Set up, like a bowling pin, knocked down…
It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’ve heard about the routine many times and with all my travels, it’s a bit of a miracle that it hasn’t happened before. As all my readers know, I smoke marijuana. I smoke it back home in the states and I smoke it when I’m wandering around the world. As a matter of fact, I think I have smoked it in every single country I have ever visited. Marijuana is available almost everywhere on the planet earth. Oddly enough though, it is also somewhat illegal almost everywhere. The reasons for this illegality are absolutely idiotic but I don’t presently wish to get into that issue. No doubt, in some places it’s more illegal than in others. And in some places it’s more available than in others. But the point is, because marijuana is illegal, it is always somewhat of an adventure acquiring it. It’s fun to break the laws of foreign countries and get away with it. It gives you contact with the underworld. You end up meeting all kinds of interesting people and having all kinds of strange experiences. I like to think of it as the marijuana acquisition traveling game. The funny thing about games is, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Two nights ago….. I lost.
When I return to the town of Santa Marta after my trek to the Lost City of Tayrona, they have no rooms left at the well known backpacker hostel called The Miramar. Accordingly, I have to go across the street to the Hotel Titanico. No matter, it’s actually a slightly better place and I can still pop over to the Miramar to use the internet and hang out with the traveling crowd if I want. Shortly after checking in, I go out on the streets in search of my favorite medicinal herb (marijuana). Sure enough, this is Colombia so I find some after a very short search and what I find is an incredible deal. I only pay the equivalent of four dollars but receive a substantial amount. Indeed, it is perhaps the biggest four dollar bag of grass in history. Good thing too, because I’m going to be in Santa Marta for a while and afterwards I’m going to Tayrona beach. I’m gonna want it all. But I’m no fool, so I hide my big quantity in a nice safe place inside my hotel room.
Two days later, in the evening, I am getting ready to go out for a while and I decide to bring a little weed with me. This is unusual for me. I don’t like to carry marijuana on my person when I’m walking around because there’s no shortage of overly enthusiastic asshole cops in the universe. But I’m heading over to the Miramar to find my Dutch friend Vim. And lots of people smoke on the roof over there and I am planning to participate. As a matter of social etiquette, I should have at least one joint to contribute to the communal potluck. So that’s what I bring. It’s really hardly anything; enough marijuana for 1 joint, maybe 2 grams, in other words, practically nothing. It has a street value of approximately 50 cents….
I go over to the Miramar and meet Vim just as he is exiting the building. “Hey,” he says, “you want to go out for some beers.”
“Of course,” I say “but I kind of want to smoke a joint first.”
“All right,” he says, “let’s go up to the roof.”
So we go back inside the Miramar and up to the roof. Unfortunately, the place is now so overflowing with people, that there are tents set up on the roof. There’s no room up there to even sit down, no one is smoking and it just doesn’t seem right. “Fuck it,” I say, “let’s just go get that beer. I can smoke the joint later.” And so we go outside to get a beer, and I, like a fool, have that tiny bit of marijuana in my pocket.
Outside the Miramar, it’s a two block walk to the main drag along the beach. But it’s a bit of a long scary two blocks. There’s only one street light, big dark buildings and the ever present smell of urine. Not that we have the least concern. It’s only two blocks after all. We are just going to the corner for a beer. What could possibly go wrong in such a short distance?
We walk about a block and a half on the dark street before we see the flashing lights and hear the siren. All of a sudden, the cop car pulls up next to us and two guys in cop uniforms jump out with their guns drawn. And the guns are not little pistols like an American cop would carry. What they have in their hands are big, scary, automatic weapons. “Put your hands against the wall and spread your legs.” They shout at us in Spanish. “Uh oh,” I think, “this could prove to be a problem.” Strangely, the thought occurs to me that the search that is about to be conducted on me right there on the street is probably illegal. Sure, it’s Colombia. But I must have some rights. There’s no way that the Santa Marta police department has a policy of harassing tourists in such a manner. These must be renegade cops who are breaking the law… Nevertheless, I do as I am told. It’s my nature to do as I’m told when a mean looking man points a very big gun at me.
I turn around and put my hands up against the wall. I am then subjected to a rather humiliating body search. I’m not stripped searched in the street but I might as well be. He reaches right in between my legs and grabs a hold of my balls. It is definitely not a pleasant feeling when a bad man with a big gun grabs a hold of the old huevos… But at least he doesn’t fondle me or molest me. He’s obviously just searching for drugs or anything incriminating and he’s very thorough with his search techniques.
