I had my luggage searches tons of times, which is expected, throughout my travels in Latin America – at bus stations, mid-bus rides, at train stations, and more – but I’ve only been physically searched by a police officer in a hostel once, in Cartagena, Colombia, and never personally experienced any police extortion.
Granted, I was hanging out with the wrong people at the time and we had a few warnings and it was no surprise to anyone that the police showed up.
But I’ve heard tons of police extortion horror stories from travelers who have been cornered by police and told to withdraw all of their fees from the ATM; so; how do you avoid and/or get out of these situations? First, let’s talk about how you find yourself in these situations.
Know Your Surroundings, and Friends
When you’re backpacking you meet so many new people every day and you never really get to know them that well so you could easily find yourself around people who you wouldn’t normally spend time with. Hanging around with the wrong people who’re into things that you’re not aware of is the easiest way to find yourself being searched by the police.
If the police find any drugs on any of your ‘friends’ that you’re hanging out with then there’s a chance that they will make all of you pay. Police rarely every send tourists to jail for consuming drugs but they definitely will look for ways to extort you and they’re professionals at it. Hopefully, only the person who is caught with the drugs will have to pay but you never know what will happen in those situations and that’s why it’s best to stay away from backpackers who may get you into trouble.
Secondly, know your surroundings. Stay in safe areas, tourist areas, walk during daylight and never walk alone.
When I was in Tulum, a group of my friends was robbed by the police when they were walking back from the beach at 4 am. The police, shining flashlights on their faces, made all of them stand in line and went through their pockets, wallets, and purses one-by-one and took all the money the found.
Fortunately, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was back at the hostel with food poisoning otherwise, I would have been with them. They weren’t bad people and they didn’t have any drugs on them but they were walking the streets at the wrong time and they ran into the wrong people, though clearly not the worst that could have happened at 4 am in Mexico.
Another group of friends I traveled with got robbed in Medellin, Colombia because they just happened to be in the wrong alley. The police cornered them at an ATM at the end of the alley and made them withdraw all their funds and give it to them.
For this reason, it’s good to have withdrawal limits set on your debit card and call before you travel and ask if you can decrease the limit to just $100 – if that will be enough for you to survive on.
Police Extortion is Illegal. Say No
First off, tell the cop to pound sand. Police extortion is illegal so they’re really just trying to scare you to see if you’re going to give up the money. For the most part, these cops won’t get violent or even threaten violence but they know that you’re a tourist and they’re going to try to intimidate you. So the first thing you should do is tell them no, you’re not getting any money for them.
If you were caught with illegal drugs then it is probably in your best interest to give them some money and get it over with quick. It is usually about $200 USD (640,000 Colombian pesos) that will get you off but you may be able to get off with less. If you’re going to carry illegal drugs, it’s best to make sure you always have this money on you so that you can pay them off immediately without them having to take you to the ATM where they can try to make you withdraw more money.
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