Are the Police Always Your Friend?

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Not surprisingly I was feeling a bit deflated after hearing the robbery story that day. While earlier that morning I had decided to take out my DSLR, I resigned to the fact that I may not be able to safely take my camera out for a while.

Why do people want to rob me?

Unfortunately the day did not get better. After hiding out in the hostel for the afternoon I conquered my fear and went for dinner and drinks with Michael from GoSeeWrite.

After midnight I started walking back to the hostel with two girls also staying there. I had shared the news of the robbery that day so we were speed walking with determination.

And we dutifully turned the corner with suspicion, being prepared to turn on our heels if we saw a man wth a machete.

As we’re huffing it back to the hostel at lightening speed I hear a motorcycle behind us. I’m a bit paranoid as motorcycles are never good and with about 25ft to the hostel it catches up and I see that it’s the police.

They must be escorting us to make sure we’re okay, right?


They tell us to stop and hand them our bags to search. They question us about where we’ve been and where we’re going. 

After they find nothing I ask in Spanish if we are okay to leave, and the older policeman is puzzled and says “oh hablas espanol?”
I answer “si” and his expression changes and his face softens.

He stops questioning us and then launches into a big diatribe about how we should not walk alone and we need to be careful.

I explain that’s why we travel as a group and were walking so quickly.

He let’s us go and we wish him “buenas noches.”

It was one of the most peculiar situations I have encountered. I don’t know why he was surprised any of us spoke Spanish as often I speak the least Spanish in a group but I am certain it changed the dynamic of how we were treated.

For me it was an affirmation of why I wanted to learn Spanish, not only to communicate with locals but to be able to understand and communicate in situations such as these.

Safely inside the hostel gates one of the girls told me the same guy stopped a group of them the night before and searched them all.

Knowing that they were looking for drugs but would likely never want the hassle of the paperwork associated with arresting a tourist for possession she guessed they were looking for bribes.

What do you think?


Join the Conversation

  1. Sounds like your having quite the time at the moment.

    Probably not be the last time your Spanish comes in handy in one of these situations (not to worry you haha)

  2. Carmie Brogan says:

    I know, first hand, how important it was that you could speak Spanish when we were in Ecuador. But abuse of authority can happen everywhere.

  3. Since one of my best friends is a older than me and spent most of her life in Columbia, I would say they are just racist and trying to intimidate you hoping to find drugs and then get bribs. She says the whole system is more corrupt than we could comprehend. And from experience with other Hispanic people, sometimes they could careless if you know Spanish, they’ll just pretend like you speak so bad they can’t understand and still be mean and racist towards you.

  4. It’s a shame, but it sounds like it, as the others are hinting, a bribe attempt. We didn’t encounter this much action in Taganga! Lol Our exciting moment was the ice cream guy floating his cart in the water selling ice cream.

  5. It makes a world of a difference when you speak the language of your destination. Many times I’ve been approached by policemen or locals in Central and South America and as soon as I respond in spanish they seem to “connect” better and get friendlier.

    It’s also great when you are shopping at street markets. They tend to slash those “tourist” prices and give you a better deal. While in Peru I went shopping for a scarf with a friend of mine from England… The lady wanted to sell it to him for 70 soles. I went back to the lady a few minutes later, spoke spanish, and she sold it to me for 10 soles. HUGE difference!

  6. The Jetpacker says:

    Call us cynical, but we tend to think cops view tourists as cash cows.

    But that’s what happens when you live near Mexico and you hear stories about cops trying to bust Americans on bogus charges just to coerce a bribe.

    Maybe he was hoping you wouldn’t speak Spanish so he could get away with something like that.

  7. Zablon Mukuba says:

    sometimes calling the police can be another problem as they will side with their local people and arrest you instead

  8. It seems like they were looking for bribes. It’s a shame that that sort of system exists. I always wonder who’s fault it is.
    At least you were safe, that’s all that matters.

  9. It does sound quite a bit like it may have been a bribe attempt but it’s always hard to tell, sometimes even when you’re right there.

