Tales of police corruption are not uncommon in Latin America. From fishing for minor bribes to full scale occurrences of looking-the-other-way, we have heard many stories during our travels. And up until now we had managed to avoid any tangles with the law.
Well, up until last Tuesday, that is, as Pete was on his way to find me in West End. Thankfully it was only a minor skirmish, which ended up being more entertaining then anything….
So, after a hellish day that included an unsuccessful baseball game and a false alarm scare at the house we’re taking care of, I was ready to relax and have a few drinks while kickin’ it beachside. Dalene was already a few hours ahead of me on that, so I made my way to West End to find her with our friends.
I crawled my way through a couple of traffic jams and as I got closer to the West End entrance, I saw why. Traffic police were set up to check vehicles and somewhat control the flow of traffic (i.e. make it worse) at that particularly busy corner. Finally it was my turn to approach the officers. They immediately asked if I spoke Spanish, to which I replied “more or less”; I told them where I was going and they allowed me to proceed forward.
Then all of a sudden…CRUNCH…under my front left tire. A couple of officers began banging on my vehicle, telling me to stop.
Oh shit! What did I hit?
One officer told me to turn off the vehicle and get out. He pointed immediately at my victim – a traffic cone wedged under the bumper. He motioned for me to pick it up and put it back in the middle of the road, which I did.
“Licencia, por favor,” was his next request. I retrieved my International License from the glove box and handed it to him. He looked at it mockingly, handed it back and stated that this was not a licencia. I pointed to the big, bold writing at the top that states clearly “International License”, and showed him my photo inside. He was still not satisfied, so I handed him my Canadian license. He grabbed it, told me to get back in the vehicle and pull it over to the side of the road. Yes, I had been holding up traffic that whole time.
I waited in my vehicle for the officer to return to talk to me. He stood with his buddies, my license in hand, watching other vehicles drive by, in no apparent rush to do anything about our situation. It was then that I called Dalene and asked her to bring our friend Diana who could speak Spanish far better than either of us.
While I waited for them to show up, the officer returned to my vehicle and asked again if I spoke Spanish. Well, officer…no better than I did ten minutes ago. He proceeded to outline that I had two options (from what I understood) – he could either write me a ticket, or I could backtrack to the nearest gas station to buy some gasolina for one of their bikes.
Say what? I asked him how much gas I would need to buy, to which he responded that the amount was voluntary. I asked him again to tell me how much to pay, and he instead abandoned me in my vehicle and returned to the other officers. A compulsion to yell “corrupto!” was beginning to overcome me, but I thought better of it, wanting to avoid any time in a Honduran jail. And thankfully, Dalene and Diana arrived.
After filling them in on the story, they decided to go and talk to the officer holding my license. I got out of the truck to go with them, but was immediately yelled at by the officer to return. And thus my fate now lay in Dalene and Diana’s ability to smooth talk…
We crossed the street to the clump of police officers standing on the corner, one of which held Pete’s license. Diana proceeded to launch into several questions about why they were holding his license and pointing out the fact that it was, indeed, just a plastic cone that was hit. A cone that, unblemished, had returned to it’s full line of duty. No harm done.
The officer was apparently not impressed with this new, Spanish-word-wielding foe, and waved her off before walking away entirely. “She is complicating things,” he continued to say, all in a huff. He passed on Pete’s papers to another officer, who casually walked over to where I was standing.
I, not knowing enough Spanish, pleaded in the only words I knew to use: “Señor, por favor. Somos voluntarios aqui, todo bien.” (Sir, please. We are volunteers here, it’s all good). I told him I was Pete’s wife and asked him to please explain what the problem was.
He led us back to the truck . On the way, he briefly stood next to the cone, motioning and explaining (as far as I could tell), that yes, it was just a cone he hit, but it easily could have been one of them. He scolded Pete on needing to have more respect for the traffic police, and proceeded again to tell us that this all could be cleared up if we would just buy them some gas at the nearest station. “Yes, no problem,” we all said, anxious to just get this over with.
