By Bryon Bass, Graeme Bell, Scott Brady, Dan Grec, and Lois Pryce Intro by Dan Grec
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Gear Guide 2019.
The very word bribery often strikes fear into the heart of those who have never experienced it. Terrifying images of corrupt military brandishing automatic rifles come to mind, and a backhand exchange of grubby bills is often thought to be the only safe exit. As usual, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the reality is a far cry from this dramatization.
As overlanders, we spend hours learning about and planning for tire repair or technical recovery scenarios, which in all likelihood will only be required less than a handful of times while traversing an entire continent. On that same continental traverse it will be mandatory to interact with numerous officials, and almost certainly some of those interactions will turn into bribery attempts. If we aim to cross continents with a minimum of friction and trouble, it only makes sense to learn how to best deal with potential bribery attempts if they arise.
While bribery does happen in certain parts of the world, it is not nearly as common or violent as many assume. While bribery attempts do happen, for most travelers, actual payments are very rare. In fact, many roam across multiple continents without paying a single bribe.
In many places throughout the world, particularly underdeveloped and developing countries, police and military roadblocks are a common occurrence, sometimes every few miles. When crossing borders, interactions with officials in uniform are extremely frequent, especially if you are in need of assistance from customs or immigration. In some countries—Nigeria comes to mind— it’s not unusual to spend more time talking with officials at roadblocks than to regular locals. For those of us traveling solo, on many days these are the only people we speak to. As such, these interactions can define our time in the country, and how we handle potential bribery situations will leave a lasting impression.
Because bribery is often not loud, overt, or violent, spotting an attempt is a skill in itself. Many of us might assume that when a person in uniform asks for a payment, it must be official, so we hand over the requested amount. Furthermore, many people fear violence or retribution if money does not change hands. It’s worth keeping in mind that corrupt officials would quickly lose their job or go to jail if they threatened a foreigner with a weapon—even just pointing one at a person is a serious offence, and something I have never seen.
Virtually every international overlander has their own set of skills for handling potential bribery situations. There are commonalities, and many find a combination of various approaches works well. With practice and experience, deflecting and minimizing bribery is a skill we can all perfect to make our interactions with officials easier and more enjoyable.
Whenever approaching any police, military, or official personnel that might lead to a bribery attempt, I employ the following three-step approach.
DEFLECT, DISTRACT, AND JOKE
If possible, it’s always better to deflect a bribery attempt before it can even begin. At roadblocks, I wind down my window, take off my sunglasses, and extend my hand for a warm handshake. I always call officials sir or madam, and with a big smile, I ask how they are doing and what their name is. In my experience, setting the tone early on is crucial, and it never hurts to be friendly.
In a very polite and conversational tone, I immediately lead the discussion in the direction I want it to go. I say I am a tourist, I am travelling from here to there, and I’m enjoying their country immensely. I make a point to mention how everyone is extremely friendly in their country and that I feel lucky to be there. Setting up the officer in this way gives them something to live up to—they want to continue the good experience rather than be the bad apple to spoil it. In Nigeria, an officer backed down on a bribery attempt saying that because I had told him Nigerians are very friendly, he would let me go.
In some countries, a great tactic is to distract by asking questions about directions or distances. In Guinea and Ivory Coast, if I merely greeted the officer and sat quietly, they would inevitably ask to see my paperwork and begin searching for made-up defects on my vehicle such as a dirty licence plate or missing reflective stickers.
In contrast, when I quickly produced my map and asked directions to the next town, the officer would become engaged and distracted, often enlisting others to help provide information or translation. After a few minutes, I would thank them profusely while saying goodbye, shake hands again, and drive on without ever showing any paperwork or answering a single question about my foreign vehicle.
Often officers will try their luck, casually asking, “What did you bring for me?” I take this as an opportunity to make a joke and entertain, so with a grin of my own I reply, “For you? What do you have for me? I’m a visitor in your country, you should have a gift for me. Let’s trade. If you give me something, I will give you something.”
While wrong-footed, I suggest they give me their military hat, which I know they will never relinquish. Once we have established they won’t give me anything, it’s not required for me to give them anything. In every instance in Cameroon, this exchange ended in a huge smile and a handshake—they were happy I played the game with them.
PLAY DUMB, WASTE TIME, ASK FOR A TICKET
When a determined officer asks me to pull off the road and begins carefully inspecting vehicle paperwork or snooping around, it can signal the beginnings of a bribery attempt. In these cases, I make it clear I have all the time in the world. If the situation appears safe, I turn off the engine, get out, and shake hands with anyone and everyone in sight. I grab a bottle of water and a snack before relaxing in the shade.
