Friday, January 20, 2012

Economic Crisis Preparedness: Another Argentine Family Example

Dear Ferfal,
Having read your blog for some time I know your views about isolated
retreats, and I wanted to give you another real life example for
readers of your blog to consider.
I live in the UK but have a large family in Argentina, my uncle and
aunt have been there since the 1950’s. In early 2008 I visited for
about a month, this was the second time I’d visited. Just as some
background, they live in a small town on the outskirts of Buenos
Aires, which is basically an outer suburb of BA.

My cousins run a real estate agency, a large part of their business is
the rental of local properties, a number of which the family actually
own (they didn’t tell me exactly how many properties they own and I
didn’t ask!). They are therefore probably one of the wealthiest
families in a town that felt unsafe, was run-down, with very poor
roads, many of the houses and apartments were in need of a lot of
maintenance and on the few occasions we walked around the area (which
they actively discouraged) we could all feel the tension (I’ve spent
lots of time travelling in places like Africa and Latin America so am
used to dodgy places and I felt the tension).

I therefore had a number of long discussions with various members of
the family (young and old) where I asked them why they were still
living in such a run-down town when they could easily afford to live
in a large country house or a gated community. They all responded
emphatically that the isolation of a country house or a gated
community was the best way of ensuring that you would either fall
victim to a home invasion, kidnapping or just have everything stolen
while you were out. They stated that they had many friends that had
moved out of BA or the suburbs, to the perceived safety of country
houses or gated communities only to then fall victim to brutal home
invasions and/or kidnappings. The isolation had turned out to be a
major disadvantage because of the lack of friends or neighbours that
could come to their aid or raise the alarm. They felt much safer in a
community where they knew their neighbours, where strangers stand out,
where the local trouble makers are well known and where the locals
look out for each other as part of an unofficial neighbourhood watch.

To put things into context just after the 2001 Argentinean financial
collapse when things got very bad, the real estate agency was robbed
at gunpoint 5 times. Although the office had iron bars on all windows
and sturdy doors, they had to install a second set of electronically
operated doors that could only be opened from the inside and only once
the outside doors are shut. They ensured that all cash received from
rentals (Argentina is an almost totally cash based economy) was
removed from the office several times a day. They as a family are an
obvious target because of their relative wealth in a fairly poor town.
Therefore their decision to stay was not based on some illusion that
it was safe, but on the realisation that it was safer than an isolated

What I found particularly interesting were the preparations and the
way of life they have had to adopt because of living in a country with
a long history of currency devaluation and financial collapse. A
country that has been ruled by a succession of dictators and
corrupt/incompetent civilian governments. Where local officials and
police are either corrupt or cannot be trusted.

Houses – none of their homes were overly flashy, they fit in well with
their neighbours’ and are very solidly built, brick and reinforced
concrete. Most of the local houses are built close together
(townhouses) so that they share walls on one or more usually both
sides. They have gardens at the rear of each one with very high walls
around the garden. The front door of each house is only a few meters
from the street. My uncle and aunt’s house actually looked run-down
from the outside, but was very nice inside. All ground floor windows
had iron bars and the front doors were steel, with steel frames. Any
glass in the doors was wire reinforced and backed by steel bars where
glass panels open either to let cool air in or to view visitors. First
and second floor windows had thick wooden shutters and balcony doors
had roll-down shutters. The ground floor of each house comprised of an
internal garage, storeroom and a kitchen/dinning area. The kitchen had
an electric cooker and just outside in a covered part of the garden
they had a propane gas cooker and wood fired barbeque, so if the
electricity went off they had other ways to cook. Each house had two
or three massive freezers stuffed full of home grown produce and they
had small generators to provide some back-up power for the freezers.

