Crooked Caracas Cops
I am going to try with all my heart to articulate my rage without paragraphs of expletives.
Nine o'clock on a pleasant Thursday morning in the Sabana Grande district of Caracas found me sitting quietly in a seat, inside a cluster of empty plastic tables and chairs, in front of a tiny pizza shop on Blvd de Sabana Grande (Av Abraham Lincoln).
My traveled backpack beside me, I had already been there, reading a book, for over an hour. I had arrived in the city by bus before daybreak, and (wasn't surprised when) my hotel would not give me a room until noon, or even allow me to idle in their tiny lobby until then. Although there were some people walking about on this largely pedestrian avenue, the pizza café was the about only thing open with within sight before 8:00 (and seemed to be only apparent place I could wait with relative safety in a town known for crime).
I had forced down an empanada for the privilege to sit in front of the café. The last empanada I ate was in Argentina, in January—I refuse to eat anymore of them. My diet is blissfully empanada-free, and has been intentionally absent of anything fried for well over two months now (a feat not easily accomplished in Latin America).
I smelled trouble the instant the officer walked over to me. Pasaporte, he said with an extended hand, as he pulled up a seat. Sitting down—I knew he was going to be there for a while.
I fished the document from my pants and reluctantly handed it to him. The twenty-something trooper dressed in blue looked (and felt) like the type of punk I'd avoid under every possible circumstance—trouble. He sat and started flipping through the pages.
Finding a specific immigration stamp isn't the easiest of tasks, as I have a passport full of them plus a 12-page supplement inserted by an embassy. I helped indicate the page the entry stamp was inked on, five days ago.
He continued to play with and inspect my credentials. I was answering his questions as he did this. He kept pressing for the name hotel I was staying at. I kept telling him I didn't have one until noon, and was waiting.
I knew where this was going the moment he sat down. The man was trying to roll me—to extort/steal whatever cash he could. In my eyes he was stealing something from me already—my time and any shred of a positive opinion I'd formed about Venezuela this week.
Although my heart was racing wildly, externally I was calm and composed—a stone poker face. When he started complaining about the entry stamp in my passport, and the other "thing" that was "missing," the war between us had officially started. He had fired the first shots; I was on the defensive.
The ace up my sleeve was the language barrier—the wall that must be climbed by this attacker to accomplish his goal. Just how much I made him work/struggle to explain something to me varied with my perceived legitimacy of the question. I controlled the conversation.
I was able to do this because my Spanish is strong enough to comprehend and competently answer his questions, but lacks in vocabulary depth. Sometimes I understood what he was asking and just played stupid, forcing him to repeat an absurdity several times over or to make him phrase it a different way. Other times I truly had no idea what words he was using.
Basically, the more criminal/illegitimate his claim/statement was, the more my brow furrowed (accompanied with a response of no entendo). He was not going to get what he wanted—which was probably to get me to buy him breakfast or to flat out give him cash to forget the "problem" with my passport.
I don't intimidate easily these days—less and less with every thug thwarted and foreign country traveled in—and this crooked cop was mistaken if he thought he could bully me out of some cash.
The corrupt officer was getting no where (thanks to my linguistic sabotage), but instead of calling it quits and moving on, he pulled out his cell phone and make a quick call (this type of request was obviously not to be made over the radio). A few minutes later two motorbikes rolled up and three additional officers were standing next to me.
Am I suppose to be intimated? Go fish.
The ringleader of the group revealed himself, and I continued to answer legitimate questions in their native tongue—I don't have a hotel until noon, I'm a university student on holiday (a lie used with all government officials), I've been in the country since Saturday, no, I don't smoke marijuana, etc.
He meticulously analyzed my passport, playing with the reflectivity of the front page to the point where I almost thought he'd never seen one before. My stamps were likewise inspected before he took it away and had a group huddle.
It was clear that I'd been traveling for a while (the stamps alone told that story), and wasn't proving to be an easy mark. The ringleader bagged the session less than 10 minutes after he arrived.
No bribes. No breakfast. No goodbyes.
If I could have acted with impunity against the rotten piece of meat that initially approached me, I would have started off by spitting in his eye and slapping him across the face with my passport—moving my way up the chain to more even more pleasurable actions.
It was two or three hours past noon, and aside from the early-morning empanada, it had now been over 28 hours since I'd last eaten. In an attempt to find something that wasn't priced three times what it should be, I moved one block off the pedestrian avenue, onto a parallel street called Av Casanova.