While I outwardly give the impression of being friendly and helpful, I don’t want to make it any easier for them, so I pretend not to speak their language, or only offer pidgin snippets. I always keep a calm and level tone of voice while smiling, acting as if I am trying my best to understand.
This tactic worked brilliantly in Peru and Bolivia, where police were clearly nervous about being seen eliciting a bribe from a foreigner. After wasting plenty of their time by speaking very bad Spanish, I kindly asked for a ticket for the infraction they had made up: having only one fire extinguisher. They were extremely reluctant to do so, encouraging me repeatedly to give them cash. When I said I don’t carry cash because I’m afraid of being robbed, they burst out laughing and slapped each other on the back before speeding away in a cloud of dust.
WRITE YOUR OWN OFFICIAL REPORT
When the officers are still extremely persistent and insist on payment, I in return insist I must have a ticket or receipt. After all, if this is an official government fine, surely they can provide me with an official government receipt or ticket. I don’t want to offend or make the situation worse, so I’m careful not to use the actual word bribe, but I insinuate that it is not official.
If the officer is dead set on a payment and flatly refuses to give a ticket or receipt, I insist I must write one of my own. This technique works best if you have a printed document with an official-looking government logo from your home country. I ask for the officer’s name and rank, their station, and ask their permission to take a photo of them as proof that I paid the fine. When they balk, I insist it is a law in my country, and it would be illegal for me not to have a document explaining any fine paid. I still maintain a friendly demeanour and carefully observe their body language. It is imperative that you never get angry or demanding. Most officers will immediately walk away or try to hide after this discourse.
This strategy worked brilliantly in the DRC (Congo) when an officer held me for over an hour, demanding I pay, simply for passing through his roadblock. After writing down the name on his uniform and getting out my camera, he became terrified, immediately apologizing, even though he was carrying an AK-47.
After well over 500 bribery attempts in Latin America and Africa, I have only paid a single $5 bribe. Always remain friendly, stay calm, and stand your ground. After all, it’s the officer who is breaking the law.
To pay or not to pay—that is the question. The debate about bribery rages on in the overlanding world. Is it immoral to cough up when you’re being shaken down? Are you setting an unwelcome precedent for future travelers? Should you stand your ground, or just pay up and move on?
In the early days of overland travel, a request for baksheesh or un petit cadeau from a policeman or border guard was considered par for the course. Savvy travelers would set off on their adventures armed with a stash of Bic biros, packets of Marlboros, or even highly desirable Levi jeans. But in our age of global connectivity, such Western iconography has lost its allure, and when it comes to bribes, cash is king, with US dollars still the worldwide currency of choice.
The truth of the matter is that whatever your moral stance on the subject, there are times when a crisp $20 bill is just what’s required to save your hide. But there are also situations where the official in question is just taking a punt, and with a bit of shoulder-shrugging and a no entiendo from you, they’ll slope off empty-handed with no hard feelings. Assessing the situation and calculating your response is down to you and your finely-honed traveler’s instinct—and some might even say, part of the fun of life on the road.
My first experience of bribery occurred in Central America while motorcycling from Alaska to Argentina in 2003. Concerned North Americans had issued fear-fueled warnings about my heading south of the border alone. But I sailed through Mexico no problemo, and Guatemala’s border crossing featured concrete shacks decorated with government anti-corruption posters. So far, so good. Honduras’ entry procedure brought a snarled request for dólares—with no receipt forthcoming—but it was only $5, so I paid up. But it was an exploration of Nicaragua’s backwoods where, alone on a dirt road with night closing in, I found myself at the sharp end of a bribe.
Cruising through a remote area of jungle, I was forced to skid to an emergency stop as two uniformed hombres on a bike even smaller than mine sprung out from behind a tree into my path. Pacing around me, casting an appraising view over my UK-plated, overloaded Yamaha XT225, I could almost see the dollar signs lighting up in their eyes. Then they went in for the kill. It seemed I was guilty of many misdemeanors, from how I carried my tent to the use of my headlight, and of course, there were big fines for such criminal behavior.
When I refused to pay them $50 for the felony of having a tent strapped to the back of my bike, things turned nasty. The policemen (whom I was beginning to suspect weren’t policemen at all but had acquired the necessary uniform by, and for, nefarious purposes) insisted on seeing my driving licence. It was immediately snatched out of my hand and stuffed in a back pocket with a demand for the now standard $50 fee if I ever wanted to see it again.
