If you have the occasion to check some of the travel Web sites lately, you will find harrowing tales of tourists and business people being abducted and robbed in Peru, Hank Sydor writes.

Cuzco is considered the most crime-ridden city in Peru.
If you have the occasion to check some of the travel Web sites lately, you will find harrowing tales of tourists and business people being abducted and robbed in Peru. They are as frightening as they are common.

Two women recently reported a taxi ride in Cuzco in which they were choked until they passed out and then were robbed while unconscious. Another taxi-riding couple reported that they were robbed at knifepoint and then suffocated and searched. The two robbers drove off with their backpacks, money, cameras and even their eyeglasses. The robbers searched them so thoroughly that they even found a money belt and a secret pocket in the man's trousers.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Lima, they are real as are the warnings we get from the Commerce Department in Washington. While Peru is home to some of the most mystical and beautiful sites on this planet, the regard for personal safety cannot be ignored.

Amid the cobblestone streets in picturesque Cuzco, a usual stop on the way to the ancient ruins of Machu Pichu, armed abductions from or near Cuzco's main plaza are now a traveler's biggest fear. This was outlined in a circular issued by the U.S. Consular's office.

The most harrowing robberies, committed mainly in Cuzco and the city of Arequipa, occur when a person is choked until they become unconscious. This type of robbery is so well known that it even has a name: the "choke rob" or the "choke and grab."

While there are statistics about the frequency of such crimes, they are sketchy because the offenses often go unreported. U.S. officials say they are concerned about the increasing sophistication of such crimes. In what used to be an uncommon occurrence, groups of tourists recently have been attacked on the road and even in crowded hotels, officials say.

In Peru, crimes against tourists are a fact of life, and Peru's crime problem is not unique. It fits into the increasing trend in many South American countries and cities.

Although officials say crime in some places in Peru has dropped, there have been increasingly brazen crimes against foreign travelers, particularly armed abductions where tourists are snatched from the street or unsuspectingly abducted in taxis in popular cities.

This could spell big trouble for Peru's travel industry, which is one of the country's greatest success stories.

Year-end statistics for 1999 show the number of foreign visitors to Peru rising throughout the 1990s from a little over 200,000 in 1991 to almost a million in 1999. As you might suspect, many officials are afraid that this trend may easily be reversed.

On a personal note I also can relate some harrowing tales. A few years ago an American couple arrived in the capital city of Lima. The mining company for which the husband worked had just transferred them to Peru. During their first week there, the couple stayed at a very reputable hotel while house hunting, and one night, they attended a dinner party at the home of the company president. As is the custom, the dinner party started around 10:00 p.m. and they returned by taxi to the hotel about 2:30 a.m. The husband was tired and wanted to get to sleep, while the wife said she would take a short walk in the warm night air. An hour later, the police summoned him to go to the local hospital where his wife was being treated after being robbed on the street. The robbers had even cut off her finger to get her diamond wedding ring.

A close friend of mine was staying in Lima at a reputable hotel with his wife. On the first full day they were there, he went to business meetings and she decided to go shopping. A few blocks from the hotel on a crowded street, a man approached her and spit on her. She was shocked, and people crowded around her trying to calm her and clean off the spit from her face and her clothes. Just as quickly as it happened, the people were gone. When she tried to assess what happened, she discovered the following: her gold chain and pendant were missing, her purse (shoulder bag) had been slit with a razor and her wallet with money and credit cards were gone and then she realized that her gold watch also was missing.

One day I was in a car with an American friend of mine who has lived in Peru for almost 30 years. It was a warm day and we had all the windows down as we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic. My friend, Glen, had his hand outside the window holding the rear view mirror. A young man on a motor scooter maneuvered between cars and grabbed Glen's Rolex.

Another friend of mine who had been a college football lineman was checking out of a Peruvian restaurant and paid his bill at the counter near the exit. There was a big window there and people from the street could easily see what was happening. At the same time a man was watching which pocket he put his money in after paying the bill. As my friend walked out of the restaurant, the robber grabbed his right front pants pocket and tore the material down to his knee. About 1,500 American dollars fell out; the man grabbed it and ran off.

Another common trick is for young boys on motor scooters to wait for women to cross the intersection. They zoom in before they start to cross and snatch a purse or grab a gold chain from their necks.

The robbers are getting more sophisticated and more organized. I once went to the cashier at the front desk of my hotel and changed some American money into the local currency. Unknown to me, a man sitting in the lobby with a nice dark blue suit sat reading the paper and watching me out of the corner of his eye. When I walked out the door, he made a call on his cellular telephone to advise his associates in what pocket I placed my American dollars. Several hours later when I was alone and in a vulnerable location, four men robbed me at knifepoint, going just for the one pocket where I had my American dollars. It was the hotel manager who later told me that a lookout in the lobby probably set up the robbery.

Now when I travel to anywhere, I put on a plain wedding band, I use an old wallet with expired credit cards and carry no more than $50 in my pocket. I also use a cheap watch with plastic band instead of my gold watch. My real wallet, money and credit cards are kept in an ankle holder. The trouble is, how long will the ankle holder be safe from today's robbers?