Thursday, November 3, 2011
Driving While Caucasian - A Criminal Offense in Nicaragua
There are endless stories about corrupt police in Latin America. Anyone who has driven anywhere south of the Rio Grande probably has at least one encounter with the local police that makes for an excellent story. Make it a corrupt cop and the story can be told for ages. Like the December day in 1986 when Bob Ake and I were stopped in Mexico City for running a red light. There was only a slight problem with this "crime." There was no red light, or was there a green light or a yellow light. The cop told Bob that "your problem" would go away with the payment, directly to the cop, of $50 US. Bob protested saying that $50 US was too much and instead offered $20. The cop quickly pocketed the bill and the problem went away.
Then there was the time in Panama when I drove down from Cerro Jefe to the road's intersection with the Pan American Highway. A Panamanian police officer sitting in a little brick building at the intersection bolted for the highway, his arms flailing in the wind, as he yelled "Stop! Stop! Stop!". I stopped and rolled down my window. He approached and said that I had driven through a stop sign. The only problem with this crime was that there was no stop sign - at any of the four roads leading to the intersection. More importantly there was no sign where my car was parked at the edge of the Pan American. When I pointed out this little discrepancy, the cop very excitedly said "no hace differencia, Senor" ("it makes no difference, sir"). He asked when my flight was departing Panama and I said in four hours. His response was "then we have a problem." I asked how much it would cost to fix the problem and was told that $20 Balboas would suffice. Twenty dollars later it went away.
Both of those examples happened more than 20 years ago before tourism and ecotourism became a huge industry in Central America. Since then I have experienced no similar problems in Latin America or in Mexico. In fact, the police have been more than helpful when I have sought out their assistance. That was until my return trip to Nicaragua during Ocober 27 - November 2, 2011. Never again will I travel to Nicaragua and neither should you.
Downtown Managua at sunrise from the fourth floor of the Managua Hilton
Our rental car was ready at the Alamo counter in the Managua airport when we arrived at mid-morning. The helpful Alamo agent printed out a route for us to follow that took us east and south away from downtown Managua. Instead we were on the road to Granada which is one of the main tourism areas of Nicaragua. Our route this morning took us through relatively tranquil Nicaraguan countryside via Masaya. According to the map we would pass through five roundabouts, make two left turns and four right turns and we would arrive in San Juan del Sur after about two hours.
A typical street scene from "downtown" San Juan del Sur Nicaragua
We wanted to visit San Juan del Sur to scope it out as a potential wintering home where we could escape from Florida's cold winters. More importantly we wanted to escape the millions of tourists whose presence all winter makes those of us living in Florida want to be somewhere else.
Driving from Alamo we turned right and proceeded toward the first roundabout just 3 kilometers from the airport entrance. There, because we were continuing straight east, I changed lanes and drove in the rightmost lane to avoid other drivers following our path. Nobody at the Alamo counter at the Managua airport had instructed us that changing lanes in and near a roundabout is an issue for the Nicaraguan National Police. However a Nicaraguan National Police officer was standing by the roadside as he saw me approach. When I changed lanes his hand went up and he commanded me to stop.
He asked for my drivers license and began writing me a ticket. When I asked what I had done wrong he told me that I made an illegal lane change. It didn't seem to matter to him that Nicaraguans on motorcycles zipped past us on the right shoulder as we approached the roundbout (and in view of this cop). While the officer had me stopped it didn't matter to him or his partner that Nicaraguan drivers were making the same "illegal" lane change that I had made. This guy had caught a gringo and he was going to milk it for everything he could get.
When I asked how much the "fine" would be he told me "$50 US if you pay here; $100 US if you go to court." I was on vacation and didn't want to mess with a Nicaraguan court so I paid the $50 US. Visions of that Mexico City cop in 1986 raced through my head. Paying in Nicaraguan Cordobas instead of US dollars I asked for an explanation of my supposed infraction. He took a piece of paper and on it drew three lanes of traffic. He then said that as I went through the roundabout I should have been in the middle lane not the right lane. What difference this made remains a mystery but I remembered that from this point on I would be in the middle lane and avoid the rightmost lane at all roundabouts.