It was almost dark now, I was many miles from the nearest town, and the “policemen” were looking very pleased with themselves for having snared such a bountiful catch. Without my driving licence, how could I possibly continue my journey? They had me in the palms of their hands. What they didn’t know was that while passing through Los Angeles a few months earlier, I had stopped by a particularly sympathetic branch of Kinko’s where some nifty color photocopying and laminating of my documents had taken place. The driving licence currently residing in the Nicaraguan fellow’s pocket was just one of four very convincing facsimiles I had prepared for situations such as this.
With a loose Spanish translation of “You can keep the licence, and stick your 50 dollars!” I jumped back on my bike and set off as fast as an overloaded XT225 can go. Glancing over my shoulder through a cloud of dust, I could see my two pursuers astride their bike in hot pursuit (or at least as hot as a 125cc with bald tires and two overweight riders can go), shouting and waving my counterfeit licence in the air as they attempted to catch up with me. It’s probably the only occasion a XT225 has won a race.
This incident emboldened me to resist future attempts at extortion, and further down the Pan-Am Highway, I fended off a half-hearted attempt from a Peruvian policeman and his laughable accusation of speeding. “On this bike, señor?” Travelling through Africa, in the Congo, I managed to palm off a gaggle of demanding fixers at a Kinshasa port with “gifts” of French dictionaries, pin badges, and various other tat magicked out of my panniers. But conversely, in Algeria, when a soldier at a military roadblock refused me passage through an area of the Sahara, my suggestion of “financial assistance” was met with deep disapproval, regarded as an affront to his professional status.
My sense from travelling through the Americas, Africa, and Asia is that blatant bribery is not as rife as one may imagine. The line between a tip, a fee, and a bribe can be a blurry one, and a few greenbacks in the right hands can help smooth all sorts of situations from border crossings to having your vehicle “guarded” by helpful locals. In a sticky situation, smiling politely and being willing to wait will often do the trick— they will get bored before you do. But whether you decide to pay or not to pay, don’t forget to visit a print shop before you leave home.
Venezuela should be the Switzerland of South America. With the world’s largest oil reserves you would imagine a country of great wealth and prosperity, a futuristic infrastructure, and a civil service. Instead, the country suffers from a severe case of Dutch Disease—exporting little other than oil and importing even the most basic commodities.
As overland travelers, my family was particularly vulnerable, far from home with kids in tow but confident that we were streetwise enough to cross the tumultuous country safely. We entered Venezuela from northern Colombia via the most chaotic border crossing we have ever had the displeasure to suffer. It took five hours of queuing under a baking sun to eventually be granted access to a beautiful country on the brink of collapse. Not only was Caracas the murder capital of the world, but we had also been told that the police force was rotten to the core and that they were likely to try and get their hands on our dollars, and unlike conventional criminals, had the authority to search our vehicle.
Our goal was to enter Venezuela through the northwestern Zulian Region and to drive east past Caracas and south to Brazil from where we would drive through the Amazon Jungle to the Guyanas. As soon as we entered Venezuela, we were stopped at a police roadblock secured by young officers and a senior officer; surprisingly, after being asked a few questions, they allowed us to continue. There was a roadblock or checkpoint every 50 miles, and we discerned that checkpoints manned by senior officers were professional, but those guarded by the lower ranks were more likely to try and impose a spot fine, which we never paid. Venezuelans are a proud people, and we soon sensed that many people and officials who remembered a wealthy and prosperous Venezuela were happy to welcome us, determined to ensure that my family was treated well. But, not everyone understood the value of tourism.
My wife, Luisa, was enjoying Venezuela. After almost two years of camping daily in South America, we could finally afford to stay in hotels. A suite for four in a “five-star” hotel was not more than $50 and that included a buffet breakfast. En route to the coastal town of Choroní, we drove up from Maracay into a neighbourhood which was once wealthy. As I drove, I noticed that our Landy was being followed by a police-branded Toyota Land Cruiser. Within 300 feet from Hotel Pipo, the sirens wailed, and lights flashed; we were instructed to pull over and then to follow the police to their station. Two officers emerged from the vehicle: one male, one female.
They inspected the Land Rover. “Multa (fee),” the young policeman bellowed at me, pointing at the Defender’s windscreen which had been scarred by a rock thrown by an Ecuadorian truck a few months earlier. We knew that it was game on; we never pay bribes but instead employ a combination of tactics to deter criminals wearing uniforms.
While remaining friendly and cooperative, we forget how to speak any language other than Afrikaans. A good attitude goes a long way; shouting and screaming will only make the situation much worse.
