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Corruption in the Calle: Bribing the Cops


        While living in a corrupt city like Cartagena, I make a daily decision whether I am going to perpetuate, ignore, or call out normalized bribery and fraud. I consider myself a good foreign resident. I pay my real estate, vehicle, and income taxes. I pick up my dogs’ poop and garbage in my neighborhood park and most of the time, I stop my car for pedestrians. However, somedays I am tested more than others, and all my civic duty and good-neighbor etiquette just go out the window. 
Recently, I was stopped by the traffic police or DATT (Departamento Administrativo de Tránsito y Transportes). I was in violation of the pico y placa law which states that cars with specific license plate numbers can only travel through the city on certain days and times. It is designed to help with traffic. As I drove to work, I completely forgot it was my car’s turn to stay home, so I was rightfully stopped. Here is when I had to make a decision: should I bribe the possibly corrupt officer, or should I just accept the ticket and tow?
Please keep in mind: a standard DATT bribe is about US$20. The ticket is about US$150 and the tow is about US$75 which is very expensive when earning in Colombian pesos.  Also, the official bureaucratic process of paying for a ticket and getting a car out of the tow lot is not only time-consuming but also utterly baffling.
As I rolled down the window of my car to say, “Is there a problem officers?” I made a quick decision: time to bribe them.  I pulled out my designated kickback money from behind the sun visor. The male and female officers recited the pico y placa law and the penalty for the violation. I asked if there was a way, “we could work together to solve this problem. Maybe we could discuss something that would be reasonable for everyone?” The female officer asked me to get out of the car to have a better conversation and to ensure I was not filming the stop on my phone. Even though that was a red flag, I left my phone in the car to show that I didn’t want to publish our dirty deeds on-line. I just wanted to play the bribery game and get to work on-time.
As I stood on the side of the busy road with the two officers, I attempted to hand them the bribe.. The male officer responded, “Oh no, not here my dear. Let’s walk around the corner, so we can be in the shade.” We would also be hidden from the city’s security cameras and curious pedestrians. Then the male officer said, “Ya know, tickets and tows are very expensive here in Colombia. The tow is at least 200 thousand [US$75]. How about we settle for that and then you won´t get a ticket and we won´t have to tow your car?”
I could feel myself getting hot and flustered. I planned to play the bribery game, but now the stakes were too high. I replied to the officer, “Sir, I don’t have that kind of money on me.”
Without blinking, he answered, “Don’t worry; you can just go to the ATM down the street. We will watch your car. Park it over there.” 
My throat tightened and a tear shed from behind my sunglasses. “That is extortion. I was going to play your little game, but now I just want the ticket and tow,” I responded sternly.  I was livid, but I somehow controlled my trembling body. Right or wrong, I had no intention of losing this corrupt game.
The female officer did not like my mention of extortion, especially since people on the street could hear us. She huffed, “Listen, there is no reason to use words like that! We were just trying to help you. Give me your license, registration, and ID. I am calling the tow truck now.”
“Fine. Here you are. Just let me know how long this is going to take because I have to call my boss and let him know what time I will be in,” I snorted.
The officers looked over my papers. Luckily, I had everything in order and up to date. The male officer said to the female officer, “Look, she is a foreigner. Her ID says so. Just let her go with a ticket. Forget the tow. She’s going to cause us a lot of trouble.”
The female officer handed me the ticket and said if I paid for it and attended traffic school within 5 business days, I would only have to pay half. She also reminded me of how generous and helpful they were for not towing my car.  I feigned my gratitude and continued on to work.
My Colombian colleagues said I did the right thing because, in the end, I was going to have to pay the same amount in tickets as I would have in bribes: 200 thousand pesos. They believe the cops should have let me pay 50 to 80 thousand pesos because that was the current amount of a standard DATT officer bribe. I received the gringo rate.
Four days later, I went to the local DATT office to take the driver's education class in order to receive a 50% discount off my ticket. As I was parking my car, a man immediately greeted me. He opened my door and offered to help me with the class and payment of the ticket. I kindly denied him reminding myself that I was not a corrupt citizen yet, and I should just probably follow the regimented process. I didn't need a self-designated runner to complete it for me. After I entered the building, I asked the security guard for what long line I should get into while the runner kept insisting he would help me. I kindly, and then strongly, refused his assistance about ten times.

Certificate of  Completion Driver's Ed Class
Finally, a deadpan agent behind handprint smudged glass informed me that the course had already started, and I would have to return in the afternoon or the next day. It was only 9 AM. As I heard the  infuriating news, the persistent man was right next to me. With a big toothy grin and his hand out, he said reassuringly, “Señora, you'll be out of here in ten minutes. Give me the ticket, your ID, and 30 thousand pesos [US$ 10].” As I handed everything over, he greeted the cashier. "Buenos días, linda.  This nice lady will be paying half- price of her ticket." As I took out my debit card, the runner went into another room and quickly came back with a certificate stating I had personally taken a two-hour driver's ed class. He beamed, “Count on me for the next time!” 
All of Cartagena’s residents fear and hate the blue-uniformed DATT officers due to their overt bribery and fraud policies. It’s corruption in broad daylight. They make all drivers’ lives difficult if they don’t want to colaborar (collaborate) or simply don’t have the money. The truth is it really doesn’t matter if a driver has a license, registration, insurance, fire extinguisher, first aid and emergency kits, vehicle in proper working order, too many passengers, or helmet for motorcycles.  Road safety is an afterthought. All that really matters is if drivers have money. 
The good news is that I have money, but how much do I want to give away? How often am I willing to hand it over to uniformed strangers? Am I doing my civic duty by providing charity to our fair city’s employees? Or am I simply just as corrupt as the officers?  I will let you know very soon;  the next time I get pulled over.

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