I first heard about groups of armed gunmen robbing the luxury resort hotels in Argentine Wine Country in late 2008, when the raids seemed to be at their peak. I soon learned that the robberies in Mendoza had been going on since 2006 and recently discovered that they have continued as recently as this January.
Before I go further, let me say up front that if you visit Mendoza your hotel is probably not going to be robbed. This has happened very randomly and only a dozen times – at least that I know of – in total over a period of several years. For some reason though, no one outside of local media in Argentina has reported that these types of incidents are occurring and the hotels themselves give no warning to their guests and ost visitors here are completely unaware that this has gone on.
The problem is a combination of economic stability in Argentina and the isolation of these $400-600 a night resorts that sit completely surrounded by vineyards in the middle of nowhere. These hotels are easy targets. They have security, but they haven’t figured out how to protect from an army of bandits. For these prices though, they need to.
By my count and sources in Argentina, Cavas Wine Lodge (9 of 16 of the criminals were caught the most recent time) been hit three times, Club Tapiz once, Domaine Dumont once (the culprits were caught here too), and Francis Mallman’s 1884 restaurant several times. The most serious incident involved a wedding party of an American couple in 2007. A guest of the wedding, RoamerCalifornia, wrote this about the incident on Tripadvisor: “Masked gunman stormed the wedding we were attending and robbed everyone, beating some of us to the point they had to go the hospital. We later find out that this type of robbery is quite common in the region. Would it be so tough to hire extra security, especially at such a nice place? Geez. It’s remote and secluded, which sounds dreamy, and the scenery is spectacular, but security is definitely an issue….beware of the armed banditos!” *Note: He still gave the resort a 3 out of 5 rating.
Friend and fellow Frommer’s author Christie Pashby – who mentioned the incidents of the Frommer’s Argentina guide (the only guide to do so) – and is far more familiar with Mendoza than I am, has her thoughts:
“I have empathy for the guests at the hotel, and also for the owners of Cavas who are needless to say are extremely upset, again. They’re isolated and a super easy target.”
“But the big problem, really, is deep social instability in Argentina – you can blame the President or the police perhaps. It’s serious and very complicated. And the idea that Mendoza is this little piece of paradise doesn’t jive with the realities of its darker side – it’s a very tough town with a lot of social problems that don’t have anything to do with wine or wine tourism.”
The resorts have stated that they have upgraded their security, though the robberies have continued to occur even after. I don’t believe the incidents are enough to bring a collapse in Mendoza’s wide ranging tourism industry (the wine, which most people come here for, isn’t going anywhere), though the reassurance that something is being done, if at the very least to restore confidence in the guests that have lived through these experiences, might be a courteous gesture.
American David Goldberg, who contacted me recently about the incident, was one of the guests that was robbed this past January at Cavas. Here is some of his account of the incident:“On the night of January 8th, my parents and I returned to the lodge around 11:45PM. When we arrived, the security gate was already up, which our driver says he had never seen before (and to this day, I have never been given an adequate explanation as to why this was the case). After milling around the main lodge for a few minutes, we decided to go to my parent’s casita to stargaze. We walked down the main path to their casita, which was in the back. Notable was how dark it is walking down this path, to the point of being near pitch black (which makes you wonder, if the management had truly increased security after the assault of wedding guests in December, 2007, wouldn’t perimeter lighting so the resort was not pitch black be one thing to install?). As we approached the back, a car and a motorcycle pulled in the back way (while this is only speculation, it makes you wonder how this was purely a “random” act, given that these criminals knew where exactly to pull their cars so that they could sneak up on guests, have an easy escape route, yet find this all in the pitch black of night). Two men got out of the car and approached us (everything they said was in Spanish, which I will translate, thankfully I spoke Spanish). We were told to move off the main path, and to not say anything or try to run. They told us to give them all our money and jewelry. My mother, who did not speak Spanish, did not understand what was going on, and when they tried to grab her purse, she resisted. That is when one of the men pulled out a gun and pointed it at us. We gave them everything we had, and they then told us to take them to my parent’s room, all the while pointing the gun at us. Once we entered the room, one of the men started going through my parents’ bags while the other had us lie down on the bed with a gun pointed at our heads. At that point we though we were going to be executed. The other man found the safe in the closet, and had my mom try and open it. The safe was not working (it had been having problems the day before), and my mom continued to try and open it, all the while being yelled at in Spanish. When it did not open, the man hit my mother, so loud that we could hear it in the other room. All the while, my father and I were lying on the bed with a gun pointed at us. I was allowed to get up and translate for my mom, and when the safe didn’t work, I was put back on the bed. After a couple minutes, and after my mom pleaded for my father to help, we were all led into the closet. My father tried to open the safe, but it was broken. The men became angry, and to calm them, I told them we had another room with a safe, with a phone, passports, and money. They had the key and I told them that, but for some reason, they left the room, and my parents and I huddled in the closet in fear for over an hour until the security from the hotel arrived. All the while, a number of the guests and staff were being mugged at gunpoint in the main lodge. Thankfully the police were called, but NOT BY THE HOTEL SECURITY. Despite what the hotel management wrote on their post in response to what I wrote, it is not true that hotel security called the police. In fact, there was no reliable way for them to notify the police, which to me, seems like something that would be the first thing I would do if I were upgrading the security of my property. The truth is that the police were notified only after one of the American hotel guests convinced one of the hotel staff members to sneak into the main office and call the police while the robbers were not looking.After we were brought to the main lodge by security, we told our story to the owners and to the other guests. Interestingly, the only people initially giving police statements were the owners, who were not even present for the robbery. I asked one of the hotel staff why the actual victims of the assault were not giving statements, and she said because, “If you give a statement you will have to go to the police station in person tomorrow.” This is not true. When I asked the owner why I and the other actual witnesses were not giving statement, she said something to the effect of she was doing it to make our lives easier given everything that happened. This makes you wonder. Why would you not want the actual witnesses, especially the first ones to arrive, to give a statement? After being convinced to argue for our right to give a statement by one of the American guests (who was 100% right about this), I gave a sworn statement to the assistant to the judge. Of note, when I spoke in my statement about the security gate being up and how it was suspicious, the hotel owner tried to give a number of reasons why this could have been. Even when I asserted that our driver had never seen this, he continued to try and give reasons.”
Again, these incidents have happened very sporadically over several years and they aren’t worth canceling your trip to Mendoza over. There are far worse things happening in tourist destinations around the world. However, if you do go to Mendoza, you might want to leave your diamond rings at home. Just to be safe.
*Note: Attempts to contact Cavas Wine Lodge and other luxury resorts in Mendoza went unanswered.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.