We provide whatever documentation is requested: original passports, laminated copies of driver’s licenses, insurance policies, and color photocopies of the vehicle registration. In our experience, the police will usually not ask for a passport as they are not trained to read one, but they do understand transportation bureaucracy.
We distract the official by appealing to their sense of civic duty, asking for directions and recommendations for sightseeing and camping. Sometimes I will ask for directions as soon as the official steps up to my window; this interrupts their “game” and reminds them of their real purpose.
If all else fails, we will stand beside the Land Rover facing the traffic, arms crossed, looking forlorn and shaking our heads slowly as locals drive past wondering why on earth the police are harassing these tourists. In the past, we have had members of the public stop their vehicles and berate the police for inconveniencing us.
We had been playing the multa game for half an hour with no end in sight when Luisa noticed a senior official glaring at our captors angrily from inside the police station. They were called inside and given a dressing down before being instructed to accompany us to the hotel where they spent the night in their Land Cruiser, guarding our Land Rover while we enjoyed a laugh and a glass of excellent Diplomatico Reserva rum.
We must have been stopped a hundred times as we drove across poor, beautiful Venezuela. And though shaken down a handful of times, we never paid any fines or bribes. Corruption is a disease which can destroy a country; we have seen this firsthand in our native South Africa, and we refuse to play that game.
For professional workforce sent to austere, remote, or less controlled environments, corruption, bribery, and facilitating payments take on a different nature, especially after wading through online learning modules or classroom courses that ram liabilities home. However, there are corporate policies and concepts that have evolved from real-world experiences that pertain to members of the private overland and expedition community.
A bribe generally constitutes money or valuables given with the intention of influencing, persuading, or corrupting a person’s functioning, usually in their official capacity. A facilitation payment, which may constitute a bribe, is usually made to expedite the progress of some existing administrative process—to which you might be entitled anyway, without fees, or by paying much less. Bribery and facilitating are not exactly the same but can appear so. A facilitating payment can be more official in appearance, and in some locations under certain circumstances, they are not considered illegal.
If you have offered extra money to move your visa paperwork to the top of a stack to expedite approval (within an existing bureaucratic process), then that would be a facilitation payment. Some subtleties or semantics can certainly blur the lines. Tiered prices openly posted to obtain a visa (regular or expedited fees) are an example.
Admittedly, even when one pays the local constabulary and a receipt is given, it’s not always clear what occurred. I was once pulled over by two carabinieri on motorcycles in Northern Italy. My 1992 BMW R100GS PD, well bogged with academic field equipment, clearly violated some law. I dismounted, removed my helmet, and handed over my insurance, driver’s license, and registration. The bike was still on California plates, and this sent the troopers into a geography tailspin. An argument ensued. One repeatedly pointed at the license plate. The other shrugged, then held both hands to his mouth with all fingers pinched together, then went back to the shrug.
And so it went, back and forth between the officers. I heard the words geografia della California, and non è possibile a few times. They kept at it. I could have jumped on my mount and rode away without them knowing. Finally, one produced an official-looking weatherproof notepad and wrote a ticket or official warning of some sort. It wasn’t clear. The scribe tore it out but apparently missed a few tick boxes. The other officer proudly indicated with his gloved hand the appropriate selections, and the citation was again inserted under the carbon paper for final revisions. I paid 5,000 lire, which was around $3 USD. The lads stowed their gear, jumped on their issued bikes, and sped off. Had I just bought one of them a beer, two of them espressos, or was that the cheapest traffic fine ever paid in Western Europe? I’ll never know.
Here are some critical expansions on themes previously discussed, as taught to certain workforce on overseas assignments. These might read like security advice. However, the crux is presenting yourself in a controlled and professional manner to limit opportunities for bribery. Which nuanced approach you use may depend on specific contexts and the level of risk present. The goal is to discourage extended checkpoint contact and bribery attempts. Systematic methodologies provide a defensible framework, especially if non-standard measures need to be explained later. It is also important to realize that an officer might be breaking the law by asking for a bribe, but you might also be in violation of the same or other laws by paying, or offering to pay, the bribe.
With vehicles, reduce the opportunity to be stopped for spurious reasons. Ensure your vehicle is in good condition and address aesthetics, as appropriate. At vehicle checkpoints, be friendly. Stop short of barriers so you can drive around, if necessary. In convoys, keep enough distance from the vehicle in front so you can turn around or drive past. Keep both hands visible and remove your sunglasses from your eyes.
Avoid lowering the windows completely, as this deters checkpoint personnel from looking around and reaching in without permission. Do not shut off the ignition unless necessary, and avoid handing over keys (spare door and ignition keys are essential). Store documents, so they are also accessible by the front passenger. As noted, use copies. Stay with your vehicle or keep it locked if you must exit. Do not let police go in or around the vehicle without you being present.
