South America | Colombia

Cartagena / Police Negotiations

haggling over fines for non-existent crimes & how to break the corruption cycle

   „And what about the camera?“ he asked, pointing to it with his glassy, hungry eyes that glowed in the semi-darkness of the dim garage.

“I’m not giving you my camera!!” I answered decidedly. “It’s worth a lot more than the fine.”

That was a lie. With a mix of amusement and outrage pulling my lips into different directions, I lifted my can to them, took another sip of beer, and thought to myself that these police were driving a hard bargain. He persisted along the lines of “if you cannot pay the fine, we’ll have to get your passports and you spend the night in jail and tomorrow we’ll bring you to Bogotá and you’ll be deported.” Now he had taken out the big guns.

An hour earlier:


It was Cartagena’s birthday. I don’t remember which one, just that it was an odd number, something like 457, rendering the big celebration in the streets a little inadequate. The city had made its pretty eyes at me for some days and I was falling for it: Caribbean ocean front, Colombian joie de vivre, yesterday’s old town, tomorrow’s skyline, arepas – nothing was not to like.

That night everybody wanted to go out – the Germans, that Norwegian couple, and the Brits I'd met in Bogotá. But I got held up in some other plot, a ghost from home on the phone, and, by the time I hung up, only the Norwegian guy was still around.

We had some beers right outside the old town. The party was in full swing, but our participation in it was most moderate. All was well. Chilled. So chilled in fact that my companion suggested to smoke some weed. That’s where it all started, where “chilled” went up in smoke without us ever lighting a joint.

"Walking through neighborhoods like Getsemani you’d hear the suggestive whispers aplenty: “Cocaine? Weeeed?”

I told him not to buy anything on the street, where word was that some dealers were undercover cops or informants. It was almost too easy to buy all sorts of drugs in these streets. Walking through neighborhoods like Getsemani you’d hear the suggestive whispers aplenty: “Cocaine? Weeeed?”

We emerged from the crowds by the clock tower and headed towards Parque Del Centenario on Carrera 8. “Let’s go back to the hostel; they can hook you up,” I proposed, but my Norwegian companion was set on purchasing right then and there. He took off, crossed the street and walked up to a promisingly shady looking group of people. I stayed back. The park was closed at that time of the night, so I sat down on a ledge and leaned against the cooling bars while awaiting his return. He came back with the puniest gram of weed, and, given the price tag, he might as well have come back with a bag of emeralds. Of course, before long, my new acquaintance found himself entangled in another costly bargain.

He sat down next to me and for some reason it seemed like a reasonable idea to him to take out the weed and hold it against the light of a streetlamp for further inspection. Unfortunately, his brilliant idea appeared in an altogether different light the moment two cops on a scooter drove by, gauging the situation and seizing us up without much difficulty. Whether they’d been tipped off or not, the remarkable lack of subtleness my acquaintance for the night had shown certainly helped their case along. They slowed down immediately and stopped a hundred meters down the road. Then they came back.

“Get rid of it, now,” I growled, and he hastily flicked the evidence through the bars into the park. Or, well, that’s what he aimed for. The attempt failed miserably, the little bag landed on the ledge, and when the cops arrived, they simply picked it up: “What’s this?” one of them asked, but his gleeful tone made it sound more like a statement: “now look at this.”

To get busted with drugs in Colombia as a traveler is not uncommon; tourists want to have fun and in Colombia it’s an easy thing to have, but the cops want their share too. Within the few weeks after my arrival, I’d already heard several firsthand accounts of how this usually goes down: the bottom line and end of story was always to hand over whatever amount of cash you had on you as a bribe. That’s why it was advisable to split any cash reserves across different pockets or wallet compartments.

"The whole thing was a farce during which they played the role of law-abiding cops and we starred as virtuous civilians, victims of a little mishap, citizens of lands where marihuana was suddenly legal to help along our story of ignorant innocence."





