Crooked Cops and Strong Tea

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Monday, April 3, 2006

We had our first encounter with a crooked cop (at least it was the first time we were targeted by a crooked cop.) South America tends to employ a unique policing strategy. Rather than patrolling neighborhoods and looking for criminals, police here will set up roadblocks on the highway and wait for criminals to come to them. This has the added convenience of never forcing a cop to be beyond walking distance of a panaderia (Spanish for doughnut shop.)

The cops force each driver to slow down and will occasionally ask them to produce various documents. Usually they are working in teams of 3 or more and do not tend to have much interest in us. When we have been questioned, I quickly pull out the required documents and Kia flashes her pearly whites and tells our story of driving back to California. To date this has always achieved a quick wave through the roadblock.

Three days ago we were driving across (very) rural northern Argentina when a lone cop ordered us to stop. He asked for a couple of documents, which we produced but he did not seem charmed by Kia's smile. Uh-oh.

Realizing we were probably pretty legal, he then asked for a permit for the bicycles and accused us of having an illegal rack. (This is particularly ridiculous in Argentina, where it is not uncommon for entire families to transport all of their worldly possessions tied to the top of a rusted 1978 Toyota Tercel.)

We argued, we pleaded, we pretended we didn't speak Spanish (this was pretty easy for me), all to no avail. He demanded a fine of 200 pesos (about $65) and wouldn't return my international drivers license unless we paid. (I have made copies of most of my docs and try not to give originals to cops, but this one was real.)

My last strategy was to make him give me his name or badge number as a way to 'negotiate'. He started screaming at me and he was the one with the gun, so I gave him the money. He stuffed it in his desk and waved me away.

He didn't have a badge or much of a uniform (just a gun) and he was working alone. I have some doubts as to whether he really was a cop, but the bottom line was he was more heavily armed than we were, so we did what we were told.


We have spent the past three days in Cafayate, a picturesque town in northern wine country. The drive in was through a beautiful canyon that reminded us of Arizona complete with saguaro cactuses. We had a nice time cycling through vineyards and tasting malbec wines.

Much of the local population is of native American descent. I wrote in an earlier entry that Argentina had wiped out the natives from all of the areas suitable for ranching. Fortunately for these natives, cattle don't seem to like to eat cactus. Vineyards occupy only a small portion of the land (presumably the best portions) and the natives were allowed to eke out a living in the mountains. We had a brief visit to one of the villages and it was clearly subsistence living, but in a beautiful setting. The one nice building (no surprise) was the Catholic Church.

Since we are in a more native area, Kia decided to try one of the local customs, coca leaves. One of the cafes was offering coca tea and Kia, curious as ever, decided to try that in place of her usual Earl Grey. She reports that it has a lot more kick than regular tea or coffee, but leaves your stomach in knots. My understanding is that it does wonders for altitude sickness. I expect I will be partaking when we spend a few weeks at 13,000 feet in Bolivia. Please don't tell the FDA.
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