After he has completely patted me down, he has me turn around and face him. He’s a short guy, but stocky, with wire rimmed glasses, short hair and a little deviant mustache. I could probably take him in a fight if not for his gun, billy club and other instruments of pain inducement. As he stares at me with his beady little eyes, my brain is racing with fearful thoughts and frightening scenarios… It’s best not to argue. It’s best to stay calm. Maybe he won’t find the joint. Maybe he’ll miss it. Oh fuck, this is bad…
I try to act all pleasant, and nonchalant. “What’s the problem officer? Whatever are you looking for? Whatever do you think I did?” He tells me to shut up and then points at the little wallet that dangles around my neck. He then tells me in Spanish that he wants to look inside. I have rather mixed feelings about this request. The good news is that the marijuana is not in the wallet. It’s in the side pocket of my trousers. The bad news is; all my money is in the wallet. It contains my spending money, about 80 thousand Colombian pesos (forty dollars value) and my secret emergency money (300 US dollars). Normally, I hide the emergency money in my room but for some stupid reason, this time I didn’t. He opens up the wallet and pulls everything out. In addition to the money, there are a couple of condoms and some old bus tickets. But surprisingly, he puts it all back inside the wallet afterwards and hands the wallet back to me… Holy shit, maybe he is a real cop and not a renegade. But if that’s the case, why did he stop and search me in the first place?
He goes on with his search. He pulls my glasses case out of my front pocket and looks inside. He finds my hotel key in another pocket. And then, well, in the lower pocket of my trousers, he finds the tiny amount of marijuana…… Oh boy, does he get excited. A big smile stretches across his mustached face and he practically jumps up and down with joy. “This is cannabis,” he says in Spanish, “you in big trouble. You broke the law. You are going to prison. We are going to take you away in handcuffs.” He takes the handcuffs off his belt and shakes them in my face.
Strangely enough though, I don’t completely believe his threat. First of all, he never actually makes a move to cuff me. He shows me the cuffs and points at them but he never attempts to put them on me. He also doesn’t lead me over towards the car. He just stands in front of me shouting things in Spanish that I can’t quite understand. Besides, I don’t know much about the marijuana laws of Colombia but considering how much marijuana is around here, I seriously doubt you can get in much legal trouble for possession of a couple grams. Nevertheless, Colombian laws don’t matter. I am facing a guy with a gun and a badge. What do you suppose he is after?
The search of Vim by the other cop came up empty. He doesn’t smoke much anyway and he has none on him. He also has proper identification which I don’t. I left my passport in my hotel. Since Vim is clean, the cop who was harassing him now turns his attention to me. Two against one; they both scream at me in Spanish. They keep stating over and over that I have broken the law and that I am in big trouble and that I am going to jail for a very long time. They wave their night sticks around, flash their guns, point a flashlight in my eyes, and call me a criminal repeatedly. But still, they make no move to hand cuff me or throw me in the car. They just threaten a lot and don’t do anything. While all this is going on, I am considering my options. What the fuck am I going to do? Can I make a run for it? It’s only a block to the corner. If I get to the crowded street, they might have to leave me alone. I wonder if I could out run them. And what if they shoot me running away? Would they do that? No. I don’t believe it. But it’s a chance I’d rather not take. One thing I’m definitely not doing is getting in that car with them. No way. No how. I’ll start screaming and running down the street and make a commotion before I let that happen. I wonder what would happen if I just did that right now. Would they just let me go? Or would we all end up back at my hotel room where they’d find my big stash of marijuana….. Fuck. What the hell am I going to do? Am I really gonna have to bribe them?
On my very first trip to South America, way back in 1992, I met this crazy Canadian guy in Lima, Peru. He’d been traveling in South America for twenty some odd years and he smoked weed everywhere he went. I asked him about it and he gave me sound advice. “If you carry grass on your person, always carry a fifty dollar bill as well and remember the word multa. Multa is the Spanish word for fine. Some cops might not accept a direct bribe. But there’s not a cop in South America who won’t accept a fifty dollar fine from you in person to save you the trouble of a court proceeding” Good advice. Offer them money but don’t act like it’s a bribe…
So I’m standing there, trying to figure out how to phrase my attempted bribe to these two lunatic cops, when something very odd happens. One of the cops, steps away from me, walks over to the police car and taps at the back door. Strangely enough, the door opens up and another cop steps out of the car. This cop is very different than the excitable young guys who are waving their night sticks and guns around. He’s big and fat and older and obviously in charge of the whole operation. The two little guys spread out; one towards the front of the car and one towards the back. It seems a wee bit like a well practiced military operation. They are staking out the street to make sure no one is coming. The only one around is my friend Vim who is lingering there to make sure I’m all right. The big fat cop points at Vim and starts shouting in Spanish. “You associate with criminals. You want to go to jail with your criminal friend. If not, get the hell out of here.” This comment makes me believe that he is definitely looking for a bribe. He wants to make sure Vim isn’t around to witness it. I tell Vim in English to go away because I think it’s going to be all right and he walks slowly down the street.
