“Beware of fake policemen.” This is what the sign to the right of the door at the hostel I had just arrived at in Bogota, Colombia read. Being accustom to traveling in countries that have their fair share of crime and social issues, this type of thing was nothing new to me.
There are certain scams and cons that you see the world over with just slightly different takes on them depending on where you are. For instance, all over South America from the Caribbean of Colombia to the southern most inhabited city of Ushuia in Argentina, you may encounter this scam; A usually well dressed man points out that you have mustard, paint or spit on your back or shoulder and offers to help you clean it off. In some countries they will conveniently have paper towels or napkins with them and when you take your backpack off to clean whatever substance is on you, an accomplice will come running by or scooting by on a motorcycle and grab your bag. In Colombia the helpful stranger will usually help you clean it in a nearby public bathroom where you are then bum rushed by multiple people that will steal everything you have. This is a relatively sedate and non-violent crime compared to some of the stories I have heard from people that have experienced worse things first hand. There was a woman staying at the same hostel as me hostel in Medellin, Colombia that was also a photographer. We started talking and it turned out she was there on an internship performing oral surgeries to reconstruct jaw bones. In her first week she saw three patients, one from a motorcycle accident and two from robberies where the culprit just walked up and shot the victim in the face without a word and proceeded to rob them blind.
This is not a story though meant to dissuade you from travel, especially travel to Colombia! For the most part the people of Colombia are some of the nicest and most genuinely cordial I have had the honor to spend time with. They don’t even use “Gracias” for thank you in their country, they use “con mucho gusto,” which roughly translates to “with much appreciation.” As with anywhere you travel, especially developing countries with wide spread poverty and little education, there are going to be people that are going to take advantage of others. When heading to a new location it is a good idea to research the area as much as possible. Not only the sights that you want to see, but the customs and dangers of an area. I will usually start by going to the Department of State website and look at what ever travel warnings they have for the area. I take their warnings for the most part with a grain of salt. They make it sound like going to England could be life threatening for about a dozen reasons, but it is still a good foundation for your research. Next I’ll head to Lonely Planets website and look at the dangers and annoyances section for my intended destination. Finally when I arrive at a destination, I’ll talk to someone at the desk where I am staying and also a few travelers to see what they have heard or experienced during their travels. When traveling with valuables like camera gear that are small and easy to quickly run off with, it is a good idea to be as diligent as possible.
In this particular incident I had just arrived in Bogota, Colombia from the states and made my way to my hostel in a taxi. I was staying in a relatively safe area called Candelaria. This is a vibrant part of the city with bight colors and street art covering nearly every surface. Because of its popularity with tourists it tends to be an area heavy in pick pockets and scams. After settling into my room and meeting a few people I headed out to explore a bit of the area. It was just after noon and people were all over the streets. I travel with a fair amount of camera gear and like most photographers, whats in that bag is my life. About three blocks from my hostel I had a man in a suit come up and ask me in Spanish if I knew where a toy store was as he proceeded to show me a business card with stores name on it. He said he was a businessman from Venezuela and wanted to get his son a gift before returning home. Just after I told him I didn’t know where it was he flagged down a second well dressed man that was walking by us. This passerby knew where the store was and pointed the first guy in its general direction. Just as he was about to walk that way the newest member of our sidewalk group informed us that he is a detective with the police station (he pointed to a large police station less than 500 feet away) and proceeded to tell us about how Colombia has a smuggling problem and how they do spot checks of tourists from time to time. He asked for our passport information which I found very suspicious. You see the “businessman” willingly handing over everything the “detective” asks for like it is standard procedure. I told him my passport wasn’t on me (a lie) and he said no problem, I could just write my passport number, name and address on this handy sheet of paper he had and that would be fine. I wrote fake information down and he said he would be right back. He actually went into the large police station after instructing us to stay put for a moment. He returned about 3 minutes later telling us we both checked out and then handed us two business cards each – one for the police station’s general line and another that was a card for a detective in the station whom he claimed he was. “If you have any problems during your stay in Bogota, don’t hesitate to contact me directly,” he said with a smile. Since I gave him fake info that supposedly checked out I now knew this was a scam. Just before he was going to let us go though he wanted to take my camera bag with him up to the station to swab it for cocaine residue. As he proceeded to grab the handle on my camera bag I didn’t let go and told him “That won’t be a problem, I’d be happy to accompany you to the police station and watch them perform the test.” He insisted that this was a normal procedure and the was nothing to worry about. Once again you see this “businessman” complying and looking at you like you’re crazy for not. After a minute of me telling him that I am going with that bag wherever it goes a third well dressed man approached us. He was in his 60’s and proceeded to tell me that he is the commandant of the station and that I should trust them and let them take my bag to the station for this routine test while I waited on the sidewalk. After a few minutes of me still refusing it became clear that I wasn’t handing over my bag, they eventually gave up and all three went walking off in the same direction – away from the police station. I was very lucky. I have a Colombian friend that was robbed at gunpoint with her two other Colombia friends at about that same time of day near the same area for their phones.
When I went back to my hostel, I started talking to an Irish guy I had met when I arrived and recounted my experience. He said, “Go check out the warning near the door.” I went back over to the front door and there on the right side of it was the warning I had seen earlier about fake policemen. On the left side of the door was a description of the scam I had just been through first hand – “Man posing as Bolivain or Venezualen business man asks for directions. When he hears accent he give signal to which a ‘detective’ passing by tells him where and proceeds to…” This was a verbatim account of my encounter.
The Take Away
I am a travel addict with a deeply rooted wanderlust. I didn’t let this incident discourage me from continuing my trip. This was the first day of what was to be seven weeks of amazing travel through what is still one of my favorite countries. That being said if my gear had been stolen, I would have booked a flight directly back to the states after obtaining a police report (from a real cop) to try and replace my gear. When traveling you always have to remember that physical things can be replaced. Had a weapon come into play in that incident I am sure that they would have been walking away with $12,000 in camera gear. There are certain things you can do though to try and prepare for a situation you hadn’t planned on. All of my camera gear is insured. You can usually list it on your home owners or rental insurance policies for a minimal amount. I also buy travel insurance before a trip like that and I always recommend the same to people that participate in my workshops. I personally use World Nomads. There are many like them out there but they all cover to a certain extent; loss of gear, medical expenses, airlift evacuation if needed, recouping of plane ticket fees in case of a death or sickness in your family, in addition to many other things. Their policies are usually inexpensive and I have personally had a friend have to use one for hospitalization in Nepal. Regardless of insurance, due diligence and proper preparation are necessary, along with keeping your eyes open when traveling. Try and make yourself a less attractive and more aware target than the next guy and you will likely be passed over by petty thieves.
I hope this tale hasn’t deterred you from exploring new lands! If anything I hope it to be a cautionary tale that may better prepare you for dangers you may encounter on your own travels. Just remember, your trip is only going to be as good as what you put into it for preparation. Learn what to watch out for in the places you’re about to venture to and you probably have a leg up over the guy standing next to you in that crowded plaza.