    I agree that it makes a world of difference being able to speak the language of the country a person’s visiting although it’s not really possible if someone is doing a RTW. In Mexico, Central and South America I heard over and over again how being able to speak the local language saved traveller’s behinds.

  10. Makes you appreciate the Ktown cops who will drive you home after a night of drinking!

  11. Who knows? It could have been a bribe attempt, but perhaps something else like simply wanting to bother. Knowing the local language always helps doesn’t it?

  12. Your Message Hard to say what their motive was. Definitely sounds like your Spanish changed the situation for the better.

  13. The police aren’t always the good guys, especially in countries with guerrillas and cartels. It is an overly dangerous job, often underpaid, for which there is very little preparation, bribes become a necessary part in their incomes. While they can save you from greater dangers, keep your money out of sight and don’t incur in any infraction that gives them basis to demand a bribe. Many cops are good guys, but not all of them are.

  14. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler says:

    That doesn’t sound very fun! I’m glad you were able to make it out of there unscathed and that it was the police that ran into you instead of the guy with the machete! I have heard stories like this in Columbia and for years I thought it wasn’t safe for travel. Your blog has shown me that there are definitely areas that are safe, but there is still obviously some abuse of power by the policia. But as some people said above, that can also happen anywhere.

  15. Carmie Brogan says:

    You have to love that Ryan puts it all into perspective……

  16. Ah… the backpacker life. Gotta love the experiences you get to have.

  17. Future backpackers have so much to learn from you. Knowing that the police aren’t always interested in your safety is a chilling lesson to learn, one I know well! Glad this story had a happy ending!

  18. There’s something about speaking another person’s language that puts them just one step closer to you. In this case, it saved you the hassle of being hassled. I remember being in S. Korea and not speaking the language well and meeting a Korean girl who didn’t speak English but who was studying French, a language I studied for almost five years. There I was, neither of us speaking in our own native tongues but finding a way to communicate across the miles. It’s one of my favorite travel memories. I think I need to write a blog post about it, lol!

  19. I’m thinking I’m so glad i’ve enrolled in a Spanish class ahead of our S. America travel next year…

  20. You are right they prob were looking for a bribe but thankfully nothing serious happened and you went along your way. Its sad you cant trust the police but that can happen anywhere.

  21. This is such a good reminder, especially for new travelers who assume that the police around the world are the same as they are back home.

  22. So glad you know some Spanish–even if it’s just a little bit. I don’t like the way these encounters sound. Not cool. I’ll bet those police are looking for bribes–hoping they’ll find something so they can intimidate you, etc.

    Anyway, glad you’re ok….and thanks for sharing this info with us.

  23. I think they were somehow planning to leverage a perceived vulnerability, because you were female and foreign. The policeman realizing you knew Spanish turned the tide, making you and your friends seem less vulnerable, and therefore, less attractive to pick on. This makes me so mad! Yet so happy and proud that there are women out there seeing the world, showing it who’s the boss!

  24. Amazing that he did an about-face just because you spoke Spanish to him. Like you say, maybe he was going to bribe you – or rob you – and figured you wouldn’t have any recourse because he’s a cop, but then when he found out you could speak the local language he saw you as more than just another vulnerable gringa. Or maybe he was just a weird guy.

  25. I dunno. We had nothing but good experiences with the people of Colombia, cops included. Granted, both of us speak pretty good Spanish. As far as I am concerned, as long as you don’t do anything illegal and stick to the truth, nothing will happen, which is what you did perfectly. It sucks that this kind of things happen, but such are the annoyances of traveling sometimes: asi es la vida.

  26. Cathy Sweeney says:

    Glad that got through that situation as well as you did. I’m sure it did help that you speak Spanish. Regardless of his true motives, it obviously made a difference. You’ve been having quite an adventure!

  27. Yikes, the police are known to be corrupt on the coast of Colombia. I haven’t heard anything in other parts but so many stories about the coastal police, especially in Taganga. At least they didn’t take advantage of you guys.

  28. Agreed. A bit fishy…

    But – maybe there’s things we don’t know here. Maybe local drug smugglers have been dressing up carriers to look like tourists and sending them out, and the police are cracking down. Maybe they’re doing random spot checks.