After Vim is out of hearing range, the big fat guy turns his attention to me. He speaks calmly but forcefully in Spanish. “You don’t have passport. That is big problem. I take you to Immigration. You have marijuana. That is big problem. I take you to prison. Where should I take you immigration or jail?”
I respond in really bad, very broken, grammatically incorrect Spanish. “But my passport is just down the street at my hotel. It’s no problem. I can get it. And it’s only a little bit of marijuana. Only small problem. People here smoke all the time. I smell it in the streets. Surely it’s not a major crime. Can’t I just pay a fine (multa) or something… “Solo es una multa, no?”
In response to my incoherent ramble, a big smile stretches across the big, fat policeman’s face. I swear, it’s just like a scene from a crazy movie. The keystone cops strike Colombia. Big old Bluto leans backward against the cop car, scratching his belly as the frightened tourist begs for mercy in a state of panic. “Si’,” he says finally, “solo es una multa.”
I’m wondering inside my head how much this crazy transaction is going to cost me. The little guy up front has already searched me. He saw my emergency money. He knows I have 300 in U.S. money and another 80 thousand pesos Colombian (equivalent of 40 bucks). Is this really going to cost me 340 dollars? “So,” I say in Spanish after an appropriate time of contemplation, “how much is the multa?”
“How much you have in your wallet?” says big bad Bluto as he points at the wallet around my neck.
At this point, the little guy at the front of the car who searched me before starts shouting out that the multa is three hundred dollars. “La multa es tres ciento dolares. La multa es tres ciento dolares.”
But I ignore the shouting from the front and only look at big bad Bluto. I pull out my wallet and open it up. I take out the wad of Colombian money that is on top and leave the three hundred American dollars in the bottom. I show Bluto the four twenty thousand peso bills (worth about ten dollars each or forty dollars).
“Give me,” he says, and holds out his hand.
I separate two of the twenty thousand pesos notes from the other two and hand them to him.
“Give me more,” he says, still holding out his hand.
I hand him another 20 thousand peso note.
“Give me all,” he says, still with his hand out.
“Oh come on,” I beg. “Can’t I save a twenty for food and a beer later? I have to eat something tonight.”
“Give me all,” he says again with his hand out.
Reluctantly, I hand him the last twenty. But then I close my wallet and stuff it back in my shirt as if there is nothing else there. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask for more. “Esta bien,” he says, “you can go.”
I turn and start to walk away. But no, this little performance is not quite over. The little guy who searched me to start with has something to say. He calls out to me “hey amigo.” I stop walking, turn around and look at him. He takes a couple steps towards me and reaches out his hand as if to shake. This is weird… I think… but I reach out my hand anyway. Then, can you believe it, the little bastard hands me back my joint’s worth of marijuana. “Welcome to Colombia” he says as he starts laughing and jumps in the back of the cop car. They speed off down the street and disappear with my forty dollars.
So that’s it. I was a victim of the good old Colombian shakedown. It’s the kind of thing I’ve heard about for years but never had a chance to experience. All in all, it was a rather terrifying experience. But it ended okay. And if I step back and look at this whole thing in the big picture, I actually did quite well. First of all, the four dollars worth of marijuana I bought in the beginning would have certainly cost 200 dollars back home. Second of all, if I were busted with a single joint of grass in the states, it would probably cost several hundred dollars in lawyer fees, court costs and fines, not to mention being a colossal waste of my fucking time. Here, in Colombia, everything is cheaper. And the legal proceedings are much more efficient. You don’t have to bother with all those silly bullshit lawyer games. You just have to pay the cop directly. Thank you very much; have a very nice day. I’ll be happy to pay you forty dollars in exchange for a very nice story I can tell my friends back at the bar…