I'd been walking along the one-way street for less than two minutes when my internal radar warned me that I was being monitored by a pair on a passing motorbike. Through the tinted vision of my sunglasses I saw they were cops, but did not move my head to acknowledge their (passing) presence. An eye doctor once said I have a range of peripheral vision like an owl.
I'm keen on anticipating trouble these days, and can tell by the look a person gives me if they'll be a good boy and stay where they're at, or if they'll try and approach me. I knew before I even heard the sound of the engine behind me that they'd flip around and stop me.
One quickly jumped off the bike and detained me, took my passport, and moments later were walking me over to one of the tented encampments the police have at almost every intersection in this part town. More officers were waiting—the hunters had returned to the tribe with their catch.
Plastic chairs and a table were in the wall-less tent, where they instructed me to sit; I protested. I was hungry, annoyed, and had gone without sleep during the previous night's bus trip from Ciudad Bolívar. They insisted again, strongly.
They pointed at the table and told me to empty all of my pockets onto the surface, including my money (they actually made a specific point of telling me to do this with the cash). I protested again, knowing full well that I'd undoubtedly be liberated of some or all of my bolivars, and in trouble for the knife I had forgotten to leave in my room.
Is this the way you treat all the tourists in this country, I bickered. Why are you doing this, I asked, mostly rhetorically.
Drugs, one said. We're searching you for drugs. Americans come here and buy drugs. Empty your pockets.
The contents from my waist and cargo pockets went out onto the table in a messy pile. One took an interest in my pocket watch, while another with my passport aggressively exclaimed that I'd been to Brazil.
My cash, watch, and passport were the objects of attention until the knife was discovered by hands probing on and in every visible pocket on my body.
Blah blah blah blah blah, they rattled off in Spanish. I told them it was for mangoes (more of a personal, inside joke), which they scoffed at. They especially didn't like the fact that it was spring-loaded.
The motorbike diver lifted his knee-high boot and withdrew a blade with a similar mechanical action to it, holding them parallel with each other while pushing the activating buttons. Hey look, mine's bigger than yours! is what I wanted to say, but bit my tongue.
Happy with their finding, they asked me about buying and using marijuana—no, I don't smoke marijuana, I replied (adding that I also don't smoke cigarettes or drink beer).
In the end, the handy knife that had traveled with me in every Latin American country since Guatemala (that was actually very useful for fruits and cheese), was confiscated from an officer to my left, along with VE$10,000 from my minimal collection of notes by the crooked cop to my right.
I had been tossed—rolled—by the scum of the Caracas police force. It's not like I was walking out of a favela after making a score, I was attacked for simply being a tourist walking down the street in a part of town that I came to realize has more in common with a business district or an upscale mall than a shantytown.
Whatever problems existed in Sabana Grande have long since been replaced by a hundred corrupt troopers, looting and accosting tourists inside of a 3×8 block stretch of the city.
Prisoner of Fear
Honest to God, I'm afraid to go onto the street. It's a beautiful afternoon outside, and I've been forced to lock myself in my room. I've never felt so helpless to protect myself from attack.
I'm waiting for a knock on the door—waiting for the police to come in and conduct a "random inspection" of the room. I'm completely serious in this statement. I have been attacked twice directly in just so many hours now; countless more times by the probing eyes of criminals that aren't just above the law—they are the law.
I've been physically attacked while traveling in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Brazil. I've had close in counters with physical attack in Guatemala and Brazil. I've had to walk around with an empty beer bottle in my hand after dark in Tobago. I'm use to being a target in unfamiliar territory—a walking money-belt to some—but I am not a soft or easy person to prey on. I believe thieves can sense this.
I am street savvy. I carry myself confidently. I have a highly developed sense of predatory avoidance and situational awareness. I will look a threat in the eye and non-verbally warn them that I know, and won't roll over. I will bark louder than the other Alpha dog.
But I can do nothing against these retched excuses for civil servants (and human beings). The Sabana Grande police are preying on tourists in with a forceful magnitude that I have never seen. I'm a bleeding seal in a small tank full of sharks. I'm waiting for the next bite—maybe it will be the one to put me in jail for those magically appearing drugs that just so happened to be found—planted—in a pocket. Jail, and a missed flight out of the country, unless I want to pay up.
I'm miserable. I f***ing hate you, Caracas.