Diana and I climbed into the vehicle with Pete and we drove away. We discussed the issue of buying them gas, how were we supposed to buy it for them? If we just left now, what could they actually do about it?
And so, we left.
Did that really happen? Pete was still enraged…
“I’m sure he threw that cone under my tire when I wasn’t looking,” I said. “And besides, it’s just a damn cone!”
I understand the comedic background to this, but I think you were right, it is nothing more than corruption that runs rampant and gives Latin America yet another blemish with travelers.
My brother in law lives in California and his girlfriend recently returned to live in southern Mexico with her family, so her visits regularly, even has arranged to have her brother’s car to be at the airport so he has a car to drive to go the 15-20 miles to her place in Mexico.
On MULTIPLE occasions, it has gotten so bad that the police pull him over and don’t even do what they did to Pete. No bogus infraction, no cone, nothing, basically just walk up to the car, demand money or they will impound the car.
The level of corruption is both laughable and pathetic at the same time.
I am just glad that you guys got out of there without any jail time.
Justin Hamlin recently posted..Epic Road Trip 2011- Uncharted Waters
That’s brutal. Thankfully there was no impounding of the vehicle on this occasion. I’ve gone through checkstops here since, and you get that feeling of what are they going to try to pull on me next…
Unfortunately I have a story in this category as well. My friend and I were in Cuba, we just picked up our rental car in Havana and were driving for about 30 minutes when the police pulled us over. We were driving too fast (no clue how they could possibly measure that) and of course we had to pay a fine. While my friend started a discussion with the officer in English, I got a bit nervous, we are in a foreign country and should probably not mess up with these guys – right (?). But then some basic Spanish words from my 8 week language course kicked in. Es un broma – no -? I said to the officer and my friend and I gave him a big smile. It worked. He let us go.
Sadly we had to do this trick several times the rest of our holidays as on the whole island they found it necessary (funny?) to pull us over for all kind of fuzzy reasons. After a while we figured out that to best way to deal with this is, is when you see police that shows some interest in your driving behavior, to just look the other direction. Not sure if this works everywhere though ;-).
Thanks Aafke, jajaja, una broma, me encanta lo!! Glad that you got off without having to pay. It really was a joke the situation I was in too. Now when I go thru the checks I just play the gringo that doesn’t know how to speak any Spanish…
Very glad this all worked out in the end.
Ah, transitos! We’ve had many encounters with them in Mexico during the Trans-Americas Journey (our ongoing 200,00+ mile working road trip through North, Central and South America) and this trick generally works:
Transito pulls us over and we KNOW we’ve done nothing wrong
Driver smiles and uses Spanish that’s even clumsier than usual
Never EVER yell
Smile and nod uncomprehendingly like idiot gringos as the transito dances around the task of asking for $–you are trying to FORCE him actually ask for money (or gas or whatever)
When he does finally ask for something (or after this game has dragged on long enough and he still hasn’t asked for anything) the passenger produces a pocket camera and starts gushing about how exciting this is and snapping pictures like mad
Transito gets very angry (knowing that this kind of highway robbery is illegal and not wanting his picture taken engaged in it)
Transito tells driver to scram
Also NEVER give a transito a valid driver’s license. Always carry an expired one to hand over (they rarely look at the date). Particularly stubborn/bored transitos may decide to hold your license hostage until you agree to pay them/buy them gas/wash their car/give them a back rub/marry their daughter. If they’re holding a fake the worst thing that happens is that they end up with a useless piece of plastic as you shrug and drive away.
If more and more of us refuse to give in to bribery demands like this we just might be able to (slowly) make this kind of corruption a thing of the past. At least we can send the message that not ALL gringos pay up!
Trans-Americas Journey recently posted..Booze- Blouses and Burials – Mayan Villages Around San Cristóbal de las Casas- Chiapas- Mexico
Awesome comment! thanks so much for your tips, it’s a blog post in itself 😉 I am now using clumsy gringo Spanish and they seem to just wave you thru. I agree that yelling is probably the last thing you should do. These guys are on an ego trip, and last thing you want to do is severely piss them off.
