Tommy Walker on being in the wrong place at the worst of times
Growing up we all tend to watch a bit of TV, however good or bad it is. Just like many of us are guilty of watching, ‘trash’ TV will tend to lure us a little bit more, simply because of how unrealistic the entertainment compares with real life. I remember as a teenager, aimlessly flicking through the channels and every now and then I’d catch the odd show of Brits Banged Up Abroad – or something similar. These kind of shows would re-tell real life stories of Brits who had fallen victim to foreign laws or were just incredibly unlucky – or stupid – and ultimately found themselves locked away in a foreign jail.
Never did I imagine that would happen to me during my travels. But one day back in 2014, I found myself arrested in Colombia.
The road less travelled
Now, if you’ve travelled a fair bit like I have, you’d be silly not to think the odd problem may occur here and there, especially if you seek to venture into the off the beaten track destinations like I do. It makes me feel alive, but also it allows me to experience a destination without the glitz and the glamour of a major tourist spot.
Take Venezuela for example – a country that has been in total disarray for a number of years now. Prior to my visit to Colombia, many travellers and backpackers told me how I shouldn’t visit Venezuela because it’s dangerous and that no one travels there. But that’s just it, that’s the beauty of travelling? Going totally out of your comfort zone to feel and sense something different – and if it’s more dangerous then so be it, the decision is yours to make alone.
Colombia on the other hand, despite years of gang wars, cartels and political turmoil has turned a corner. Many travellers are visiting, its education industry is booming and I believe Medellin was recently voted the most innovative city by a popular travel publication – so things are on the up. But let’s be honest, Colombia is within South America and unfortunately not a stranger when it comes to corruption.
That Night In 2014
Near Santa Marta, several friends and me were knocking the drinks back by Taganga beach one night back in 2014. One mate and me decided to go for a cigarette by the beach. Nothing seemed sketchy or harmful, and we weren’t the only ones on the beach at the time. As we sat down on some benches, we saw two police offers approaching us. One was on a motorbike and the other was on foot.
“Policia!” I remember them shouting! The next minute we are being searched and cuffed. It all happened so fast and were questioning with our limited Spanish phrases that came to “Por que?” It happened in a flash and next thing you know my friend and me are being escorted to the police station.
My friend tried to resist the arrest- that frighteningly made one of the police offers draw his gun out as we were being escorted! I definitely thought this was a no-no procedure when restraining an arrestee, but it happened.
What we had come to believe at this point is that they were looking for drugs. And with Colombia being Colombia its no secret to what kind of drug they were looking for. Cocaine.
Cuffed and detained
As we got into the police station, another gringo, a lot younger than us had also been detained. (To make the story easier to follow I’m going to refer to the arrested Dutch man as Nick, although I have no idea what his real name was.) By this point we were simply shoved against the desk and strip-searched, everywhere. Yes, that’s right – everywhere. After we’d been frisked down and nothing had been found, we were essentially linked together with the extra gringo. He’d been found in possession of multiple bags of cocaine, not enough to be a cartel leader but more than one. The kid was only 19 years old and from Holland and was evidently quivering in his boots.
By this point, our large faction of friends who had been with us before we went for a cigarette (which by this point felt a lifetime ago) had managed to catch eye of our arrest and gather by the door of the police station. This station, may I add, wasn’t a huge building with double glazed windows, electronic security locks and gates – it was a basic brick walled building with no front door and glaring windows, so essentially they could see what was happening.
Inside however, things were still ongoing. As the three of us stood around waiting for the decision – I cheekily piped up.
“We are Policia.” replied one of the police officers that had arrested us.
Yet, hearing about stories in South America, giving the odd bribe was the way to go at certain times, and this was one of them times! Even though we hadn’t done anything!
As the officers all liaised in Spanish and with some glaring nods and points, they suddenly let my friend go! I couldn’t believe it, so why was I still in this frame?!
Bizarrely, ‘Nick’ and me were sent into a room with a small TV in the corner. Creepy dominatrix pornography was showing that depicted a woman killing another woman.
I remember asking myself, are they trying to freak us out? It’s obvious they were.
Spanglish and Google Translate
Through the window I was miming to my friends to call the British Embassy because this was absurd by now. I felt sorry for Nick, who had attempted numerous times to speak Spanish (and with Google Translate) to try resolving the issue. I was just in shock at this point and had sobered up thinking about what was going to happen next.
The police wouldn’t talk to me, because on the surface I was acting calm and collected. I think my earlier question asking if they wanted money didn’t go down well. I remember really feeling helpless when one of the officers showed me a message via Google Translate that stated: ‘You have the right to remain silent; you can contact the British Embassy in 48 hours’. It did enough to make me think they were trying to take things further – and I was just stunned at to how!
After a game of to and fro with Google Translate, they eventually left us alone for a bit. We weren’t in chains or behind metal bars, but the isolation was difficult enough.
Then the officers came back in the room and asked: “How do you expect to get out of this?”
I replied with another brave comment: “Taxi.”
That was my opportunity for negotiation out of the window and from then on it was all through the officers and Nick.
Freedom for a price
“500,000 Pesos ($175.00 USD) and you can go.”
After I heard of the proposal, I looked at Nick and explained that we weren’t paying that. We had to haggle at least. I was furious I was paying for something that wasn’t my fault; despite it not being a huge amount, it was the principal of it all.
“100,000 Pesos” I replied. The policeman laughed and shook his head.
At this point Nick was visibly upset and nearly in tears. He just wanted out, so we paid it. Not before being marched to the nearest ATM to withdraw money.
“One last thing: we didn’t want to have to do this.” That was the last thing the officer said as his dark eyes glared into mine. He was surely annoyed at my lack of worry on the outside, but on the inside it was a bit of a nervy moment, I can say that much.
What we’d later been told is that apparently the police know the local small time drug dealers and do a ‘bust’ like this regularly. Or at least that was the case for us. Whether one person is guilty and others are not, the more bodies they can arrest, the more money they get in bribes. The vicious circle continues – drug dealers and police working together whilst some poor gringo, in this case me and a couple others, have to go through a scary ordeal and fork out a chunk of money for the evening.
I want to write a conclusion because I feel the need to clarify a few things. Colombia has changed a lot since the 90’s and it’s past reputation of guns, drugs and violence. I visited in 2014 and I thoroughly enjoyed my time travelling there on the whole. The country is cleaning up its act and as far as I’ve read is trying to clamp down heavily on drugs in the whole.
This incident was very unfortunate but sadly, not entirely rare either. My friend and me were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I still urge you to visit Colombia; it actually was one of my favourite countries in the whole of South America!
For more of Tommy Walker’s adventures, read his interview