    (Maybe they were looking for a machete). 😉

    My thinking on such things tends to err on the side of naivety, because I’ve got no experience of police being that bad. (Unworldly in this respect, I am).

    But I know it happens, and respect that.

    …but at the same time, it’s easy to condemn, even hypothetically. There’s a lot that could be going on there.

  29. The worst story I have heard about police supposedly happened in Colombia (was a third-person accounting) but as for me I had some great experiences with the police there. At least three times I stopped to ask some local police for directions or help in some way and ended up having a long and pleasant conversation with them. In all those cases I initiated contact and was speaking in Spanish so I can’t speak to any personal experiences of being approached by police or if I had tried English. I also imagine there is a big difference depending on the KIND of police you are dealing with (tourist, local, national, etc.).

  30. Ack I hate to make such a stereotype, but from experience and others experiences while travelling through South America I can’t help but say yes, they are looking for bribes. I myself took part in an experience of being forced to pay cops off in Peru, and I met more than a few people who had in Cusco. I also met a couple guys who had to pay the cops off in Colombia as well.

  31. Good one! I hate the police, as far as I am concerned, the majority of police in Latin America, Asia and Africa are nothing more than bribe takers. We just had 2 pay the border officers in Lao a bribe so they would give us an entry stamp, although we already had our visas. In USA I have encountered helpful cops, and in Western Europe most cops are helpful and nice. Great to have language skills.

  32. Claire (Travel Funny Travel Light) says:

    we found some corrupt police in Costa Rica. They stopped us in a “speed trap” asked for our friend’s documents and said he could not get them back until the next day. Oh, unless we paid some money right then and there. What to do? My friend paid about $50, got this passport back, and we were no sooner back in the car when the police hastily called it a night and deconstructed the “speed trap” And why not? They had just made in 10 minutes what they probably made in a week. Siiiigh. Life’s little lesson.

  33. Michael Hodson says:

    Perhaps the police questioned you, just because they found you interesting. Just like this — starting at 0:52

  34. Andrew Murray says:

    What a terrible shame. Hope things start to perk up a bit for you soon 🙂

  35. Devin the Travel Writer says:

    Personally, I think this speaks more to the benefits of speaking the language rather than just police looking to hassle visitors, still I know bad things happen every where.

    Hope you have a better trip.

  36. Wow, what a sketchy situation! Something similar happened to me when I was in Bangkok with friends. Someone in the group had smoked a cigarette and the police stopped him to say that he had to pay a smoking fine for smoking in public. He was told that he could pay them 3000 baht (around $100 USD) and they wouldn’t take him to the police station and write him up. We didn’t know what to think. They were in full uniform! In the end, we decided to call the tourist police and that’s when they decided to let my friend off with a “warning.” It’s unfortunate that you can’t even be sure if you can trust the police.

  37. I have a similar dodgy experience in Nicaragua. Made me so angry. They wouldn’t give me back my driver’s license, but then I threatened to go to the US Consulate and they finally gave it back. Grrrrr!!!

  38. Bali Signature Villas Rental and Management says:

    abuse can happen everywhere. You must be careful where ever you are.

  39. My experience is that they bribe the locals as well… it has nothing to do with you being a foreigner but with abuse of power… I always wonder if intimidating back would help… ‘do you know who I am?’ ‘What’s your name’ hehe, I guess if you play it well, it would work… like Andi did.

    Here in Argentina the latest new thing is not calling and driving… they wanted to give a fine to a friend of mine, but when he insisted in getting the fine they didn’t want to give it, instead they wanted a bribe…

    Another story I’ve heard first hand is about some cops who wanted to give a fine for riding the moterbike from someone else…the poor guy lives in the countryside and went to the city and he really believed them and ended up paying…

  40. Interesting that using your Spanish helped. I’m not sure that is universal – I think it depends on what the cops are after.

    Lots of people, when driving at least, seem to prefer “playing dumb” and hoping the cops will get exasperated and give up on the shake-down. Others distract the cops with questions about destinations and directions.

    It’ll be interesting to see which strategies work for me.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Yeah believe me I have played dumb many times when people spoke Spanish and I understood them but did not want to do what they did.

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