We had a total of 70,000 COP to offer (around $ 35 USD at the time), which was substantially more than the standard rate (typically something like $ 5 USD). Unfortunately, another 4 cops had shown up at the scene by then and weren’t too happy with the allocation this came down to. One of them did all the talking in English and said something about “keeping Cartagena clean” and “no corruption.” His performance as a righteous cop was so intriguing that it was almost believable. He dropped a bare minimum of ambiguous hints at finding an informal solution for this misdemeanor. They kept pretending to follow procedure, which demanded taking us to the nearest “police station” by foot: a dimly lit garage in some shady side street. My pale Scandinavian companion had turned sub-pale. Then the negotiations began.

Their gang leader kept up his stellar performance, but ours wasn’t bad either. The whole thing was a farce during which they played the role of law-abiding cops and we starred as virtuous civilians, victims of a little mishap, citizens of lands where marihuana was suddenly legal to help along our story of ignorant innocence. They showed us a document with an arbitrary 500,000 COP fine on it (approx. $250 USD) and said we’d have to pay in full or else we’d go to another police station, spend the night in a cell, go to Bogotá the next day, followed by our immediate deportation (other cops had threatened the Brits with the exact opposite scenario – keeping their passports and making them stay in the country for three months).

“Isn’t there anything else we can do Jefe (chief/boss)?” is a pretty standard line in Latin America to open up the conversation to “alternative solutions” for anything from speeding tickets to more serious offenses. They ruled out alternatives for about 30 seconds. Then they dropped their act gradually to make room for a bargain.

We claimed that we were short on cash. They frisked us and concurred. Then there was talk of credit cards and ATMs. My Norwegian buddy had been looking increasingly uncomfortable and jittery ever since they had “taken us into custody,” but now he exclaimed full of enthusiasm that he wasn't in possession of his credit card and that he could prove it with a paper from the Ecuadorian authorities. He was so genuinely excited about this that there was no one, including myself, doubting his words. That exchange had given me enough time to come up with my own excuse, and, considering that the whole thing was more of a play, credibility didn’t play much of a role. So my non-existent girlfriend had my credit card. She was traveling with it elsewhere. No, unfortunately I wasn’t sure when she’d come back.

After every round of dialogue, the cops went into a huddle to fine-tune their strategy and asking price, while we reassessed our best offer. My ever more anxious Norwegian partner in crime was willing to pay a whole lot more than I was. I tried to soothe him:

Hush hush, “they don’t really want to put us in jail for the night; then they wouldn’t get anything. They’re just probing for how deep our pockets are.”

It didn’t help much. He was worried about worrying his girlfriend, who had stayed back at the hostel and was probably sleeping soundly and worry-free.

"But one needed to keep in mind that these were still cops, no matter how corrupt. It felt like our bargaining power matched theirs, but at the end of the day they were in charge and would decide over our fate that night: jail or no jail."

The cops started off the next round of negotiations by putting our names on their little form, implying willingness to go through with the formal procedure of fining and deporting us. In return, my pale pal bid his silver ring, an offer met with hearty laughs on all sides. What a great, friendly and jovial time we had! The guy who did all the talking had such red eyes and such a tranquil demeanor that I assumed he was the only one of us actually being stoned. Seizing the weed would likely have been a successful bust in and of itself. Unfortunately, their body search had produced my camera, which naturally gave rise to the question:

„And what about the camera?“

But the camera was worth pretty much the same as the fine I wasn’t willing to pay. So, no. They pulled out the good old jail-plus-deportation-card once more. I called their bluff:

“If you follow procedure, you won’t get anything.”

Their leader shook his head and denied it, but he was grinning from ear to ear, and it was obvious that none of us wanted for this matter to leave the sketchy garage. From where I was standing, the whole thing was still somewhat entertaining even though not entirely pleasant. The more we bargained, the less I respected them as officials. But one needed to keep in mind that these were still cops, no matter how corrupt. It felt like our bargaining power matched theirs, but at the end of the day they were in charge and would decide over our fate that night: jail or no jail.