When we go to get our International Driver’s License, I wonder if they will give us an expired international one as well as a current one, just to help us out in situations like this.
Funny you should mention Mexico — I got pulled over outside Playa del Carmen in October. What worked for me? Guilt. Yes, I was speeding, but I was still the slowest person on that highway. I asked them (in bona fide clumsy Spanish) if it was fair that they were going to “ticket” me while so many other cars were going so much faster. After “checking with his commander” he came back and said I was free to go.
Of course, I do have a huge tattoo of Our Lady of Guadeloupe on my arm as well, so I must say, that in itself does wonders in Mexico. Ahh….good old Catholic guilt.
Raymond recently posted..Semana Santa- Holy Week in Antigua Guatemala — Night Procession
Haha – awesome. Way to use “the guilt” for good! 🙂
I can’t believe they made such a big deal of a cone, though. It would’ve been funny if only it was not so… well, corrupt. Those cops really, really like their cones 🙂
My brother who lives in Indonesia just got his drivers license last year, and the very first advice my parents gave him was to keep handy a 20000 rupiah bill at all time.
Because of him looking so young, it was just a matter of time until he gets pulled over for some minor infractions.
It’s a rite of passage 🙂
jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..My Solo Traveling Moments in Cartagena
haha, rite of passage. It shouldn’t be, but I think you’re right. I have to say that I have never had to “pay-off” an officer as of yet. I have a feeling though in our travels the time will come…
Thanks for the giggle 🙂
I always just smile and nod, (no knowledge of English or Spanish) usually works to be sent on through!
As for the cone crushing fine; the policia don’t have a budget for gas for the vehicles or food either, if there was a BoJangles nearby he would have had you buy them lunch. They have to make it up as they go… just the way it is!
Genevieve recently posted..Roatan Vortex – An insider’s guide for moving to Roatan
Funny as it is, if they would have just been decent about the situation and told me that they don’t get money for their vehicles etc and not have been a total DB I would have bought him some fuel. Instead, nope, and I lost a little respect for them as well.
They could have been people… guests at her wedding! What a great clip to reference. I am with ya Pete, I would have feen boiling inside. I can’t stand that corruption, big bully crap.
Thanks Jason, During this whole ordeal I was thinking about this clip from the Wedding Singer.
I really had to bite my tongue from saying anything bad. It’s not normal I hold back from saying what’s on my mind… This time I thought it might be wise.
Yeah, that’s infuriating! I haven’t been a victim of it yet here in Thailand, but my friends have.
I think what’s really shocking is that, as Genevieve said, they don’t have a budget for gas. I mean, if you don’t give the police money for basic necessities like that…it boggles the mind.
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Well living here, I can’t say I’m shocked, but it is really a shame. Especially when they try and be devious about it and rake it from those who appear to have money.
Oh my goodness! Fingers crossed that we don’t have any trouble like that in Europe! South America is next on our list.
No doubt, best of luck wherever you are. Best advice is to just keep your cool and roll with it.
Wasn’t giggling at you Peter, guess I’ve just lived on Roatan too long and found your adventure humorous. Honduras is a 3rd world country, and can’t be looked at the same. Try applying for a Honduran driver’s license, now that’s funny 🙂
There is a group of dedicated volunteers on the Island who hold regular fundraisers, and sell bumper stickers to support the local police. There efforts have resulted in purchasing vehicles, computer equipment, and supplies for the police station. These same volunteers have also gone into the police living quarters (most officers come from the Mainland and do not have homes here) and tiled their shower stalls and added doors for privacy.
It is often posted on the Roatan chat groups how we can all help out, whether it is by donating coffee mugs, dishes, a microwave oven or toaster, our time, or purchasing a bumper sticker.
I know it sounds trite, but I have to say again, “that’s just the way it is.”