They also had large well stock pantries with dry goods, cans and
pickled produce. The local mains water quality cannot be relied upon
so they had a large supply of bottled water, soft drinks, juices, beer
and wine. The living rooms and bedrooms in each house are on the first
and second floors which are accessed via a steep internal walled
staircase. The staircases have doors, top and bottom, the top of the
staircase can be defended very easily by someone with a firearm. The
garden can also be accessed via an external staircase from a rear
first floor balcony. The houses have flat roofs that provide great all
round views and are used to dry produce, collect rainwater or just to
catch cool evening breezes.

Food – being originally from a farming background, the walled gardens
contained a number of fruit and nut trees and many different types of
vegetables are grown. They had concrete rainwater cisterns and
overflow plastic barrels, this water is used only for the garden. This
was not the end of their food independence, my uncle also owns a small
farm, where he has about a dozen cattle, two dozen goats, sheep and
many more rabbits, pigeons and chickens. This ensures that the
numerous freezers the family have are stuffed full with home produced
meat and vegetables. The point to note here is that although they can
afford to buy all their food, they grow much it themselves more to
ensure that the quality is high. They did not start growing their own
meat and vegetables once the more recent financial collapse happened
in 2001, it has been part of their lives for years, and in fact they
have owned the farm for 40 plus years.

Weapons – yes they have a reasonable number of firearms, various
pistols, shotguns and rifles, none of which were particularly large
calibre. The most interesting firearm I was shown was the one my uncle
keeps near the front door of his house, I can best describe it as a 20
gauge shotgun pistol, with the shortest side by side barrels I’ve
ever seen. They keep pistols in the office and in the large 4x4
SUV’s they drive, which are always parked inside the internal
garages at night. Again the SUV’s were neither flashy nor new, but
were all in great mechanical order.

Financial preparations – any Argentinean currency received is fairly
quickly transferred into either hard assets (in my family’s case
local property) or into foreign currency, banked in a nearby secure
banking location (Uruguay). They also keep a fair amount of cash (in
various currencies) on hand at home to pay for normal living expenses,
emergencies and for bribes. It was notable that they had zero trust in
any Argentinean institutions or banks. Most family members have a
second passport and a number were making private pension contributions
outside of the country. They have zero debt and ensure that the
government and banks know as little about them and their businesses as
possible. I also suspect that they own a fair amount of physical gold
and silver, when I raised the subject of owning precious metals as an
added insurance policy they changed the subject very quickly!

Attitude – I was impressed by their togetherness, by their hard work
and by their toughness. It was notable that most of the extended
family are very self reliant and that they work together for the
benefit of the whole family. They mostly own and work in their
businesses and therefore when the Argentinean currency was devalued by
two thirds in 2001, their income also dropped by two thirds for many
years, but the value of their assets, mainly property, did not drop in
value. They were therefore able to avoid the worst of the collapse and
had the funds to invest when the economy started to pick-up again

Security – when we (my wife and my parents) arrived at my uncle’s
house, the first instructions we were given were security
- Don’t open the door to anyone but family members.
- Before going outside, check the area immediately outside the front
door via the small window opening in the door.
- Once you have done that and the area is clear, open the door but
only far enough to be able to look in both directions down the short
street the house was located on.
- Only when you have confirmed that the street is clear in both
directions do you actually step outside.
We were shown where the shotgun pistol was kept next to the door. If
somebody knocked at the door while we were on an upstairs floor, the
instructions were to shout down from the balcony to find out who was
there, again we were shown where a .22 rifle was kept near the balcony
door, just in case. We were told not to walk between the three houses
my family lived in, even though they were only a few streets apart,
they would pick us up in a vehicle. They really take security
seriously but if you have been held-up at gun point half a dozen times
and have avoided being robbed many more times (by displaying a
firearm, but not actually firing it), it becomes second nature.
What the experiences of my Argentinean family shows is that with the
proper planning and preparations, staying in a town or suburb you know
well may actually be safer than moving to an isolated location or a
gated community.
Kind Regards
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Anonymous said...

How large are the backyards. I am wondering regarding the size of the gardens.

Anonymous said...

Dear Joe,

Thank you for sharing this detailed summary from your relatives; I believe it will help all of us prepare for what to expect in the future.