I insisted on a receipt from the cop who wrote something on a piece of paper, made me sign it, and then snapped at me "there's your receipt." He then kept the paper. I put the car in gear and drove east. Three kilometers later we came to a second roundabout. Luckily the police had already pulled someone over and were writing a ticket. Was it purely a coincidence that this driver was Caucasian?
We traveled 23 kilometers further to the town of Masaya where a large sign greets travelers with the message that "Masaya Welcomes You." Apparently not for long.
Cops were waiting at the Masaya roundabout as our white faces switched lanes and got in the middle lane. This was how the first cop instructed me to pass through a roundabout 23 kilometers and 1200 Cordobas ago. As I moved to the coveted middle lane, Juan, a member of the Nicaraguan National Police strolled out into the road, raised his right hand and commanded me to stop. Again, I asked what I had done wrong. Juan informed me that I had made an illegal lane change and this was an infraction. According to Juan when I turned right at the roundabout I should have been in the rightmost lane - directly contradicting the cop 23 kilometers and 1200 Cordobas ago.
I handed my drivers license to Juan and he wrote me a ticket for an illegal lane change. He then informed me that the fine was 400 Cordoba (about $18 US). At least the fines were getting cheaper the further we drove from Managua. Dutifully I removed 400 Cordobas from my billfold and handed them to Juan. I thought that was the procedure as it had been 23 kilometers and 1200 Cordobas ago. Juan didn't appreciate my gesture and yelled at me in Spanish "You might do things like that in the United States but this is Nicaragua." The emphasis was on the last three words.
Yes, Juan, it sure as hell is.
Juan pocketed my drivers license and instructed me to go to the nearest bank where I would have to pay the fine. He would return my license only when I produced a receipt proving that I had paid. In essence Juan had become the self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner. It didn't dawn on Juan that as soon as I drove away in search of a bank I would be driving with no drivers license or the ignorant bastard would have written me another ticket.
Thankfully a Nica named Leticia was talking with Juan's partner as this all went down. She agreed to go with us to the bank and then guide us back to Juan to retrieve my license.
A line that seemed to stretch for blocks snaked its way down the street from the bank. I pleaded with the security guard at the front door but he would not let me jump ahead of line. Instead he told me that the line would move "very rapidly." Syrup fresh from your refrigerator moves faster.
After standing in line for more than an hour I was finally taken care of by a bank official who was in no rush to help me. Eventually, however, I was cleared of my "crime" of driving while Caucasian and I returned to Juan to retrieve my license.
Juan never smiled as I handed him the receipt proving that I had paid the fine. As he gave me back my license I looked at Juan and said, in crisp, clear, English, "You have the penis of a small boy." Juan obviously did not understand English as he said "adios."
By now it was 1:30 p.m. We had departed the Managua airport 3 1/2 hours ago and by now had driven 33 kilometers (19 miles). Of the six turns we had to make to get to San Juan del Sur we had completed three of them and I was now 1600 Cordobas lighter.
Traveling nine kilometers further we came to the roundabout for the town of Catarina. This was the largest one we had seen and predictably a resident group of Nicaraguan National Police swarmed the road like flies on a pile of dog shit which, by now, I believed they were.
To avert another fine for whatever ridiculous reason was dreamed up at the time I pulled over to ask the cop if I was on the right road for Rivas. Rather than offer an answer the cop ordered me to the side of the road. WTF for now? Instead of playing this game again I simply drove away. As I did one of the cops (wearing a crew cut) was waving his arms for me to stop and one of his partners was blowing a whistle. I had reached and exceeded my limit of harassment for the day and simply drove away.
Two turns and a few kilometers later we reached the Pan American Highway. Just to the south, at the river that forms the border between Rivas and Granada provinces, there was a police checkpoint. One of the cops blew his whistle for me to stop while giving me hand signals to pull over. I guess, once again, I had committed the crime of driving while Caucasian. Instead of pulling over I just drove onward toward San Juan del Sur.
At no time during the trip did I exceed the speed limit as almost all Nicaraguan drivers did. At no time did I pass on blind corners as we saw Nicaraguans do. At no time did we pass on solid yellow lines as Nicaraguans did with impunity. At no time did we drive on the shoulder, make a lane change, or commit any action that a reasonable person would consider an infraction. All we did was drive while being Caucasian.