Genevieve recently posted..Roatan Vortex – An insider’s guide for moving to Roatan
I know Genny 🙂 and yes I can imagine applying for any sort of documentation is a funny experience. I remember trying to extend my visa in Ecuador and the trials and tribulations I had to go through there…
Glad to hear that there are dedicated volunteers trying to help the force out. I have the utmost respect for the law, but this shit was just unacceptable. Seriously, if he had of just asked me to donate some cash instead of being a dick, I would have opened my wallet.
It’s not trite by any means what you have said. We all know how it is, but that was just wrong of him to do.
I got all red in the face just reading this damn post. Grrr. This kind of corruption makes me absolutely freakin’ crazy!
Glad you made it out of the situation alright. Could have been a lot worse.
The NVR Guys recently posted..Travelogue – feeding our guilt in Boston
Yep and thanks. It’s unfortunate shit like this exists, but it does, and you just have to be prepared for it when coming into these countries. You’re certainly right that it could have been a lot worse.
Glad you guys are ok…. just remember “they were cones!” 🙂
LOL, thanks Jeff. Yeah, still love that clip.
What a story. That poor, poor cone- he could have lost his life! The least you could do was buy the cone-owner some fuel 😉 So, you didn’t pay in the end, huh? Just drove away and that was that? I’m worried that I’ll be too nervous when we travel and do whatever the police tell me to do. Maybe I’ll get over that quickly?
LOL, I know Kim, your comment brings back a memory to an Ikea commercial (in a Swedish accent) “Do you feel sorry for the cone?”
Nope, we didn’t pay and have since gone thru stops (without hitting another cone) and nothing has happened. If in the situation, just keep your cool, that is probably the biggest thing IMO.
Beware of the dangerous cones!
On the plus side, you got a great travel tale out of the experience 😉
Cam recently posted..The Mysterious Moai of Easter Island
True enough. And yes in hindsight it was a little humorous.
That story is so funny but I can imagine it to be nerve wrecking for you. How can the police man say that the cone could of easily been one of them!!
Natalie recently posted..Euromos – A Historical Monument or a Pile of Bricks
I know right? Especially when he kicked it under the front tire to line up when I wasn’t looking 😉
Unfortunately I think we’ve all had similar experiences with corruption and bribery. It’s so incredibly frustrating when these situations arise because it’s not hard to see immediately what is going on. We were faced with similar situations many times in Africa, once we told the officer to put his money where his mouth was and take us to the station. You can imagine how he balked!
Glad you guys are ok.
Wow. I think you have to be a little firm, but keep your cool at the same time. If you ask them to follow the general police procedure, it sounds like they back off. Thanks for the comment Jillian.
i lived in tela for a year and saw this stuff going on all the time. i remember someone telling me he had to pay a bribe for wearing shorts while driving. another common one was not carrying a fire extinguisher in your car. i thought maybe the islands were immune to it, but wow, going by this post i was way wrong.
hope you enjoy honduras though, i love the country!
jamie – cloud people adventures recently posted..Where to Next
Oh no, I would expect that the islands would be worse! A lot of expats here, hence a lot more targets! We are really enjoying our time here.
Dioooos! The level of corruption is so ridiculous. Glad you guys escaped the situation relatively unscathed.
Yes I am glad that nothing came out of this as well. I had a few choice words other than Dios 😉
I love this story because it’s a bit more than the standard bribe. They were actually demanding that you run an errand for them! So funny, and also not at the same time…
Phil recently posted..How to Enjoy Possibly Unreasonable Trips on Public Transportation
Funny, right? Like how could they be sure we’d even come back (which, we didn’t!)? I guess it’s a small island, and not too many range rovers around…hopefully this doesn’t come back to haunt us!
Pete – one of the more valuable lessons I learned shortly after moving here – NEVER, EVER say that you speak the language when you are approached by a police officer here. Don’t even say “hola!” If they can’t intimidate you with words, it’s no fun for them and more often than not, they’ll just let you go on your way.
