Sadly corruption plagues, and is rampant in many countries in Central and South America as well as Mexico. If you are going to drive in these countries (as a local or foreigner) you will almost certainly be a quested for a bribe at some point.
I guess I have either been lucky to this point in my trip or that Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador have less greedy police. Until Honduras I really didn’t have much problems with police extortion. However within 10 minutes of crossing the border into Honduras I was stopped by police for a phony-baloney reason (I passed a car where I supposedly wasn’t allowed to) and was a quested for a bribe to avoid a ticket. I paid the officer $10 and was on my way.
From the experience I learned some valuable lessons, which I was able to move forward with better knowing how to handle such situations.
*Disclaimer: Lying to government officials is an offense that is most likely punishable in all countries. I am not by any means, instructing you or any parties to lie to government officials. I have merely made a hypothetical guide as to how one COULD handle a situation if they so choose to. I take no responsibility for any consequences incurred due to following the steps listed below.
How a typical traffic stop-and-extort goes down:
The police will usually be waiting around a bend out of view, in hopes of catching you by surprise and (hopefully for them) some sort of mediocre reason to issue a citation (although in many instances, being on “their road” is the only reason they need to stop you, if one at all).
Some common reasons they make are; passing where you shouldn’t, going too fast (although they rarely if ever have speed guns or radar devices in use, completely hearsay), having back-up gas reserve container on the exterior of your vehicle, passing a bus stopped on the side of the road, approaching the checkpoint too quickly, and the list goes on (the police can get really creative with their reasons and never have any documents to back of the citation).
As you approach they see dollar signs, or ahhh, your vehicle and they step into the road and signal you to pull to the side. You pull over and they ask to see your documents (typically they want the vehicle registration, permission to drive in said country (a document you need to get upon entering the country with a foreign vehicle), your drivers license and in some instances insurance and passport.
Step 1: NEVER GIVE YOUR ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS TO THEM
You should always keep multiple photocopies (I like to have at least 4 copies of each document on hand at all times) of every document listed above. I keep my originals well hidden in my vehicle (although I’ve yet to encounter an officer keen enough to do a thorough or even basic search for said documents).
Step 2: Did I mention: NEVER GIVE YOUR ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS TO THEM
I can’t stress this point enough.
Step 3: STORY TIME
Upon giving your photocopied documents to the officer, he/she will give them a look and likely request the originals. This is when you need to be a little creative and put on your best act.
The story I have found to work every single time is as follows; I was robbed earlier this week by bandits in (name the largest city you previously drove through). The bandits took all my valuables including my wallet and passport. All I have now is photocopies. My mother in Canada is currently arranging to replace all the documents and mail them to the next (name the next major city you are heading towards). All I have now is $40 (I stick to a number that seems reasonable to cover the following expenses on a tight budget) that someone lent me in (name the city you were robbed in), which is just enough for gas to get to (name the city you are heading to) and a little food.
Step 4: SPIN THE OFFICER IN CIRCLES
The officer will be slightly detoured by this fact, but will likely not give up just yet, remember, he/she has pulled you over with the goal of getting money for him/herself. He/she will explain the “violation” you committed, waving a citation book in your face and telling you that the fine is (usually a decent amount, $50-100). He will tell you that he must write you a citation and that you will need to go to the next closest bank (usually 20km+ away from the current location, to increase the supposed hassle to your day) in order to pay the fine, at which time you must return to show him the receipt and you can be on your way.
If you give him/her any of your original documents (documents which you need to leave the country), he/she will hold these hostage until you return from the bank with receipt. *note that he really doesn’t expect you to do this, he just wants you to feel extremely inconvenienced so that he can provide a section option, a bribe (a fraction of the price of the citation) to be on your way right there and then. EXCEPT YOU HAVE NOT GIVEN HIM ANY OF YOUR ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS TO HOLD HOSTAGE.
If he is really pushing , he will say you need to leave your vehicle there on the side of the road, take a bus to the next town and pay the citation at the bank, then return via bus with proof of payment and retrieve your vehicle.
But wait, all of your credit and bank cards were stolen remember? Explain to the officer that going to the bank is pointless, because you have no way to take out money as your cards were stolen.
At this point the conversation will likely go in circles a couple times before the officer realizes the dilemma. You have little to no money on you (just enough for gas to get you to the next city so that your loving mother can send you new documents and bank cards in the next week or so) and further more, you have no means of taking money out from the bank to pay the citation.