We reached San Juan del Sur, typically a 2 hour drive, after 5 hours and 15 minutes on the road. In all that time and considering all the vehicles we saw on each highway over which we traveled, the only people we saw pulled to the side of the road were Caucasians.
Coincidence? I don't think so.
Before my only trip to Guyana in northeastern South America, I was informed by my contact in the US Embassy that I should expect "a 50 to 75 percent chance of being mugged and robbed" while in the country. When I asked why he said that "you are white and that means you have money so you are a target."
Guyana meet Nicaragua.
We spent one full day in San Juan del Sur rather traumatized by the entire experience. We had planned this trip to spend one day looking at real estate under the misguided belief that we might want to begin wintering in San Juan del Sur some time soon. One day we wanted to visit the twin volcanoes in Lago Nicaragua and one day was reserved for a trip over the border to Costa Rica. Despite signs saying that we could rent kayaks in San Juan there were no kayaks. Despite signs saying we could go out with a group to watch olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs there were no turtles. "Maybe next week they will appear" we were told not too convincingly by the girl at the desk of the Casa Oro hostel.
One of the twin volcanoes in Lago Nicaragua
On our second full day in San Juan del Sur we ventured out, like a turtle sticking its head out of its shell, and drove 30 kilometers to Rivas where we sought out the ferry to the twin volcanoes. They are, to put it mildly, impressive. However a ferocious wind that whipped Lago Nicaragua into a white-capped frenzy and I didn't want to take the chance in a rickety ferry so we cancelled the volcano trip. Instead we drove to the north side of Rivas where near the Tip Top Chicken restaurant a cop commanded me to the side of the road. We kept on driving. On our return to San Juan del Sur and on a curve in the road just before a bridge south of Rivas another cop, this one wearing orange gloves, sauntered out to the middle of the road where he blew his whistle and motioned for us to stop. I could still see him in my rear view mirror as we rounded the curve and drove out of sight.
By now we had been in Nicaragua 62 hours. In that time we had driven about 200 kilometers, not broken a single reasonable law, and had been harassed by the Nicaraguan National Police six different times. And that is what it was - pure and simple harassment.
The entrance to the Posada Azul hotel where we stayed four nights in San Juan del Sur
On our return to our San Juan del Sur hotel we met an American couple who live in Managua. As I began to relate our story about the first cop and the 1200 Cordoba fine, the husband of this pair said "It happened in a roundabout" before I got to that part of the story. He already knew the drill. As we talked further he said that the Nicaraguan National Police "own the highway from Managua to San Juan del Sur" and added that this happens because "tourism is big business and there are lots of tourists south of Managua." We were also told that, in their experience living in Nicaragua, we were singled out for harassment 1) because there is a sticker on the windshield of every rental car indicating that it is a rental, and 2) because we are Caucasian.
The Managua couple related several tales of woe regarding their experiences driving south of the capital. They also told us that Juan, the cop in Masaya who confiscated my license, was "doing what he was supposed to do." The couple then added "be glad it wasn't on the weekend when the banks are closed." They said that now when they travel anywhere south of Managua they never take their own car. "We take the bus or we hire a car and driver. We aren't stupid enough to drive ourselves ever again." For their current trip they had traveled to San Juan del Sur by bus and were returning that afteroon in a hired car with driver. The couple ended our conversation saying that "almost all whites living in Nicaragua know about this and they just put up with it." What a horrible way to live in an alleged tropical paradise.
At this point we felt not only harassed and victimized but trapped. We also felt that our entire time in Nicaragua had been a huge mistake. We were reluctant to drive anywhere outside of San Juan del Sur because who knew when or where one of Juan's compadres would pull us to the side of the road, take my drivers license, and extort more money from us.
Purely by chance I had chosen to rent our car on this trip from Alamo. And, purely by chance, the only rental car company with an office in San Juan del Sur was Alamo. After talking with the Managua couple we stopped at the Alamo office and learned that for $25 US we could drop the car in San Juan del Sur and save ourselves the trauma of being pulled over several times on our return to Managua. "Just return the car full of gas tomorrow morning and everything will be fine" the helpful Alamo agent said.
