In travel, the police are rarely your friend. Unless using that fellow standing around with the gun and badge as a kiosk to ask directions from there is really no reason to ever initiate communication with the police when traveling. In Latin America, especially, the police are not your friend: stay away from them. On my first trip to South America an Ecuadorian woman gave me some advice whose essence I’ve followed to this day:
“If the police try to arrest you and you didn’t do anything, run away, run to the nearest embassy. The police WILL rape you.”
I don’t often worry about being raped, but robbed, extorted for bribes — yes — those are very real worries when dealing with the police in this part of the world. While I have never been robbed by a cop here, I’ve been in situations with them where a good amount of wit, balls, and luck were called into play — but there are many stories of other travelers who were not so fortunate. My case in point: if you go into a police station in Latin America with money, there is a good chance you will be making a direct donation to law enforcement. Thank you very much.
Mind you, it only takes a small percentage of people in any given profession or group to tar the name of the organization for everyone. I must say that over 95% of the police in Latin America will leave you, a tourist, alone, it is my impression that most are not corrupt or they would have been swept from the streets long ago. But that few remaining percent mean that you need to be cautious when dealing officers of the law in Latin America. Trust me, the local people here are in no way immune from police abuse — often, it is my impression that they are targeted far readily than tourists — and in many countries in this region the common people will match my advice: unless absolutely needed, stay away from the police. Calling the police corrupt is a cliche here, as this adjective almost goes without saying.
The people here seem to know that the municipal police are often just a bunch of goons — in some places communities even vote for who will become a cop because this position carries the fringe benefit of collecting bribes — and their authority, while absolute, can often be bent this way or that.
I was walking through the streets of Bogota a couple of months ago when I made a grave error of judgement. I made eye contact, nodded, and said a big hello to a low ranking police officer. He flashed me a devious, swine like grin, and reached out for my arm. Catching me by the elbow, he moved in close, brought his greasy face up by my ear, and made his demand: “Do you have any money for me, amigo?”
Disgust overtook me before fear or nerves, I yanked my arm back roughly, barked out a brisk “no,” and got away fast.
I was lucky, the streets were full of people, and I did not have much to fear. I made it clear that if this cop was going to shake me down he would need to outright arrest me — work for his money — and there would me no way without making a big enough scene to attract a hundred spectators. This strategy has worked well for me on various occasions.
In Latin America, the protocol for dealing with municipal police is different than in countries like the USA which tend to regulate their enforcers of the law with a lot more diligence. In the USA, saying “yes sir, no sir” to a cop with absolute passiveness is often the best way to keep them from railroading you, but in Latin America, the strategy is a little different. If you treat a Latino cop as though he is the master of the universe, it is my impression that he will use this as a go ahead to take advantage of you. I’ve had many scenarios reported to me by tourist who had been robbed by police during their travels in Latin America, and it is my impression that they were railroaded because the victim bowed down to them, putting up no resistance.
Generally, the graft goes like this: a cop or a gang of them approach a tourist (or anyone else for that matter), they ask for a contribution, some money for lunch, in other words: all your money. Often, the tourist either gives in and pays or the cops move on. I’ve even received reports of the police escorting tourists to the nearest ATM, forcing them to make a maximum withdrawal.
Dealing with cops in a tough manner here is generally the best advice I can give. I don’t mean being disrespectful, or stomping on their authority, just being firm and passively resistant. If you make a cop work for his bribe money, there is a good chance that he will back down. If you piss him off, things could get worse. Generally, a happy go lucky, smiling, laughing — though firm — refusal to a request for a bribe works best in my experience.
I was walking back from a trip to an ATM in Managua with a friend in 2006 when a truck full of cops with machine guns pulled up next to us. They told us to get in the truck. We refused, claiming that we did not understand what they were saying. After a brief showdown, the cops lost their nerve. One of us told us to empty our pockets out on the hood of the truck, which we did — taking as long a time as possible doing so. We wanted as many people in the community to see us getting the shake down as possible, and to delay for as long as we could before being abducted. As we hand picked each coin in our pockets and placed it on their hood, the cops were beginning to get tense, we showed that we would not be taken easily. It is my impression that the cops saw us walking to or from the place where we made the ATM transaction, and were looking for an easy payday. Likewise, a large amount of bills from the ATM were freshly stuffed into our in our money belts, which was something we were not going to reveal without a strip search. As we slowly emptied our pockets, one of the cops began yelling at us to hurry up, but we would do no such thing. Eventually, the police gave up on their robbery attempt, backed their truck up — spilling the contents of our pockets over the street — and sped away.