During the next negotiation break I decided on my absolute limit and communicated it to Norway: $50 USD per person. That was less than half the asking price, but a lot of money for such a petty offense.

“If worse comes to worst, I’d rather spend a couple of hours in jail than pay more than $50,” I said and meant it (not knowing what that actually meant).

It had probably been an hour of haggling and fortunately the officers seemed as tired as we were. After all, it was late at night and they were probably stoned. They agreed to my offer. The idea was to wake the Norwegian’s girlfriend and have her “bail us out” (loosely translated from the dictionary of corrupted legal terms) with some extra cash. The cops kept my camera as collateral and, while we walked back to the hostel, two of them drove down a parallel street on a scooter, monitoring our movements at every cross street. In a way, it felt more like I was monitoring theirs, being pretty sure they’d just drive off with my camera eventually. But they didn’t. They were honest corrupt cops. We picked up the money and met them in an alleyway behind the hostel, where we exchanged cash for camera.

After they were gone, the Norwegian thanked me and said he would have paid any amount. Considering his recklessness, that would have been the right amount.

"But civilians participate in that corruption as much as cops do."

Later I learned that possession of weed (and even cocaine) for personal use isn’t actually illegal in Colombia. That year the legal quantity was even upped to 20 g for marijuana and 1 g for cocaine. This means the cops that busted us hadn’t really busted us at all and not only were they corrupt, but so corrupt that they got a bribe out of people who hadn’t committed an offense. Congratulations. They’d played it well. Real artistic talent.

It wasn’t the first or the last time I came across small time corruption like this. Corrupt police are so common in many parts of the world that people don’t trust their "guardians," but are afraid of them. The job description doesn’t seem to postulate enforcing the law so much as using it to earn a little extra money on the side. To see the police about actual crimes in search of help is pretty hopeless, because crime rates are high, prosecution means are low and policemen have little motivation to enforce the law and put their lives on the line for meager wages.

Citizens lack trust in the police in a twofold manner: officers might not investigate a reported crime because they don’t take their responsibility seriously, or because the perpetrator bribes them.

Furthermore, once corruption happens on such a large scale that it is commonly accepted, it seems almost impossible to combat. Anti-corruption initiatives range from non-existent to lax, so "good” cops have a hard time standing up for what they believe in. 

But civilians participate in corruption as much as cops do. If the police stop you for speeding, you have two choices – hand over your license, go to the police station and pay a harsh fine or safe yourself the hassle of disrupting your day and pay less by handing over a bribe. For the officer it means some extra money in addition to his lousy salary. Especially in petty situations this seems like a win-win on an individual level. On a societal level, however, it translates to a vicious cycle: the loss of tax revenue constituted by embezzling fines contributes to the fact that cops aren’t paid well, which in return means they don’t take their job seriously, which makes them perceptible for corruption. Full circle. And, of course, corruption doesn't stop at this lowest institutional level when it is so deeply engrained in people's mentality and societal dynamics.

"Citizens could try to do their share by not participating in corruption. But that would mean a loss of convenience and dishonesty beyond what people might be willing to give up..."

Raising police wages seems like one way to break through this cycle on first sight. However, there isn’t really any evidence to support this. Corruption is found on many societal levels, all the way up to high-ranking politicians and officials, who earn significantly more than a cop ever will.

Maybe harsher consequences for corruption could yield results; but then again, who among the corrupt would enforce them?

Citizens could try to do their share by not participating in corruption. But that would mean a loss of convenience and dishonesty beyond what people might be willing to give up: bribes can make the consequences of your mistakes simply go away and even act as get-out-of-jail cards.

A combination of the aforementioned factors (higher wages, harder punishment for corruption, participation of civilians) might facilitate an incremental transition into less corrupt structures; but without an overall change in mentality, promoted on a policy level and incorporated by individuals, corruption will remain widespread. Only if people (civilians and those supposed to uphold the law) truly want to live in a place where the law is respected and enforced, and if they are willing to sacrifice the convenience that comes with bribing your way out of trouble and obstacles, can the corruption cycle be broken.