I’m sorry you had to deal with them, especially on an already stressful day, but I’m really glad you got out of having to do anything about the stupid plastic cone. Isn’t that why they’re plastic anyway? So they can bend and fold when people run over them. Just sayin’!
Ha, Wendi, you know what, that is usually our strategy, to just pretend we know nothing at all, and, it always works. Pete just likes to show-off his Spanish sometimes… 🙂
Not fun. Had that happened to me in Bulgaria, they pulled us over for speeding although we were going slower than everybody else (but had a bigger car). Luckily we talked ourselves out of that one but noticed the police had a stack of revoked driver’s licences, none of them from Bulgaria.
Eesh….it’s funny (kind of) to see all these tales pour in from all over the world. It is something that you almost have to expect to happen, yet in the moment when it happens, it’s always going to be infuriating and kinda scary!
Ouch. But at least these types of experiences, however bad in the moment, make for memorable stories.
Sophie recently posted..The Bedoon – Kuwait’s stateless people
Very true Sophie! Pete and I said just several minutes after it happened that it will at least make an interesting blog post!
Just ran into a guy who took his motorbike from Alaska to Argentina, said his only problem was in Honduras. Once just pulled over and they wanted him off the road but he wouldn’t go and just sat on the ground as he knew he wasn’t safe if he went to the lower ground off the road. The second time they asked for his wallet and returned it sans money.
Ahh la vida en Latino America 🙂
Ayngelina recently posted..Happy Anniversary to Me
Oh yes, experiences like this just come with the territory, unfortunately! I’m surprised after almost 18 months this was only our first issue… 🙂
Oh dear god. I’d just have bunged them some cash. How surreal. Glad the poor cone was OK. And you, obviously.
Yes, the sacred cone was just a little bruised, but escaped with minor injuries LOL.
Gosh what a corruption story. We have been so lucky to have never fallen victim to one of these. Makes our stories seem kind of boring now 🙂
Oh, wow, you’re so brave to drive! I spent a year in Central America and was too chicken.
Yeah, I was a little hesitant at first, but now it’s like second nature. I can’t wait to drive over in Europe. I’ve been practicing driving here on the left hand side of the road for Ireland 😉
Glad you were able to walk away from that incident. There is no excuse for behavior like that!
Agreed! Thanks Tai.
How frustrating must that of been!?!?
and how could it of almost been one of them? are they only 1ft tall too? haha so silly, pylons are made of rubber and are meant to be run over!
good on you for not going back as long as they had given you your licenses back 🙂
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I know, right? I tried to say that at one point to him, but my Spanish is so terrible.
Wait a minute…YOU needed to respect the police more?
What a joke, after he told you that a bit of free gasoline would get you off the hook of getting a ticket!
Good thing you spoke a little Spanish at least!
Anita recently posted..Please- Don’t Be A Pretentious Traveler Part II
Haha, I know, right? I’m not sure about the Spanish though…I think next time it might be best to just play totally dumb. That’s worked for us in other sticky situations. Hopefully there isn’t a next time though!
*knocks on wood*
Hasn’t happened to us… yet. Now I’m convinced that I need to dumb down my Spanish if I ever get into a situation like this. :X
Erica recently posted..Bulgaria – a land of MANY surprises
Definitely dumb down the Spanish. We’ve done that at border crossings too, just to be safe.
Very very annoying, guys! Just their attempt to get free gas? So low… Maybe if it were us though, they can’t ask us for the gas bribe, because our Spanish is super terrible and we won’t understand a single word they say.
Dina recently posted..Fly Like Superman and Swing Like Tarzan in Costa Rica!
Yes, next time we definitely will go with the “no Spanish at all” strategy! Pete just likes to show off! 🙂
I’m wondering if when everyone and their brother has a cell phone that takes video, and all these corruptos end up on Youtube or the nightly news, that will embarrass the government enough to put a stop to this. The people here in Honduras absolutely don’t respect the police one bit, call them worse than the criminals usually.
Perhaps that would be a start Rick, but a difficult thing to co-ordinate effectively. It’s a shame, and a real problem in many parts of Latin America.