In 2002, I had two separate altercations with police officers in Uruguay and Argentina. The cops in Uruguay were undercover, so there was no way of knowing then that they were police. They walked up to me and demanded my passport. When I refused they tried to tackle me to the ground, whereupon I resisted and got away. I reported the incident at a police station, and they informed me that the men were cops working undercover. Nothing more came of it. In Argentina, a police truck pulled up next to me and the cops inside told me to get in. I refused — the country was in the midst of an economic collapse and the police were kidnapping and extorting people with incredible regularity. When I refused to be taken, the police jumped out and wrestled me to the ground. I got away and ran into a supermarket, the gang of cops gave chase. After a strange game of cat and mouse chase through the aisles, I was caught and handcuffed. By this time there was a large audience watching, and the police made a show out of the situation by emptying the contents of my backpack in the parking lot for everyone to see. I was then taken to a police station and book with something. Then I was let go.
I met a traveler recently in Colombia who had just driven a car down through Central America from the USA. On two occasions he was pulled over on the highway and the police attempted to get money from him. The first incident, the police asked for some money to buy some gas. The traveler responded that they could just have some of his and refused to cough up any money. The police withdrew. On another occasion, the cops asked for some money so they could buy beer. The traveler reached over into the cooler he had in the back seat and offered the cops a couple cold ones. Again, the cops withdrew.
Jason Mcanuff rode a bicycle from San Francisco to Colombia. On the highway just out of San Pedro Sula he found himself pulled over by a couple of cops. They requested his passport, and when Jason produced it they promptly proclaimed it invalid. Conveniently, the police offered to make it valid again for a small fee. Recognizing that the cops were in no way associated with the British consular service, he refused. The police grew angry. Then, as Jason put it:
I gave him the don’t screw with me eyes, and acted like yea this happens to me all the time, and he ended up saying to the other guy, “This guy has got some balls,” and let me go. I could tell they were corrupt as it gets, and I was lucky. I think the fact that I was seriously covered in mud helped out. I had just ridden a dirt road in crazy rain, and had the ‘gettin wild, getting crazy, born to do this, don’t give a damn’ look. -Biking it in Honduras
In Colombia, Jason again found himself on the receiving end of police corruption. He was pulled out of an internet cafe and into a police station. There he was questioned, his possessions searched, and when he was excused all his money was mysteriously missing.
“Now I don’t even look at them,” he told me in Colombia, “if I see a cop I try to not even ride past him. If I don’t have a choice I either try to go behind a truck or I ride as fast as I can without even looking at him.”
This advice is truly clutch. If I see a group of cops standing around in the streets of almost any country looking listless, as though they’re looking for something to do, I don’t volunteer myself to their cause: I cross the street or walk down another. I keep my eyes peeled for cops — another habit from the anarcho-punk days that manifests itself well in the travel context — and keep away from them. Of course, I don’t make this obvious and there is no way this can be done with 100% precision — it is just a precaution to follow.
Treat the police as you would beggars.
Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them, don’t get into a car with them, don’t give them money, do all that you can to prevent being in contact with them, and, though the path ahead may have more than a few detours following this advice, it will also have a few less bumps.
I am not sure what the police do in many countries of Latin America, as they don’t seem too interested in fighting crime. If you are actually robbed by someone who is not a cop, filing a crime report is all too often a wasted action that can sometimes put you in more danger. Good luck trying to get a police report filed even if you can locate the proper police officer whose job it is to do this. Typically, it is not my impression that the people of many Latin American countries bother filing reports when they are robbed. In some places in this region, the very suggestion is met with a laugh.
One final note: if you are guilty of a crime, of course, pay up — this is often the easiest way out.
I can continue with these corrupt police in Latin America stories almost without end, but the message here is clear: when possible, avoid the police in Latin America. If you are harassed by them, be strong, be smart, rely on your wits, follow a course of passive resistance, be respectful but look them in the eye, try to get the people around you involved, stall for time, refuse to get into any vehicle they tell you to get into, and look for any way out that presents itself. Keep in mind that the police here are often just looking for money and are not really too interested in arresting you, and knowing this can sometimes keep fear at bay long enough to utilize your wits to their fullest. This region of the world is full of corrupt police, and running into them every once in a while is just a part of traveling here. Keep your head up and you will be alright.