As I always feared about traveling in Venezuela, I got pulled out of the bus by the police for extortion.
After sending off my good Colombians friends at the border between San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela and Cucuta, Colombia, I made my way back to San Cristobal. Being the only foreigner in the bus, indeed, I became a target.
At the first checkpoint, the police held my passport for so long until I gestured him to return it to me. Identification check usually lasted for less than a minute. The next inspection went smoothly. But the third inspection was a nightmare. The police gestured me to step out of the bus.
Surprised of my response. I drew the attention of the passengers, and perhaps, the police as well. The latter explained that he needed a computer to verify my identity.
I had an iPhone, camera and an equivalent of about $200 in my pockets. My roommates, a French lady and a German guy, had their stuff confiscated at the checkpoints. And it could happen to me as well.
“No! No! No! If you want to verify the information on my passport, go to your office and I would wait for you!” I continued defying his order.
I noticed snickering laugh among the passengers. I was not sure if they were approving of me. Perhaps, I might have humiliated a police officer.
The police vented his frustration to other passengers by telling them that I kept protesting but could not be understood in English. And that drew a laugh from everyone.
I could hardly converse in Spanish but I understood many words. However, with lack of certainty that I picked up the message right, I sometimes replied, “Lo siento! No intiende.”
“Inspeccion el bulto!”
“Sure!” And I gestured him to search my bag.
“In la oficina.”
“No! No!” I protested. “Inspeccion aqui es bueno.”
He did not open my bag. Instead he asked me again to step out of the bus.
“Jesus Christ! What do you want?” I exclaimed in agitation.
I pulled everything out of my bag, and showed every piece to him.
“Now what? There is nothing in my bag. So give me back my passport please!”
The police stepped out of the bus. Some passengers looked worried as they were assessing the situation. They thought that the situation might get worse if I continued to resist.
Shortly, the police returned with another police. After getting assurance from the bus driver that he would wait for me, I stepped down.
There were five policemen in the office. One offered me some coffee, but I politely refused. Another police gestured me to step inside a smaller room for a body search. I demanded to speak with Canadian Embassy first. Without waiting for their response, I hurriedly went back to the bus and asked for a cell phone.
As four policemen followed me, the passengers became agitated at them and more concerned of me. I quietly passed my iPhone and camera to a young lady who helped me earlier in translation. A woman in her forties volunteered to come with me back to the office. She towed her three small kids with us. The assistant of the bus driver was behind me as well.
A guy in civilian clothes browsed my passport, and mentioned all the countries that I got stamped. Spain, Italy, UK, the Netherlands, China, Japan, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. He continued with the border points in Venezuela. Santa Elena. San Antonio del Tachira.
“I am a backpacker. I travel everywhere.” I explained.
Then he asked for a copy of immigration form. I pulled it out of my pocket. Unfortunately. I also accidentally exposed some bills. The other police gestured me to give everything to them, but I refused to hand down the money. It was my last Bolivares and my credit card would not work in any Venezuelan bank, except Citibank in Caracas.
He asked me if I speak Portuguese. I replied, “No fala Portuguese.”
I turned my eyes around the room trying to make sense of this mess. And I guessed the policemen might be pondering as well on what else they could do to extort money from me. With some passengers witnessing the nonsense interrogation, they could not do much. After about 15 minutes, I got my passport back.
I returned to the bus thanking everyone for the support. I hugged the lady who stood by me. As the bus moved away from the checkpoint, everyone applauded. And some got the courage to condemn police corruption.
It was ironic but both tourists and locals expressed reservation on police presence everywhere. Venezuelan government seemed to be in war against its citizens.