Vagabond Tales: How To Pay Off The Police While Traveling

Let’s face it: things happen while you’re traveling. Although many travels go off without a hitch, occasionally there are unforeseen hurdles, which simply need to be navigated. Sometimes this can be as minor as your bag ending up in Hamburg when it’s supposed to be in Berlin, as unlucky as contracting swine flu in Mexico, or as downright scary as ending up in a knife fight in a back alley in Spain (more on those stories another time).

Of all the travel inconveniences I’ve experienced over years of vagabonding, however, the one which happens with undoubtedly the most frequency is being cornered into paying off the police. Sometimes this is my fault, sometimes it’s someone else’s fault, and other times it’s nothing more than rampant corruption. Either way, I’ve paid off the police enough times while traveling to warrant mentioning it with some authority.

One thing I want to set straight, however, is that I have never intentionally bribed the police, because that, I believe, is illegal. In every situation where money has exchanged hands between myself and an officer of the law the idea was proposed to me without my offering it first. I don’t by any means condone corruption because it’s one of the largest social cancers plaguing much of the developing world. Nevertheless, when staring down the barrel of a sticky situation there is often too little time for letting your morals get the better of you.

It’s worthy of mentioning that all of these situations occurred while driving vehicles in Latin America. If the idea of confrontations with police officers doesn’t rank high on your list of travel plans, perhaps my number one rule of advice would be avoid operating vehicles in Latin America.

If your bucket list includes a surf safari across Central America or driving the length of Highway 1, however, I offer this mini-survival guide for navigating an awkward situation in places where the lines of justice and extortion are frequently blurred.Rule #1: Anticipate the scenario.

Just like you shouldn’t travel with any item you don’t fully expect to get stolen or lost, you should never drive in a foreign country and expect everything is going to be ok. One solution is to take a pre-determined amount of money, usually around $20-$40, and stick it in the glove box as a precautionary measure. In Mexico, this is officially known as “la mordida,” (the bite), and on about 50 percent of trips to Mexico I have found myself needing to pay off the police with the money stashed aside for just that reason. If you expect that you’re going to be hassled and plan accordingly you already have the upper hand.

Rule #2: Let them do the talking.

In situations like these, the issue of who is right and who is wrong is completely null and void. Arguing will get you nowhere except into a deeper hole.

Usually, what will happen is the police will lay out a long, difficult series of events, which need to take place in order for you to right your horrendous wrong. This often involves talk of following them to the police station, the arrangement of court dates, the confiscation of your passport, or your inability to leave the country now that you are a roadside criminal. Often times fear tactics are also employed in that they will most likely mention you are going to be arrested and potentially spend some time in jail.

Regardless of how scary the situation gets, however, just keep letting them talk because usually it’s building up to them offering you the easy way out.

Having been pulled over for “speeding” in a rural town in Costa Rica, the policeman even launched into a long-winded dialogue about how proceeds from traffic violations were now going to underprivileged Costa Rican children and how my wife and I would need to drive to the capital of San Jose immediately to pay our $240 fine at a specifically named bank. Then, as expected, the offer was laid out before us.

“Or, we could always just take care of it right here.”

One $20 bill and five minutes later, we were headed towards Playa Samara completely free and clear.

Rule #3: Only leave a small amount of cash in your wallet and hide the rest elsewhere.

In Uruguay, there is a law which mandates headlights must be turned on regardless of whether it’s day or night. Having just made a bathroom stop my wife and I had forgotten to turn the lights back on, and in the twelve seconds it took me to realize the mistake, police at a roadside checkpoint had already seized upon the opportunity.

I again endured the long-winded diatribe about how our passports would be seized, we’d miss our flight, have to appear in court in three weeks in Montevideo, etc. and so on. I was then made to step out of the car and follow the policeman towards the back of his vehicle.

Opening the passenger side door so as to block the line of sight for oncoming traffic, he threw me the much-anticipated olive branch.

“You want to make your flight right?”

“Yes sir.”

“You don’t want your wife to see you go to jail do you?”

“No sir.”

“2,000 Uruguayos.”

The equivalent of $100, I explained that I simply didn’t have that much on me. This, of course, was the truth, because I had only left $40 in my wallet for precisely this reason. The rest was in my backpack sitting safely in the backseat.

“It’s everything I have,” I explained, being sure to dramatically open my wallet and show its empty recesses.

Placing the green and red Uruguayo notes beneath a piece of paper on his clipboard I was allowed to swiftly return to my car and drive away.

Rule #4: Follow directions and you will be fine.

Of all the times I’ve been forced to pay the police, things really were looking pretty dire in Tijuana, Mexico. Having spotted empty beer cans in the front of our truck, a bicycle cop concluded that our sun-bleached pack of surf friends must have been drinking and driving. Though the cans were left over from our lunch in Ensenada, this was a point we had little way of proving. According to the policeman there was nothing we could do and we were all going to jail.

Seeing as the official judicial policy of Mexico is essentially “guilty until proven innocent,” the idea of spending the night in a Tijuana prison was beginning to appear more and more likely.

Then, as quickly as we had been pulled over, we just as quickly were told to leave. Before nervously pulling back into the border line, however, we received some very curious and detailed instructions.

“The cross. It costs $80. You will buy it under the bridge.”

In no mood to ask questions we resumed our spot in the border line more than a little shaken. Though we were back and moving and on the road, however, we couldn’t lose the feeling that this encounter wasn’t over.

Sure enough, a quarter mile up the road, while stopped in gridlock border traffic, a street vendor approached us with a faux-wood crucifix of Jesus. As had been prophesied by the policeman, he approached us while underneath a bridge. Knowing full well what to do, we handed the vendor the aforementioned $80. As a final slap in the face we weren’t even allowed to keep the cross.

I would later find out that in an effort to crack down on police corruption, cameras had been installed to monitor the shady dealings of roadside police. The cameras, as it would happen, are not able to see beneath the bridges.

So does the fact that you can get away with paying your way out of traffic violations mean I recommend reckless irresponsibility while abroad? Of course not. Preying on tourists who have laughably little rights may be a devious way to earn a buck, but unfortunately, with the depressed level of foreign wages and low government pay, it’s a twisted means towards making ends meet.

There are many whom will cry foul and claim that succumbing to “la mordida” is simply like feeding the bears in the woods – if you encourage bad habits they will cease to go away. Whether you choose to do so is ultimately up to you, but should you find yourself in a situation like those described above, may this long-winded log of my own personal bad decisions serve as an illicit road map for procuring your much-deserved freedom.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here.

[Images courtesy of: blmurch,, and tiffa130 on Flickr]