CCs, DPs, lawless blue boys, gun slingers, bent coppers, crooked cops—call them what you will. They exist in many countries, even in most of ours. It’s a topic, though, few want to talk about. People will look away, tugging at collars. And then, as if the room was wiretapped, in hushed voices they will tell what has happened to him, or to her, or a relative, a friend.
We feel uncomfortable, even paranoid, talking about it. But we must—if for nothing else but to warn others.
All in all, Colombian police are very friendly and helpful. Even Jack and Russell, two bikers from the US, attest to that. While in Cartagena, they were leaving a nightclub at 3 a.m. Four officers stopped them, to counsel them on returning to their hotel at that late hour. In the course of the friendly chat, the tourists were asked to see their IDs, so they handed over their wallets. Everything fine, everything in order. Be safe going back, the officers told the foreigners. But when they got back to their room, one discovered $80 had been lifted from his wallet. “But it was okay,” he said. “They were so kind and friendly. Never met nicer cops in my life.”
Indeed, like elsewhere, there are a few bad apples. Ask Colombians about it and the reaction is the same as anywhere: They look away, tug on collars and speak in low voices. Hostel owners say, “Yes, we warn foreigners about it.” Stories abound of “on-the-spot fines,” drugs being planted and other shady acts. The worst areas are where the foreigners go most: Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Caribbean coast destinations like Cartagena, Santa Marta and Taganga.
On the beach at Taganga, it is common to see police officers stopping young travelers, searching through their day packs and sometimes even frisking them.
Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya.” Literally it means, “Don’t give papaya”—advising you: Don’t make yourself a mark. A while back, On the Road—Colombia took on this topic, in the sense of how people set themselves up as a target for thieves. But it also can apply to dealings with officials. Maggie (also from the US) and Daaf (Holland) are perfect examples of this.
I met Daaf in Bogotá. He had been traveling throughout Colombia, taking in the country’s natural beauty—and products. Three times police had stopped and searched him. And three times, he had to pay $200 “on-the-spot fines” because he had marijuana on him. Daaf was a bit down. He was having to end his trip earlier than planned because he had run out of money.
Maggie and her boyfriend, Mike, also “gave papaya.” One evening in Cartagena, they went and to get a small bag from a dealer from whom they’d bought several times previously. She took it and returned to their hostel. A few minutes later, Mike was stopped by a uniformed officer who frisked him—and found a small bag of weed in Mike’s back pocket. The policeman hauled Mike off to the police station and left. For hours Mike insisted the bag was not his and that he was set up. After several hours of complaining, he was released. (Luckily Mike is fluent is Spanish.)
I told Maggie that perhaps the dealer had set them up with the police. “But we had bought from him several times before!” she insisted. Yes, but that could have been to gain your confidence, or perhaps he had to cut a deal with the police to save his own neck. “You think?” she asked me.
When I asked locals about how travelers can lessen there chance of these kinds of encounters, or what they should do if approached, Colombians were at a loss. Really, there is nothing much that you can do. If approached by a police officer, be courteous. Try to have a reliable person witness the encounter. Be aware of the image you are projecting: Do you look like a “hippie” or a drunken tourist that can easily be taken advantage of? Do you look like someone rolling in money? Also, no matter how often we say it, it cannot hurt to say it again: Don’t mess with drugs while on vacation in a foreign land. It’s the perfect way of setting yourself up for “fines” or worse.
The majority of police in Colombia are very friends and helpful, though. So don’t be too paranoid about them on your explorations of this wonderfully diverse and fascinating country.
Editor’s note: All names have been changed to protect identities.
Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA COLOMBIA. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.