When this information finally soaks in to the officers thick skull he will be confused and frustrated. He has little to no leverage at this point and besides taking your last few dollars, (which if he presses, you must insist you need in order to make it to the next city) at this point his opportunity to extort you is very small.
In addition, by this time (usually 5-10 minutes) he is realizing that he is loosing out on other bribes he can be taking from other drivers who are willing to succumb to the pressure/hassle of his tactics. He is feeling frustrated and at this point, ready to cut his losses and go after easier prey.
Step 4.1: LET YOUR INNER ACTOR OUT: ME NO SPEAK ESPANOL BUENO
An added benefit you have is that you are a foreigner and you may or may not speak Spanish as far as the officer knows. My Spanish is far from perfect, but with a little effort I can easily have conversations with people in Spanish. However when dealing with police I downplay my Spanish big time.
I make sure I get the essential details of my story across: Everything stolen, no original documents, no access to money. The filler is where I make lots of mistakes and I usually pretend I don’t understand 2/3rds of what the officer is saying.. Again acting clueless, with a confused but determined-to-understand-the-officer look on my face, ahhhhh pardon… no entiendo.. lo siento mi espanol no esbueno (excuse me.. i don’t understand… im sorry… my spanish is not good).
Assuming you put on a half decent show, the officer will see that you are at least trying to be compliant (so he hopefully won’t get right out angry and thus more motivated to bend you over), but at the same time, it will turn the tables and through him/her off their game because they are not sure how much you understand. Further more it will aggravate and frustrate the officer enough that it will push him to cut his losses and move on to the next prey.
I was stopped on five separate occasions on my first day in Nicaragua. I used this 3 step tactic and it worked 5/5 times without fail. After 5-10 minutes of broken confused going-in-circles conversation, the officer will hand you back your documents and tell you to be more careful next time, and you will be on your way.
-Be Polite, act as if you truly want to resolve the situation, and that you would like to pay the citation but you have no way of doing so.
-Play Up The Victim Card, as greedy, corrupt and scummy as these officers are; they are still human at the end of the day. Assuming you have been relatively polite and as accommodating as you can be (in regards to your act), deep within their corrupted soles may lie a smidgen of empathy for your “situation”. Again let your inner actor shine, think confused, helpless, tired, sad. Remember you were just “robbed of all your things” a few days ago and you are already in a pretty shitty situation due to this.
-Patience is key/wait it out. Step 4: SPIN THE OFFICER IN CIRCLES can likely last a few minutes. You will likely go in circles with your conversation at least two to four times before it sinks in. Just maintain your story and confusion and utter “cluelessness” of how to resolve the situation. You “want” to find a solution right *wink wink. You “don’t want” to make the officers job difficult right *wink wink.
-Did I mention, NEVER GIVE ANY OF YOUR ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS! The officer may tell you that you are not permitted to drive without original documents. If needed, explain that when you were robbed you went to the local police and asked them what you should do, and that they told you it would be ok for you to drive to the next major city, as long as you get your documents sorted in a timely matter. The officer isn’t going to call and check out your story, and if he wanted to, you were robbed in a big city and can’t remember what the name of the area was where you went to talk to the police.
-Don’t be intimidated, these officers hide behind badges, uniforms and weapons. However they are weak and cowardly, they have succumb to corruption after all. You have done nothing wrong and they are scammers looking for a quick buck and nothing more. Treat them with perceived respect, but remember that they are little people looking to rip a couple bucks off you.
-Smile You’re On Camera, I got this idea after one Mexican officer got super paranoid about the remote antenna for my lights which dangles down on the drivers side window. The officer got really defensive when he saw it, asking me if it was a camera and why I had it there.
So I got to thinking, maybe putting a camera on the drivers side window facing out might be a good way to deter corrupt officials. Because it is one thing to make an ass of yourself and try to extort someone, but it is another thing all together to make an ass of yourself and try to extort someone on camera which can then be shared online for the world to see.
Since installing the camera, I haven’t had a single officer ask me for money. In addition all stops seem to be a lot more brief.
I hope these steps can help others avoid extortion by police. It is easy enough to pay a $5-10 bribe and be on your way, but by doing so, you are essentially supporting the corruption and behavior in these countries. If you not only wish to save yourself some money and moral valor, but also stand up for the people in these countries and fight corruption, do not give in and take the easy route. A war is won, one battle at a time. So stand up for your rights, stand up for the people who have to face these scenarios daily, and stand up for what is right and just.
Do you have tips for avoiding police extortion on the road? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.