Yesterday, Tuesday, we picked up our casa in Zarate, and after a 2 ½ hour drive, wound up at a camping site 20 minutes from where we started. Long story here on GPS systems and what an exit looks like in Argentina, but that’s not the point of this post.
Being stopped by the police, with an attempted shake-down, is.
Reading through a great many blogs on driving through South America, the issue of police stopping you and “demanding” a bribe, is a common topic. In fairness, most people say that this is more of a problem in Central America, and that in South America the police are polite and helpful. During our last visit to Argentina, Karen and I were stopped once in our rental car, but the police office only wanted to point out that we had forgotten to turn on our lights.
So, as we started driving north on Wednesday, we were aware of the possibility of corrupt policemen and a little apprehensive. No more than 30 minutes into our drive, we get pulled over by the Gendarmerie Federal at an ad-hoc stop.
The gendarme walks up to the casa and asks for documentation. We had all of our paperwork – title, registration, insurance, copies of driver’s license, etc. – neatly organized in a file; we hand him the registration and insurance, he inspects, nods, hands to paperwork back, says: “Have a nice day”, and away we go.
We felt relieved and oh so much better. Our documentation worked. The gendarme was nice and polite, and probably picked our vehicle to inspect because he was curious about it. All was good. Until 20 minutes later.
This time we are picked to be inspected by a police officer, in the province of Entres Rio, driving along the major highway leading north, right outside a police building that has been built in the middle of nowhere. This police officer is not as friendly. He asks for documentation which we hand to him. Finding nothing wrong with the documentation, he walks around the casa, and then stops in front of the truck and calls for me to join him. He points to the bumper in front of the truck, and then takes me to the rear of the truck and points to the bumper there. He indicates that the bumper must be mounted to the camper, not the truck, because the camper sticks out a foot and a half beyond the truck. He is also making serious noise about “velocidad” (speed) and “relectores” (reflectors).
The police officer seems serious and professional. He’s wearing a professional uniform. This is a police stop that all vehicles have to drive through and the police randomly pick vehicles to inspect. And we are right outside the police building. There is no doubt that we have been stopped by a real live police officer. So my first thoughts are “F…, a bumper on the camper? How are we going to get that done? Why didn’t anyone mention this before?”. But in the back of my mind, I’m also thinking: “Wait a sec, why didn’t the guy who just stopped us 30 minutes ago mention any of this?…”
The police officer continues to speak earnestly and seriously and uses the words “infracciones vehiculares” often. Vehicular infraction does not sound good. After a few minutes of me not understanding much of what he is saying, both due to the language barrier, and to not wanting him to be able to communicate with me, he says that this is a case for El Jefe, and walks into the police building.
El Jefe comes out of the police building a few minutes later and waves for me to join him. I join him in his small cubicle where he sits behind his desk, looks seriously at his computer, speaks rapid Spanish, mentions velocidad numerous times, reflectores numerous times, and infraciones vehiculares every other sentence.
Now, I’m getting the point that velocidad refers to a sticker we don’t have on the rear of our casa stating its maximum allowed speed. And that the reflectors are strips of red reflector tape that every vehicle other than a car apparently must have. I’m also convinced that this is a shake down, not a serious stop.
I ask El Jefe to come outside to the truck because I can’t understand a word he’s saying, and my wife speaks some Spanish. I also want to get him out of his office, his turf. He comes out to the truck and Karen and the first police office join us as well. El Jefe goes through his litany of issues once again, and we ask for clarification on the stickers we need. And where we can buy them. He says, I think, that we can buy them anywhere, but the lack of stickers together with the lack of bumper is an infraction, and throws out the number 1,300 pesos, about US $300.
Karen tenses up seriously and is getting very upset. I tell El Jefe that we don’t have anywhere near that amount of cash, more on the order of 100 pesos (US $25) and ask him if they take credit cards, of which we have plenty; knowing full well (or thinking I know full well), that they will never take a credit card for a shake-down. He says no, and asks for US dollars. We say we have none.
I offer to go get my wallet – which I actually have in my back pocket – from the truck. Pretending to get the wallet, I take all the cash out of it, leaving just 110 pesos, US $25, and return to the conversation.
When I return, El Jefe has left the group. With little money to be made, he has more important clients to shake down. Karen, in the meantime, is talking with the original police officer, but she’s also crying. Now I start to get irritated and tell the officer to back off from my wife. Karen says she’s OK, and the police officer is telling her to stay calm, things aren’t that bad. The police officer now says that the bumper is not an issue, but the lack of the velocidad sticker and the reflectores is. I show him the wallet with 110 pesos, and the numerous credit cards, and state that this is all we have. Karen is still crying, and the police officer is looking uncomfortable.
He leaves us to talk with El Jefe one more time. When he returns, he says all is well, we don’t owe anything, but make sure to buy the sticker and the reflectores. And we’re off, and we did.
In the truck, I turn to Karen and ask her, since she had been crying, if she’s having a heart attack due to the stress. Karen says: “No, I thought it might help the situation if I cried, so I did”.
Lessons learned: only carry a small amount of cash visible in your wallet. Be patient and play along even if it’s a shake down. And most importantly, and I know it’s a bad pun, have a wife who does cry for me in Argentina.
PS: One hour after the above stop, we were again picked by the police to be pulled over. This time the officer was polite, our docs were inspected, and we were sent on our way.