colectivo to make it in time to watch the sun go down (not minding leaving the office by 4:30 everyday to make it in time,) but curious as to how these people can live their lives with so much crime abound. It took a few more weeks for me to feel comfortable leaving the confines of my room past sundown, and even longer to feel comfortable taking the bus at a more appropriate departure time from the office. I eventually began taking walks around the centro, which was likely the most dangerous area to roam abound, and realized that Asuncion is actually just a city with normal levels of crime. Likely not even as high as neighboring major cities of Rio or Buenos Aires.
The more foreigners I met and tested this theory on, the more everyone seemed to be in agreement, that the people of Asuncion were unnecessarily overly-cautious about the danger of their city. While there certainly is crime, and children in the city are more feared than some of the adults, the level of violence and crime is comparatively low to the level of anticipation of said crimes. Why should that be, that people would live their lives in such fear and anticipation of the worst?
Here’s a little history on Paraguay to back up their fear, warranted or not. Paraguay is a country that has been tainted by over 60 years of Dictatorship by various “colorful” leaders. Living under a state of siege for as long as most Paraguayans could remember indicated zero crime in the country. The slightest offenses could be reprimanded by torture and so the country lived over 60 years crime-free, of course ignoring the blatantly evident crimes of justice and humanity conducted by the government, (but that’s another story for another day.) Once the dictators fell, most notably Stroessner in 1989, and people were no longer living in complete terror of the Supreme One, crime began to emerge in the city centers. While the levels of crime that Paraguayans began to be exposed to might have been relatively low in comparison to other nations, particularly throughout Latin America, for Paraguayans, it was a thing they had never experienced. Thus developed fear of their fellow countrymen. While crime levels rose, (or according to a Paraguayan account of things, skyrocketed,) people became more and more fearful of the dangers they faced outside of their home, and watched the city unfold like a circus.
I don’t want to say that fear of crime is unwarranted, and certainly as in any major city or country in the world, it happens and sometimes heinously. However, the level of fear and caution that most Paraguayans demonstrate everyday is out of proportion to the happenings of the nation. I, for one, am grateful for the explanation and understanding that Asuncion is just like any other city – and am often told by visitors new to the city that they feel more comfortable and safe here than in, say, Buenos Aires or Lima. Asuncion has become, in my mind, more a place to live and less a place to fear.