The front desk person at our hotel was apologetic and quickly made arrangements for us to return to Managua in two days in a private car driven by a Nicaraguan. The one way cost was $80 US. Added to the drop charge of $25 US this was likely still going to be cheaper than the extortion money we would have to pay for returning to Managua while Causcasian. And I would not have to worry about my drivers license being confiscated.
We left San Juan del Sur two days later at 10:00 a.m. and arrived at the Managua airport at 12:10 p.m - 2 hours and 10 minutes - with no interruptions. The first cop we saw was at the edge of San Juan del Sur. Our driver waved at him but we were not stopped. At the police checkpoint at the bridge at the border of Rivas and Granada provinces our driver waved and smiled at one cop sitting by the edge of the road and we passed through. Police were stationed at the Masaya roundabout where Juan took my drivers license. We drove through, in the right lane, as our driver waved at the police. Just beyond the roundabout two other cops each had a vehicle pulled to the side of the road. Both drivers were Caucasian. Later, in the first roundabout east of the Managua airport a large contingent of cops laid in wait but had nobody pulled over. At this point I told our driver about our encounters and the fines paid. Ariel shook his head saying "I will never understand the mentality of the police when it comes to tourism." Neither will I, Ariel.
At the airport Ariel asked us to return to Nicaragua some day. He recommended that we hire a car and driver when we do so we don't encounter problems with the police. The way he explained things suggested to me that the drivers know exactly what they cops are doing and why. In the 2 hours and 10 minutes it took to return from San Juan del Sur our driver exceeded 100 kilometers per hour several times, passed on solid lines, passed in tandem with other vehicles, and once passed on a blind curve. To top it off he proceeded through a roundabout in front of the Nicaraguan National Police in the same lane, on the same roundabout, where I had my license confiscated. He never encountered a single problem with the police. All he did to avoid these problems was to not be born Caucasian.
Whenever I travel out of the country I always read the US State Department Contry Information Sheets. They are always filled with examples of crimes being commmitted in whatever country I am about to visit. However no mention is made on the Nicaragua pages about the extortion being exacted by the Nicaraguan National Police toward visitors. Each Lonely Planet guide to almost every country on earth contains a section called "Dangers and Annoyances" but nowhere in the Nicaragua guide is there a word written about the extortion being committed against Caucasian travelers by the Nicaraguan National Police. The Nicaragua Living website is a treasure trove of information for travelers and especially for San Juan del Sur. However nowhere on that website is there a single syllable about the extortion being committed against Caucasians by the Nicaraguan National Police.
If Nicaragua and its President Daniel Ortega want to join the 21st century, the country and its government need to develop its tourism potential and its tourism infrastructure. Already San Juan del Sur and the Corn Islands are big time retirement areas for Americans and Europeans. However if Caucasian visitors and residents are the target of corrupt police officers, I hope nobody ever plans another trip to Nicaragua. I know for certain that I will never be back.
Rental car companies operating in Nicaragua (all of the majors are here) should be up in arms with the Nicaraguan government over the extorition that is being committed against people who use rental cars. Likewise airlines serving the country (Delta, American, United, TACA and Spirit fly from the United States), and hotels in popular visitor locations should be in the face of the Nicaraguan government because of the way visitors are being extorted by the Nicaraguan National Police. Travel editors at major North American newspapers should be doing pieces on Nicaraguan corruption to alert potential visitors to what they can expect if they rent a car in Nicaragua. I am going to contact each of the groups mentioned above and request that they take some action to wake up the corrupt Nicaraguan officials.
I have now traveled to 107 countries on each of the six inhabited continents. Before this trip to Nicaragua I had concluded that there were only two countries to which I would never return. They are Guyana and Haiti. I have no desire to step foot in either one because of the corruption that abounds in both. Now, after this trip, I can add Nicaragua to the list of countries to which I wilil never return and in which I refuse to spend another penny.
After this trip I will no longer conjure up visitoins of pretty beaches or awesome volcanoes or verdant tropcal forest when I think of Nicaragua. Now my vision of Nicaragua is a police officer who, like his country, is in my rear view mirror.