by Matthew Samuel
Location: Cochabamba, Bolivia, South America
Overconfidence can be a dangerous thing. Unfortunately I didn’t recognise this as I was walking confidently around the Bolivian city of Cochabamba with an Argentinean friend, named Pablo, whom I had recently met. Being a Sunday the streets were quiet but that abruptly changed when a man approached us.
The man asked to see our passports after informing us that he was an undercover cop working for immigration and flashing his identification. I handed him my passport but Pablo didn’t have his. Still wielding my passport in one hand, after flipping through it, he hailed a taxi and told us to get in so that he could take us to their office. Pablo and the man had a short discussion after which Pablo motioned me to the taxi assuring me that it’s okay and so we got into the back while the officer took the front passenger seat.
My Spanish was lacking and the dialogue was fast but Pablo was there to speak for us. We hadn’t driven very far when the officer suddenly yelled at two others on the street to get in the car. They got into the back, one on each side, having the two of us trapped.
One man claimed to the officer that he was a Peruvian tourist while the other was introduced as the officer’s partner. As they were checking our arms for drug needle punctures the car was taking all sorts of turns that made it impossible to discern where we were. Suddenly we were in a quiet neighbourhood with hardly a soul on the streets. Not good. These cops were now searching through everything we had. They returned my belongings and I began verifying that everything was there but they warned me not to and made a motion to mimic a throat being cut. Eventually we were allowed to exit the car and they drove off leaving us a bit shaken but intact. All my money was gone. Fortunately they were “generous” enough to return my passport.
It was a set-up from the beginning and they were all working together. None of them were cops or tourists. Pablo and I had time to talk about it during the 45-minute walk back to our hostel. He told me that they were not bad people but that this was a form of employment in Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Somehow his reasoning failed to comfort me, as this was not the way I planned to support the Bolivian economy. The experience did teach me to be watchful and not to carry everything of importance with me at once. I shouldn’t have got into the car to begin with but since he had my passport it was difficult not to. This convinced me to carry a photocopy of my passport, instead of the real thing, more often. Fortunately it did not discourage me from travelling through stunning Bolivia, as that would have been a real crime; after all, one robbery during my nine months of South American backpacking is not so bad, especially if it helped their economy!
main image: Abandoned steam engine in Bolivia, image by Jimmy Harris