How to cross Central American borders…like a Boss

in Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

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ex·tor·tion (ikˈstôrSHən/)

noun

  1. the practice of obtaining something, esp. money, through force or threats.
synonyms: blackmailshakedown;

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hondurasborder2     My father and I recently returned from Central America, where we went deep into coffee country, and enjoyed the freshest coffee we’ve ever had.

This was my first trip to the area, but my father has been there a few times before.  He was our guide.  The first time that he visited Central America, it was with a retired friend, and the two of them toured by mini van.  My father had told me that one problem is when you cross borders on foot, as opposed to flying into the country and dealing with customs officers at the airport.  Without the cameras, many other people, and management around, customs officers at the border crossings take advantage of the opportunity to ask tourists like us for a few extra bucks for themselves.

hondurasborder1     These extra bucks are not legit.  This is extortion, not an official charge that they are collecting.  From his first trip, my father tells stories of having to deal with many different officers at a single crossing, each one asking for 5 or 10 dollars.  At one crossing, he paid a total of $50 before noticing an English speaking woman talking to a priest.  He asked the woman if these payments were normal, and she was shocked at what he had paid.  She asked the priest to talk to the young officers about it.  When the priest came back, he said to my father, “The officer has to save face.  He insists he did not take any money from you, and will not give it to me.  But, you will not be paying money to any more officers at this crossing.”

This is all I could think about as our taxi driver from Punto Barrios, Guatemala dropped us off at the Honduran border.  There is an entry fee of 3 US dollars to enter Honduras, and we could see this clearly on a sign on the wall and a formal printout that the customs officer gave us.  I gave him $20 to cover both my father and I.  When he gave me $4 back instead of $14, I turned to my father to ask how we should handle it.  After all, I don’t need to get tossed into secondary inspection and have them take more than $10 of things out of my bag.  Maybe that’s harsh, but the guy did just stiff me 10 dollars.  Seeing that there was a sizable staff at this crossing, and many other people around (granted, we were the only non-locals), my father suggested I say something.

guatemalaborder1     I pointed out the mistake to the customs officer in Spanish.  Almost immediately, he acknowledged it and then created a bit of a scene behind the glass trying to find the right change in US dollars to give me.  He couldn’t find it, and was becoming flustered.  I suggested to him that he give me my change in Honduran Limpiras, since I’d need some.  In his frustration, he put his hand in the till, grabbed a random handful of Limpiras, and handed them to me.  There were so many hundreds of Limpiras, I didn’t know if he was giving me more or less money back.  My Dad said, “Good enough.”  As an aside, he gave me more change than he was supposed to.

The next hustler we’d encounter on our trip was at the Guatemalan border, as we made our way back from Honduras.  This time, it was a small crossing.  There were only two officers, an older experienced man, and a boy likely in training.  This poses a different kind of problem.  If you are asked to pay a bribe, the common advice is to ask for “el jefe” (the manager).  But if the guy asking for the bribe is el jefe, what do you do then?  As we waited in line, my father asked me to check if anybody ahead of us was being asked for money.  I let him know that nobody was paying any money to the officer.  We seriously did not have any money on us, and planned to hit an ATM in Guatemala City once we arrived there.  This ended up coming in handy.

guatemalaborder2     When my father stepped up to the glass for processing, el jefe asked him for 5 dollars.  My father pulled out his credit card, and indicated it was the only way he could pay.  El jefe told him he couldn’t take a credit card.  A Honduran boy behind me in line that spoke perfect English also told me that they wouldn’t be able to take a credit card.  And, of course!  This isn’t a legitimate charge, so they aren’t going to be able to process a credit card.  When my father reiterated that he had no cash, el jefe asked the other officer something, who looked out the door window at me.  I believe el jefe asked either if anybody was traveling with my father, or if there was anybody else in line that could see all this going down.

Whatever the boy answered, el jefe asked if my father was traveling alone.  I stepped up, said in Spanish that we were traveling together, and he asked for my passport.  He stamped both of them and gave them back.  I grabbed my father’s arm and told him we needed to walk away.  We realized we may have cracked the code.  If you don’t have the cash, they have no way to get money from you.

centralamerica     We had one more crossing on this trip before getting to Belize, and that was to exit Guatemala.  On our bus ride there, a couple American backpackers sitting behind us asked the bus driver if we would need to pay anything to leave Guatemala, since neither of them had any money.  The driver paused, then said no.  The pause was all I needed to hear – it meant they weren’t supposed to ask for money, but the bus driver wouldn’t know if they would or not when we got there.  One backpacker told the driver that she had heard that they ask for money at these crossings.  Again, the driver paused, then said no.

I had a few US dollars left, that I took out of my money clip and put into a different pocket.  I had a plan.

guatemalaborder3

When we walked into the border crossing, the two officers were a man in his 40s and a woman in her 50s.  We could hear that they were asking for 25 Guatemalan Quetzals from each tourist.  My father got the male officer, and I got the female officer.  Maybe I just want to think the best of people, but it felt to me like this woman didn’t even want to ask for the bribe.  I imagined that if her colleague was doing it, she felt pressured to do it as well.  If you’ve worked in a unionized environment, you know what happens if you grab a broom and try to clean up after yourself.  Your coworkers tell you to stop, and eventually, you just start doing whatever your coworkers are doing.

With my passport in hand, she very meekly asked for 25 Quetzals in Spanish without looking up at me.  Here was my plan.

IMG_2639     Because she asked so quietly, the first thing I was going to do was pretend that I didn’t hear her.  I thought that might make things awkward enough that she not ask again.

If she did ask again, my plan was to ask her “por que?”, why are you charging me this?  What is the name of this charge?  It doesn’t have a formal name, because it’s extortion.

If she came up with some reason to charge me this or if the male officer intervened (he seemed more assertive), then I would pull out my money clip so that they could see that it didn’t have any money in it, and ask her if she accepts Visa or Mastercard.  I already knew she couldn’t accept either.

The standoff began.  I didn’t answer her, and she was holding my passport without stamping it.

After a few awkward seconds, she finally looked up and quickly made eye contact with me before looking back down at my passport.  I maintained eye contact, without making any comments or asking any questions.  The standoff continued.

After another couple awkward seconds of no progress, she stamped my passport and handed it to me.  I said gracias, and walked away briskly.  I won!  Marc 3, crooks in customs 0.  We stood eye and eye, and she blinked.

The moral of the story: I am darned lucky we didn’t get tossed into secondary inspection and robbed at any of those three crossings!

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