Posted by: Tommy | January 6, 2011

Shakedowns

3 months into our trip, one of the things that remains most foreign to us is police corruption.  As an American, it just doesn’t compute.  We’ve read about/heard about/experienced police corruption in some way, shape or form in every country we’ve spent any time in, except Israel.

In Russia, it was brutal.  A Dutch guy, coming back to the Cuba Hostel while severely intoxicated, encountered 6 young policeman.  They saw an easy mark and jumped him, taking his passport and demanding a lot of money for its return.  When he refused, they beat him up pretty good.  We met him an hour later, as he sat in the hostel kitchen with ice on his face.

In Egypt, it was more annoying.  You couldn’t visit a single large tourist site without policemen coming up to you, asking for money for some privilege that it was their job to deny.  Whether it was allowing you to take a picture of a forbidden tomb, access an off-limits gallery or climb a pyramid, anything is possible for the right price in Egypt – and that price isn’t usually very much.  Particularly disturbing was the offers to climb the pyramids – several tourists die each year illegally climbing the 5,000 year old rocks.  Climbing also does irreparable damage to the face of the pyramids – weather has certainly done some damage in 5,000 years, but climbing has done just as much in only a fraction of the time.  The morning we visited the pyramids, we were offered the chance to climb – for only $20 – on 3 separate occasions.  We declined each time, but we saw at least a dozen people who accepted the offer.

In South Africa, we read about corruption but did not experience any firsthand.  However, Alison told us about a particularly creepy police encounter that she’d had during her time in Swaziland (a neighboring country).  She was driving home from dinner, having had 1 glass of wine, when she encountered a routine police stop.  The cops had barricaded the road and were checking for drunk drivers.  The legal limit in Swaziland is .047 (vs. .08 in the States), so it doesn’t take much to fail.  Alison wasn’t particularly worried, having had 1 glass of wine over an hour before.

She told the cop that approached her that she’d had 1 glass of wine with dinner.  He insisted she blow the breathalyzer…she did, and he quickly grabbed it and wouldn’t show her the results.  He just told her she’d failed.  She demanded to see the failing mark, but he wouldn’t show her.  He made her blow again, again didn’t show her the results, and told her he’d have to take her to jail.  Then he made her an offer.  He’d gladly take her cell phone number instead of taking her to jail.  She gave him the number, rather than check out Swazi prison, and was free to go.

In Mozambique, Anna and I finally got our first look at real police corruption, first hand.  We had 2 separate encounters, both in Maputo, that were so far removed from what is our normal reality.  During our first night in Mozambique, we headed out for dinner.  As we were leaving, the hostel desk guy asked if we had our passports.  He said we definitely needed to carry them with us wherever we were in Maputo, so we went back to the room and stuck them in our pockets.  And thank goodness.

We were walking back from Pizza House, carrying a leftover box with 3 slices of sausage pizza.  We were about halfway through the 8 block journey when 2 uniformed guys with machine guns were suddenly blocking our path.  They demanded to see our passports, which we produced.  When getting the Mozambique visa, they give you a printout of the visa in addition to sticking a full page visa into your passport.  Thinking they wanted to make sure we got our visas, I pulled out the printout page.  Not good enough – they wanted to see the full page in our passports. Mindful of the Dutch guy’s encounter in Russia, I flipped to the Mozambique visa page and held it up for them to see.  They shined a flashlight (it was dark) on it and reached for it.  One of them tried to pull it away from me, but I held on.  He half-shouted at me, “Let go, I’m the police.”  Sounding a lot braver than I felt, I shot back “And I’ll be happy to walk with you to the police station and you can examine it there, but you don’t need to hold my passport to see that I have my visa.”  With that, one of them got upset and walked away -seeing we weren’t falling for it this time.  The other one took a different tack – he told us he was very hungry and eyed our pizza box.  Sorry, guy.  Try asking before you harass tourists, next time.

Our second encounter happened during our drive with Laura and Alison.  We were leaving Maputo at 11 am on the 27th, getting onto the N-1 highway which leads all the way from Maputo to Tofo, our eventual destination.  We had just turned onto the street, a major road in Maputo before it becomes highway, when a policeman jumped into the road directly in front of the car.  Laura was driving and rolled down her window, asking what she had done wrong.  He mumbled something about a left turn and pointed vaguely behind us…then demanded to see Laura’s license.  He looked at it briefly, then told her she was getting a fine.  3000 meticais (pronounced meticash – and worth about $100).  Payable in cash right then and there, to him.  In other words, I stopped you because you have foreign plates and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Laura was very calm (she gets to practice in Swaziland) and tried about 15 different ploys.  She led with the classic “We’re heading out of Mozambique, so I don’t have any meticais left”.  She followed quickly with, “It’s my first time in Maputo, I didn’t know I couldn’t turn there.”  She threw in a “Please, you don’t have to do this” and “You could let me go just this once” before “finding” 200 meticais in her car.  The guy said it wasn’t enough and put her license in his pocket, then walked off, never a good sign.  At this point, she started getting a little less calm.  She appealed to the guys partner, standing in the shade a few feet away.  Then she tried “I’m in Maputo all the time, I’ll never do it again” – directly contradicting herself from a few minutes earlier – but he didn’t care.  This was strictly a negotiation – how much would we have to pay him to leave us alone.

He turned around again to say something to his partner and Laura slipped me another 200 bill.  The guy came back around and she told him we’d found another 200 in the back – I handed it to her.  He took out her license, she traded him 400 ($13) for it and we were on our way.  For the rest of the 2-day, 8 hour drive to Tofo, we kept our heads down through each of the 5 police checkpoints where the Mozambique cops were hassling the thousands of tourists making their way from Maputo to the beach towns along the coast.

Thankfully, we didn’t experience any other police misconduct – we were on our guard from our time in Maputo.  It’s such a strange thing to us, as Americans, but so common in some of the places we’re visiting on this trip.  One thing we both agree on – we don’t think we’d want to live or own a business in a place where government corruption is the norm.  As Americans, the police as protectors is something we just take for granted – one of the many things we’ll appreciate more when we get home.

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Responses

  1. The cops are definitely corupt outside the US and Canada, but that’s probably about it! Unfortunately, Mexico is just as bad and it’s just on the other side of the border. Glad you guys are being safe!

  2. oh my, PLEASE be care! Remember my note said to watch-out for borders & bad guys!xoxoxo, kita

  3. This is a little scary but I am proud of you for being such savvy travelers and I am glad you were with the two girls when they needed you.


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