Dealing with corrupt police
We'll walk you through the typical bribery scenario: getting pulled over, description of the (likely) bogus infraction, threat of a multa (fine), request for a bribe, and how you can avoid paying the bribe.
Getting pulled over by the police - typical scenario
If you travel for any length of time in Latin America, chances are the police will attempt to extract a bribe. Police are often underpaid and find tourists an easy source of income, so any foreign vehicles or people on the road will often be targeted.
In order to learn how to avoid a bribe, here is a typical scenario:
Driving through Honduras on a main highway, we saw a few orange cones in the road and two policemen. They pointed at our car and motioned for us to stop, so we pulled over and rolled down the window. Speaking in Spanish, the officer asked us for our driver's license, and we handed it over. He then asked us if we had a safety triangle or fire extinguisher in the car, and we told him we did not. He explained that in Honduras you must have both of these items in your vehicle at all times, that he would have to write us a ticket for $150 USD, and he would confiscate our license until we paid the fine. He said we could pay the fine in a nearby town and get our license back anytime after 5 pm tomorrow. After explaining to him that we were on our way to another town 400 kilometers further south, he pointed out that he would be able to take $50 USD on the spot and save us the hassle of staying in the area another day to pay the fine.
This situation can be broken down into three main parts.
First is the alleged “violation”. A common violation in Central America countries is the “safety triangle law”. You will be asked if you have a safety triangle and/or fire extinguisher in the vehicle. According to a local Honduran, there may or may not be a law like this on the books. (note: In Colombia you are required to have a triangle/cone and fire extinguisher.) Either way, it is only used by police to extract bribes from tourists. Other “violations” commonly encountered include: running a red light or stop sign, passing in a no passing zone, and speeding. Be aware that any moving violations of which you are accused may be half truths or completely fabricated. For instance, you may be pulled over for passing in a no passing zone, but know you were the third person in a row to pass a horse pulling a cart full of chickens down a major freeway.
Now that the officer has explained your “violation”, the second part of this bribe will be the explanation of the dire consequences of your alleged actions. This will involve a large fine, along with confiscation of any documents you have handed over. The officer will explain that payment of the fine and the retrieval of your documents can only be done at an inconvenient police station location (like a city you passed through two hours ago or one three hours out of your way), and at an inconvenient time, such as the afternoon of the next day. If you ask for specific directions to the location where you can pick up your documents, you won't get a straight answer.
So far, the police officer has seemingly done his job - he pointed out your violation (or violations), and told you of what is going to happen next. Unless he has completely made up the violation, you may be in doubt at this point whether you are in a bribe situation. The third part of this situations will remove any doubts. This is where the police office expects you to show your dismay at the high price of the fine or the inconvenience of waiting around to pay the fine. Hard to not be either upset or bummed out at this point in the process. This is the moment where the more practiced officer will feign sympathy for your current situation and spend a few moments pondering a way to help you out of your current predicament. He will then think of an easy solution to your problems - by handing over a smaller amount of cash to him directly, all will be forgiven and you can proceed merrily on your way.
Now you can be sure that this is a bribe situation. This officer is not trying to uphold the law or protect any citizens. He has put you in a tough position, and given you an easy way out. The easiest way out at this point is for you to hand over the cash, or at least bargain him down further. Don't forget that all prices are negotiable in Latin America. If you act indecisive enough, the office may help you out by dropping the price.
Now that we went through the case study and understand the process, we can now consider ways to circumvent the process
Don't hand over original documents
If you get stopped by a police officer, only hand over photocopies of your documents. This may seem unusual, but if the police officer is expecting a bribe, the only way he can get it from you is if you have something to loose. If you don't hand him any important documents, there is nothing he can do. I would expect that if you did this in Canada or the United States, you may find yourself stuffed and cuffed quickly. However, if an officer is looking for a bribe, he is not going to bring you to the police station, as he has less of a chance getting a bribe from you there. In fact, many tourist police in Mexico will have “tourists pay no fines” written on the police cars in Spanish. In Guatemala, documents are considered personal properly, and it is illegal for an officer to take them. If an officer insists on seeing your original documents, insist that you will follow him to the local police station and present them there. An exception to this rule is police officers at border crossings and the Mexican military checkpoints. The military checkpoints in Mexico may be look more intimidating than a lone police officer but are very professional and courteous.
If you happily agree that you would love to drive 30 miles out of your way and stay in the middle of nowhere for an extra night so you can pay the fine, this will likely confuse the police officer. Accustomed to anger and arguments at this point in the bribe scenario, they will be thrown off guard with your willingness to comply with their ridiculous demands. After repeating that you understand, the police officer will often realize you have called his bluff, hand you back the documents, and let you continue on your way without paying any bribes.
Stay firm and stand your ground
If you do hand over originals and don't feel like playing along, often firmly demanding that you receive your license and stating point-blank that you will pay no bribes can work as well. There may be more heat involved in this discussion, but asking for the officer's badge number and name can cause them to relent and you can qualify your request by saying that you need to report the details of any incidents involving the police to your embassy.
This is often the least effective method, and may result in disaster if the officer decides to call YOUR bluff, and tows your vehicle. Shouting at officers when angry at their corrupt behaviour has this effect, as reported by ihana.com. Remember, they DO have all the power, and if they take a strong dislike to you or just want to teach you a lesson for being an arrogant gringo, they can and will make up a violation and punish you for it. If your vehicle is impounded in the most corrupt latin american countries, don't expect to find anything of value left inside when you retrieve it from the impound (including the stereo and tires).
Don't speak any Spanish
Even if you do speak Spanish, pretending that you don't understand anything the police officer is staying can sometimes work. If the officer starts to believe that you are taking more time than you are worth, and that you genuinely don't understand what is happening, he may let you go. Many police officers will speak some rudimentary English though, so if you speak another language besides English or Spanish, replying in that language may also through him off.
This has the potential to backfire badly, but can also take the steam out of some cops' strongest bullshit. When they tell you that your vehicle is illegal on the roads of XXX country because of XXX feature, tell them that you contacted the ministry of tourism and the police headquarters by email, forwarding photos etc. before entering the country, and that you were assured by every possible ranking official that every single feature of your car is acceptable for tourist travel in their country. They may not believe you, but they know they can't prove it's not true, and finding out for sure would mean contacting someone way above their heads over a minor issue when it's obvious they're doing something illegal - they're not going to do it. If you get a dismissive response to this, insist that they contact the people you've mentioned for confirmation of your claims - they won't do it, and unless they do they have to accept what you say.
Best results are often achieved when combining all of the above techniques at appropriate times in the discussion... doing this can take some practice. You can start off with "don't speak spanish" by having a very difficult understanding them (even if you understand perfectly) to draw things out and make them get bored and wonder if it's worth it. Once they know they've made it clear that they want you to pay a fine, continue with a mild "stand your ground" by politely but firmly calling them on any made-up laws that you know for a fact are false and presenting any safety equipment asked for. If the officer hasn't given up after 20 minutes of hand signals, painfully communicated lies, and false starts, they may well finally give up when you use the "play along technique" and tell them that you haven't got any cash but cheerfully offer to pay the fine with credit card or cheque.