I am often asked how the drug wars and violence in Central America impact my travel. I am happy to say that they really don’t. Unless you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are rarely privy to what is going on and each country takes special care to ensure tourists are safe. The one place you do see the impact is while traveling on public transportation,and at border crossings, in the form of police or military
Thank you, Mauricio Funes. I feel safer with these guys.
searches. So far, I have been involved in searches in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Quite honestly, I’ve lost track, so they could have happened in the other countries I’ve been in so far (Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize), I just don’t specifically remember. Here’s how it goes. I’ll save Mexico for last since it was the most shocking and also vaguely ridiculous.
I should mention that I am a fan of police/military searches in Central America. There have been many incidents where guns are drawn on buses and passengers robbed or worse. I stay off these routes, but anything can happen anywhere, so I like some over-site of the buses. Certainly drug gang activity is rampant throughout the area so perhaps the police/military searches in Central America drive the gangs off the bus systems – which is just fine by me!
Police/ Military Searches in Central America
Gotta get the bad guys
The most common way it happens is that you’re traveling on a bus and all of a sudden you come to a checkpoint. Sometimes you can tell it’s a checkpoint, sometimes you can’t see a checkpoint, you just know, because uniformed officials suddenly board the bus, with guns. This is quite intimidating. Most often, they will ask all the men to get off the bus. From 15 years old to 95, all the men must disembark, except for the tourists. They then stand with hands in the air, or in one case, lay face down with hands over their head. The military or police (honestly I can’t tell which they are) then hand search each man. As this is fairly exciting to watch, all the women crowd the windows to watch. Usually there are around five officials checking. Two stand back with guns drawn while the others do the pat down. No one has ever been busted on my buses, but a friend I was traveling with in El Salvador witnessed the cops finding drugs on a man, and taking him off to jail after roughing him up a bit. The one thing they don’t check is the luggage of these men, so it seems a little incomplete to me. Do all the men carry the guns or drugs in their pockets? Perhaps.
The other common method is the hand luggage search. The military/police will board the bus, usually just two. Others wait outside the bus while one officer checks the hand luggage of sketchy looking men and another officer stands in the front of the bus, with his gun ready. Once I was seated next to a person whose luggage was searched, and it was fairly thorough – there was a plastic bag that looked suspicious to the officer, and he made the man pull it out and show what was inside. Just dirty laundry. I find this system incomplete as well, as, if the theory of the first search is true, and people carry drugs and guns on their person, rather than in their luggage, they’re completely missing that opportunity in this search style. But perhaps the point of these searches is just intimidation and creating fear for the potential criminal. It certainly works on me.
Occasionally, there’s a third type of search, with dogs. The dogs are taken into the storage area where luggage goes, and they do drug sniffs. Again, the dogs have never found anything on the buses I was traveling on and they’ve never boarded the buses. Of note here, apparently the dogs can’t sniff Rx opiates such as Oxycodone or sedatives like Xanex. I am carrying a good supply of both – legally prescribed in the United States. And I often get worried that the dog will go crazy on my luggage, but they never do. Whew!
I also think it’s worth noting that since they’re profiling only men, at some point the gangs will get smart and start getting women to carrying the drugs and guns, if they haven’t already. I must say, however, that none of the women I see on the buses look even mildly suspicious.
Police/ Military Searches in Mexico
The military searches in Central America were repeated in Mexico, with one major difference I’ll describe in a moment. As you know, Mexico is experiencing some extreme violence, particularly in the state of Michoacan (graphic content in that last link) and there is an American traveler missing in the area – you can get updates on Harry Devert here. My point is, the Mexican government, police and military have a lot to focus on as it relates to the drug wars.
Instead, they are focused on this:
Border crossings are always a little stressful, because you never know what to expect, they are hotbeds for illicit activity and scams and they can take forever. Mexican border crossings are notorious. So I was prepared for trouble as I made my way to the
No gun? No problem
water taxi station to go from Mexico to Belize First, I was scammed by the immigration agent in Mexico’s favorite scam . . . “Pay me this extra fee, or you can go to an office 3 hours away, pay them, come back, give me a receipt and then you can get on the boat, but not until this extra fee is extracted. You’ll probably miss the boat today, but you can go tomorrow”. What do you do? I paid, even though I knew it was going directly into the agents pocket. Then, I made my way to the dock, sat down and waited with 30 or so other gringos for the taxi to depart. About 10 minutes before the boat was scheduled to leave, the water taxi agents suddenly disappeared and a large military vehicle pulled up, staying back around 30 feet from where we were sitting and blocking our exit from the dock (and the bathrooms!). No one got out of the vehicle, but we could see there were about eight men inside and at least one dog. They continued sitting there for about half an hour. Our scheduled departure time came and went. The officers then started taking photos of the group from their vehicle, over a period of another 15 to 20 minutes. Intense and intimidating. Since there were no water taxi personnel present any more, there was no one to ask what was happening.
Finally the officers emerged. And then things got dramatic. In the hot midday sun, they lined the group of gringos up, with our luggage in front of us. With six officers supervising, with guns in ready position, they brought the dogs out. Slowly, the handler took the dog to each piece of luggage. The dog reacted to four pieces of luggage, which were taken out of the line and set aside. The dog made another pass. And then another. Thankfully, the dog did not react to my luggage. When the officers were sure the remaining luggage was clean, they pulled the people out of the line who belonged to the luggage the dog had reacted to. Four of the officers formed a tight circle around them, guns at the ready, while they hand searched their own luggage in front of the officers. The remained of the officers kept an eye on the rest of us.
Again, not to split hairs, but how effective is having the potential criminal search their own luggage? It doesn’t take a Mensa brain to realize that if you’re searching your own luggage with drugs hidden inside, you’d avoid the drugs and pull everything else out.
No drugs were found. The dog boarded the boat and searched it, and after about an hour of this, the officers called back the water taxi staff, who loaded up our luggage and we finally boarded the boat. While we boarded, the Mexican military fanned out in a semi circle around our group, guns ready, and watched us. I asked the captain . . . “why are they still here, why are their guns pointed at us?” He said that they wanted to make sure we got on the boat and didn’t go back into Mexico since we had had our passports stamped out of Mexico. OK? There didn’t seem like much chance that would be a problem as we were all anxious to get to Belize, now over two hours behind schedule.
As I’ve noted, I’m a fan of military searches in Central America overall. But what is the point of this type of intimidation and time wasting on tourists? I’m sure some tourists do bad things, but . . . the Mexico to Belize route is in the opposite direction of the drug route. We were leaving the country with limited potential to cause much trouble. We were all tourists, and fairly clean cut. Why focus on tourists vs the headless bodies being found daily in Mexico and general day to day violence? Why intimidate the tourists? I’m not sure but if you have insights, I’d love to hear in the comments below?