Just along for the ride..
Joined: Nov 2003
Location: Petersburg, Virginia
Part Five: Police and Military Checkpoints
POLICE AND MILITARY CHECKPOINTS:
You will encounter them:
Police and military check points are frequent in Central America, and particularly so in high tension areas (Mexico’s Chiapas state, restive areas of Guatemala, and the Darien region of Panama. You should view them as positive events, because the more official checkpoints there are, the lower your own risk of falling victim to a unofficial criminal act. Except when heading north thru Mexico (when they stop every gringo to check for drugs), you’ll probably be waved through the majority of checkpoints, but occasionally you’ll be stopped because they are bored and want to check out your bikes. Again, official checkpoints, manned by dozens of officers/soldiers are very low risk. It is the random police road stops, most often made by one or two policemen, where you will be the most at risk. Be aware there are also sometimes phyto-sanitary (agricultural), and in-country customs (aduana) check points as well, but you will usually be waved through or ignored at these.
Almost all the Central American countries are aware of the possibilities of abuse of authority by police. Most are publicly trying to eradicate the practice because they are realizing that there is more to be gained financially by protecting tourists than by shaking them down. Nicaragua in particular is working hard to change this practice.
How to act at large, official checkpoints:
Some one should be a spokesman for your group, preferably someone fluent in Spanish, and with some gray hair (age is still respected in many locales). Always treat the officers with respect. This typically involves getting off your bike, removing your helmet and gloves, shaking the official’s hand and exchanging formal greeting. If this is a checkpoint where there are official signs, traffic cones, and numerous officers involved, it usually will only involve checking your documents, license, and possibly a quick search of your saddlebags and tankbag. Smile, comply, be happy to be there, and be ready to answer a lot of questions about your bike; how big is the engine? How fast will it go? Where did you come from? Where are you going? How much did it cost? A good attitude and having your documents ready will help ensure it is quick and painless.
How to act at random police stops:
Let me preface by saying we were stopped at least 30 times on our trip to Panama and back. We rode by at least 100 other checkpoints, or police officers standing alongside the road who simply smiled and waved at us. Only two times did we encounter what I felt was an illegal shakedown. The one that cost us $120 in Nicaragua, and another (again in Nicaragua) where we used this technique and rode away smiling. It was explained to us by a Nicaraguan Bureau of Tourism officer, who consulted with the commissioner of Border Police at the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border after we had told him our tale of woe. I know it works in Nicaragua, your use in other countries may vary.
Situation: You look ahead and see a policeman step into the road and wave you over.
Pull over and stop. Be very polite and remove your helmet. Smile, look them in the eyes and ask what the problem is. Don’t offer anything. When they ask you for your license, politely ask to see their badge number and official identification. They will ask why. Tell him it is because you were warned at the border, by the border police, (in our case we actually dropped the name of the commissioner of Nicaraguan Border Police, Carlos Mora) that there are criminals in the country who pose as policemen to rob tourists. We were told that in Nicaragua it is the law that policemen must show their badge and identification to anyone who they stop, and if they refuse to show their identification, they are to be considered criminals and to refuse to listen to them. When you tell them that, it puts them between a rock and a hard place, politely. To refuse to produce it means they have labeled themselves a crooks, and confirmed your suspicion. When they produce it, you immediately take out a piece of paper and write down their names and badge numbers. You then have the information needed to file a complaint later, if there is need to. They know that. They also know that they cannot ask for money now, for the “fine”. If they still demand your license, then go to option two, but once you have their information they will most likely smile and return your documents. This worked like a charm for us during our second shakedown. (smile)
Option two on police shakedowns:
Get an International Driver’s License from AAA (you do not need to be a member of AAA to get this license from them). In fact, get several, a couple weeks apart. They only cost $12, they are printed in multiple languages, and the best thing is they are disposable. I carry several of them. Why? Because if you run into a crooked policeman who takes your license and says you can’t get it back until you go to court, or pay a “fine” to him, you have a choice. Smile, politely ask for the ticket, promise to go to court, then ride away. You leave him without his bribe, and it only cost you the license fee.
If you are traveling in a group, make sure everyone has an International Drivers License from AAA. Why? In our case in Nicaragua, one of us was using his plastic State License. Because of this, the policeman refused to accept the other’s International Licenses when he stopped us on a trumped up charge. We lost our advantage when he demanded all our State licenses, and it cost us $120. If we had all had the AAA International Drivers Licenses, and had rehearsed the scenario ahead of time, we could have avoided paying his fine. It was a lesson learned the hard way.
The bottom line is it is illegal for any policeman to ask for money on the spot. Their favorite shakedown is to take your documents and say you’ll have to go to court tomorrow or the next day, delaying your trip and making your find a place to stay for the night. They KNOW every tourist will then ask if there is any other way it can be settled without going to court…. If you ask that, they’ve set the hook because they haven’t asked you to pay a fine. You have just offered a bribe and now you are the one breaking the law. Don’t ever offer money on the spot. Call their bluff and ask for the written ticket with their badge # and name on it. Once they know they aren’t going to get any money, they’ll pitch a fit, but they’ll have to ticket you officially, or give your stuff back. Either way, they have lost the cash they were expecting to make off of you. If they do ticket you and keep your license, go back to option two above and take another route home, avoiding that town.
Finally, in the absolute worst-case scenario where there is the threat of arrest if you don’t pay them, then pay them. Immediately go to the closest town with a police headquarters and report them. Where, when, what happened and how much money they took. File an official written report. If for nothing else, everyone in the headquarters will know how much they took off of you, and then the crooked cops will have to split it later or face the consequences. In either case, the guy who got your money is going to lose some, if not all of it, and there is a good chance they may be arrested and fired. Do the right thing and report crooked cops. Who knows? It might just work. If you are afraid of going to a police station, keep all the information you can, and report it to the Tourism Ministry at the border. They will be happy to try to help you out, as long as you have a name, date, location, and/or a badge number.