Normally, I feel a bit safer when I see police officers on the beat. In NYC, there are uniformed and undercover officers regularly on patrol. And with the “war on terror” still in full effect, there are probably more officers now than at any time that I can remember.
In Colombia, there are police and military seemingly everywhere. Domestic security is still a big concern due to rebel groups (FARC and ELN, for example) and drug traffickers. So when we went to Tayrona National Park we weren’t surprised to come across police checkpoints. According to the park’s rules, drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed. The irony of this is that all the campsites sell beer and some even sell wine and hard liquor. So when we got stopped at the checkpoint outside the Arrecifes camping area I was expecting us them to casually check our bags for contraband and let us get on our way. But this wasn’t the case…
Rather than checking our bags the 2 police officers told us that if we had any drugs we should tell them now. If they find anything later then we’d go to jail. I didn’t have anything to hide. But it turned out one of my mates (let’s just call him M) had a small bag of marijuana, maybe 2 grams at most. The request to be upfront and honest with the weed seemed like a legitimate one so M handed it over. In hindsight (and we all know Captain Hindsight is always right), he shouldn’t have handed it over. The cops took him aside and said in very high speed Spanish that he would go to jail. They pointed at some newspaper article about someone going to jail for 2.5 grams of marijuana. We couldn’t quite understand everything they were saying but while all this was going on his partner casually checked other people’s bags and even let a group go into the campsite with a bottle of whiskey.
After a short impasse due to the language barrier, they got down to business. One officer wrote 300 (as in 300000 pesos, or about US$180) on the newspaper. M said he didn’t have that much. Then he wrote 200. Again, M said he didn’t have it. Then 100. Again, “no tengo”. Then they said ok you go to jail now, so we pitched in and paid the 100000 peso bribe. Which they happily accepted by having us put the money on the table and covering it with a book. They tried to be discreet about the whole ordeal but I’m sure everyone walking by knew what was going on. Then the police officer handed the weed back to M! And he said to put it down his pants and to not smoke it till after midnight. Wow, now that was unexpected. Then we went on our way.
As if that wasn’t enough, later that evening M was in his hammock rolling a joint when out of nowhere the same 2 police officers walked by on patrol. They saw us and then saw M’s lone light. They walked up behind him with their lights off to see what he was up to. From where we were standing they were barely visible in the darkness. The cheeky bastards were just waiting for M to light it up but we told M in French to stop rolling cause the police were there. M turned off his light after a few moments and pretended to go to sleep. The police walked off shortly thereafter. Seriously, what were the odds of the same 2 corrupt cops catching M again?!
Now get this, as of mid-2012 minor drug possession is actually legal in Colombia! Individuals can carry up to 20 grams of marijuana or 1 gram of cocaine legally. Which means that the newspaper article the corrupt coppers showed us must’ve been from 2010 or something when it was illegal. Sneaky!