We were just outside Nazca, on the edge of the desert, when the cops pulled us over.
Just a routine checkpoint, I thought. Nothing unusual. We’d been pulled over maybe a dozen times between here and Cartagena. Most times, they see that we’re tourists and wave us on. Sometimes, they want to check our licence and insurance papers, and after seeing they are in order, we’re free to go.
But not this guy. He wanted dinero, and he was going to get it one way or another.
“Te olvides las luces,” he told me.
Fuck. He was right. I didn’t have my headlights on – a legal requirement at all times in Peru, day or night. I switched them on and gave him a sheepish grin, but he said nothing and walked away with our insurance.
After waiting five minutes or so, I realised he wasn’t coming back. He wanted me to come to him. I stepped out of the car, the harsh glare of the sun bouncing off the road, the sand, the mudbrick hovels. I approached the officer at his patrol car, trying to appear confident.
There are many schools of thought on how to deal with a corrupt police officer, but it’s hardly an exact science. What works on one might not work on another. Do you feign obsequiousness, or will this arouse contempt in him? Do you employ bravado, or will this be repaid with aggression? In the heat of the moment, it’s impossible to know what the right course of action may be, and many have come unstuck after playing their cards wrong. Your decision-making skills become compromised by the unfamiliarity and stress of the situation, at least if it’s your first time, as it was mine.
The two most commonly suggested tactics are the following. Neither of them are foolproof:
- Play dumb and try to outlast him
- Ask for the boss or to be taken to the station
Option 2 was off the table for me. It’s true that my lights hadn’t been on, so I didn’t have a leg to stand on. Bringing El Jefe into the situation could hardly improve matters. If anything, it would mean that I’d just have to pay more people off.
Instead, I looked the cop straight in his chubby, childlike face and played the dumb gringo card. No entiendo, bro. But he was having none of it. He kept repeating the fact that I had made an infraction, pointing to an official document outlining the fines.
In reality, the relative legality of my driving was essentially a moot point – most Peruvian drivers are so outrageously in excess of the legal limits of speed, roadworthiness and intoxication that my minor headlight infraction was nothing more than a technicality. Later in the trip, a police officer near Lake Titicaca attempted to hustle us for not being in possession of an International Drivers Licence – not a legal requirement in Bolivia. We didn’t pay him, but he blocked our passage and returned us to La Paz.
What are you going to say? It’s a tense situation and you don’t exactly have your Almanac of South American Road Laws handy. They have the position of power and the ostensible rules are nothing more than levers – something that can be used against you, but certainly nothing resembling laws.
Technicality or not, Señor Nasca had all the leverage he needed and was prepared to use it. Simply put, I was fucked. 972 soles is the official fine, he told me. I have no way of knowing if this figure was legit, and I assume it isn’t, but the documentation looked official enough. He’d settle for half that amount, he said. I told him I didn’t have that much, that I only had 200. He accepted this, quickly tucking the two crisp, blue notes under the backpack on the passenger seat of the cruiser. Then the motherfucker had the audacity to shake my hand and wave me goodbye.
Both appalled and relieved, I wandered back to the car. Inside, the mood was sombre and the silence was heavy. I started the engine and guided the van up a series of precipitous mountain switchbacks, replaying the event in my mind all the while. It was difficult for me to see how I might have taken an alternative course of action. I’d felt between a rock and a hard place – pay the bribe or pay the fine. I felt like a chump, but rationalised it to myself by deciding that I had made the best of a bad situation.
Later, when I put the issue to the peanut gallery on Facebook, the response surprised me. Just pay it, most said. It’s a form of local governance. It’s just a tax. No big deal. And yet, common wisdom in the Overlanding community would say the opposite. Many would argue that bribes simply beget more bribes, that relenting and paying the officer is supporting corruption and perpetuating the system.
It’s hard to say which of these perspectives is the right one, and my suspicion is that the truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. Later, I came to realise that the exchange had rattled me because I had been looking at it through the lens of Western morality. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, and morality doesn’t keep you warm at night when you’re locked in a concrete cell.
I came to Peru, Peru didn’t come to me. That means that I have to accept what I find here, because at the end of the day, I’m a guest. I eventually came to realise that from the perspective of an underpaid, overworked Peruvian cop, a bribe doesn’t look so crooked. To him, it’s a case of mutual benefit – you scratch my back by giving me a few of your gringo dollars, I scratch yours by not enforcing the full penalty. He sees it as a business transaction with positive outcomes for each party, which is why he was able to shake my hand and wish me luck at its closure.
Even though I’m now able to accept the inevitable reality of police corruption, that doesn’t mean I want to part with more dinero than necessary. The experience has actually left me more prepared to pay a bribe, so long as it’s very modest. A good friend of mine had a cunning plan – keep a decoy wallet with a few quid in it as your offering. That way, both of you get to save face and avoid an uncomfortable, potentially hostile situation.
I think that’s what I’ll do in the future. That, and keep my fucking headlights on.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
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