As we pulled through the toll on our way back to Montevideo from Punta del Este we were waved down by a police officer standing behind the booth. It was Thursday afternoon, the sun was out and the roads were quiet. I don’t know if it was the rental car sticker on our bumper, that we were coming from Punta del Este or because we were 4 men packed in a small car but the officer definitely knew we were coming in advance. The Policia spoke into his walkie-talkie as if to confirm he got us as he walked over to the side of the road where we were now parked.
Devin was driving and I was in the passenger seat. The officer stood at the drivers side window and inspected Devin’s New York drivers license first. Then, he asked if any of us spoke Spanish because he didn’t speak any English. I reluctantly said “Si, yo hago… mas or menos”. He asked Devin and I to get out of the car and come around front. From there (from what I understood) he proceeded to tell us the problem. he explained that our lights were off and that it was the law that they needed to be on at all times and from what I hear I guess this is actually true. He then asked about the English translation for a few words like “light” and “on/off” and he seemed to get a kick out of how easy it was (light – Luz). After a few minutes of awkward small talk and nervous laughter he asked Devin to get back in the car.
Now it was just the officer and I standing there as he got to the point. Roughly translating what he said, he told me… “Listen, we can go inside and you can fill out a bunch of paperwork and it will take a few hours before you can be on your way… or…. something else faster.” As he said this he stuck out his hands, palms up. He mentioned it would be a favor for us and that we can then go on our way much faster then the previous option. Although I didn’t understand all his words I definitely understood the situation.
He asked me to go sit back in the car and come up with “algo” (something) for him. As I sat back in the car I asked Dan and Devin in the back seat if they had any Uruguay Pesos left. Not knowing what was going on they both immediately forked over what they had left. As the officer approached the window he reached down into the car and said “we have to do this discreetly because there are cameras watching me.” He then put a small pocket book in front of me and I slid $200 Uruguay Pesos into one of the pages.
He closed the book, shook my hand, said “Buenos Dias” and we were off. We were all in disbelieve as to what just happened and a little concerned because we still had 2 more tolls to go through before we reached the ferry back to Buenos Aires. Eyes wide open, we made it back without another incident.
When I returned home and told all the guys at work and basketball about what happened. They were not surprised at all, actually more surprised that this was the first time it had happened to me, since I’ve been here 5 months! Everyone I talked to had a similar story, from courtroom negotiations to speeding pay-offs. The word Coima (police bribe/shake down) is definitely a part of everyday life here in Argentina (and Uruguay).
All-in-all it was a very interesting learning experience and it only cost us the equivalent of $10 US dollars. From what everyone tells me, next time, if it happens in Argentina, it won’t be so cheap.
T2t Words of Wisdom: Always carry cash on you but don’t show them all the money you have. If I owned a car here I would keep low denomination bills in my glove box.
Every day I learn more and more about this culture.