A traveler’s guide to coping with detainment and bribery

This is a follow-up to my guide to coping with arrest while abroad.

briberyFar less disturbing than being arrested while abroad, but statistically more probable, is being detained for a minor or non-existent violation and being intimidated into bribing your way out of the situation. Coping with detainment and bribery can be akin to the patience, bluffing and improvising required of playing Texas Hold ‘Em in a Vegas casino. It’s difficult to give concrete tips or answer questions without repeated use of the phrase “it depends.” The other players at the table may be halfwits with great cards, professionals with crappy cards, drunks with no clue or a multi-layered combination of everything.

I’ve bargained my way out of bogus traffic violations in Chisinau, Moldova for $7. Guidebook writer and sham detainee veteran Robert Reid, after coolly waiting out a 45 minute shakedown on the border between Romania and Bulgaria, finally had his passport returned and was then earnestly beseeched for details about the quality of life in California. On the flip side, travelers are returning from Mexico reporting increasing random pull-overs in heavy tourist zones that allegedly ended in an escort to a nearby ATM to withdrawal several hundred dollars, all to the refrain of “No ticket, no receipt, no problem”.

In these cases, it’s important to stay calm. Unless you were caught red-handed in a carjacking or something similarly incriminating, you can rest assured that you’re innocent and that in all probability nothing dire will happen to you. While your impulse might be to resolve the situation as fast as possible and get away, as demonstrated by Robert Reid above, sometimes the most effective method is to just wait.

Expect your provocateurs to ham it up with grim head shaking, lengthy whispered huddles and maybe even suggestions that you’ll be taken to the station, but if enough time passes and it’s evident that you’re not panicking or making moves to distribute the contents of your wallet to the group, they’ll stop wasting time on you and cut you loose in favor of searching for weaker-willed prey.

On rare occasion, the official detaining you may not be a genuine official at all. In an LA Times article of October of 2007, on the subject of dubious citations and/or the authenticity of the official in question, deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizen Services Michele Bond was quoted as saying, “Try to get the name and badge number and specifics about the officer. The traveler also should ask for a copy of the citation.” If these tactics aren’t fruitful, she added that “You also can offer to accompany the officer to the police station to settle the matter,” an effective deterrent for purveyors of phony citations.

Though seasoned travelers in certain locales swear by the quick-exit method of offering a “donation to the Policemen’s Fund,” it’s important to remember that trying to bribe an officer is a crime. Indeed, it may very well be a much worse crime than whatever minor violation you’re mixed up in. Alternatively, if the offer of a “donation” is presented to you, and you’re in a hurry, it’s a relatively painless way to get on with your life all things considered.

A common course of action in many countries, whether you’re guilty or not, is for the officer to take your driver’s license or passport to the station, where you’ll have to go the following day, stand in line and pay a fine to get it back. In those cases you’re inconvenienced and coughing up money. Faced with that prospect, a “donation” seems comparatively generous on the officer’s part.

You may find yourself in the hilarious position (in retrospect) of bargaining for the bribe amount. Never reveal exactly how much money you have on your person. This allows you to claim, truthfully or not, that you do not have the sum that’s being requested which will frequently bring down the asking price – except, of course, in the event that an ATM is in close proximity.

Also, if you speak the native tongue, conveniently losing your language skills can work wonders. Don’t utter a single word in the local language, not even ‘hello’. I realize that after years of studying and practicing a language that having to play dumb will challenge both your acting abilities and ego, but exasperating communications breakdowns have gotten me off scot-free, because even the suggestion of a bribe was impossible, much less getting bogged down in lengthy bargaining.

Depending on the locale and the disposition of the officials with whom you’ve run afoul, this lesson in life can either be mirthfully painless or downright harrowing. Staying calm and using your best judgment will probably spare you serious trauma, beyond that… it depends.

[PHOTO CREDIT: elephant bribery by Shark Attacks]