Other commodities have value, albeit some are unhealthy. Leaving a cigarette pack in the open can be explained away, and places the onus on the police officer taking it rather than you giving it. This is easily described as confiscation, should you need to explain. You don’t need to smoke, but in some cultures, providing a cigarette will break the ice, and that might be all you need. Don’t hide cash in a cigarette packet. If the official wants to make an issue out of it, it’s harder to explain than an envelope labeled gas money, containing small bills, being used as a bookmark. If he takes the envelope, that’s theft, not bribery.
When motivating factors force a payment without a receipt, look for rank insignia and ask for the person in charge. Placate the ranking member and things should go better; they may even refuse the money if subordinates are present but not in on the bribe. And remember, all approaches to deflect and avoid bribes should be systematic, even if appearing casual.
There are a few unavoidable discomforts with international overland travel, and some of them are corruption, bribery, and thinly veiled facilitation payments. The uninitiated will often decry that they would never pay a bribe, a convenience reserved for those who have never been face to face with the motivation an AK-47 can muster. There are also some with reasonable travel credentials that will claim to have never paid a bribe when it is impossible to know exactly which taxes, fees, or fines are a bribe and which are not. It is essential that we all take the moral high ground and avoid these exposures, to the extent we can. While I do see it as possible to never knowingly pay a bribe, that is a rarity in the world of rough and tumble travel, particularly when you get deeper into Russia, Central America, or just about anywhere that recently experienced a coup or military conflict. Most of my cohorts in this article have focused on how to eliminate or greatly reduce the likelihood of bribes. I will share some inconvenient truths about when bribes are most likely to occur and a few tools to deal with them.
FINES AND TICKETS
The most likely bribe to pay knowingly or unknowingly is a fine or ticket. In some countries, it is extremely common to make ticket payments directly to the officer, even on a portable credit card machine to facilitate the process. The best place to start with these is to ask yourself, “Do I believe I did something wrong?” For example, were you speeding, or did you run that red light? If the answer is yes, then it is likely you will need to pay a fine, and it is critical to understand to whom you will be paying that fine. Frequently, a pleasant conversation and some patience will reduce or eliminate the fine, but just as in the first world, if you break the law, be prepared for the consequences. However, if you feel that there was no wrongdoing or they made up some obscure or petty infraction, be prepared with a plan upon which you and your travel partners all agree. Avoid giving the official originals of any of your documents. Have laminated copies of your driver’s license on hand, as well as high-quality duplicates of your vehicle documents. Once they have your originals, they have you.
With attempted extortion, several things will work in your favor, the first being a knowledge of the law and an awareness of how the process should go. Then, feel free to assert your innocence clearly and respectfully. Ask for the officer’s full name or badge number. Ask the officer if you will receive a receipt for the fine that was paid. Then, the best plan is to wait. The official will already be put back by your declaration of innocence and the documentation you are beginning to gather about the exchange. But most importantly, a crooked official hates wasting time as much as you do, mainly because it exposes them to passersby and colleagues who could have a different view on corruption. The more they believe that a bribe is not likely, the easier it will be for them to move on to a more willing victim. In countries like Mexico, there are also tourist hotlines that you can call to have them speak directly to the officer. If it was an attempt at a bribe, just calling that number will send them on their way.
BORDER CROSSINGS AND SHIPPING OFFICIALS
The worst fleecing I ever experienced was in the Port of Buenos Aires, a beautiful city filled with amazing people, but also one of the most corrupt places on earth. The bribe (or mordida), in many cases better defined as a facilitation payment, has become synonymous with getting anything done at the bureaucratic level. My situation was amplified because of a timetable and a significantly delayed ship. The number one lesson in not paying a bribe at a border or port is to not be in a hurry—at all. We were in a hurry because of the passage delays, so the fees and “expediting” charges continued to pile up into the thousands. We had the most experienced automotive import fixer in Buenos Aires, and this was the only way to get the trucks out of the port in 48 hours. Technically, they never asked for a bribe, but our customs expert assured us that extortion was common. The officials would intentionally delay or manipulate the system to put pressure on travelers so they would pay. This is where patience and having lots of spare time works. They will eventually run out of motivation and release the vehicle. The traveler also needs to be prepared to pay in other ways, as delays can result in costly hotel stays and taxi fares as the days mount.
At borders, the key is to always have a great attitude. I’ve never knowingly paid a bribe at a border after experiencing hundreds of them on all seven continents. My documents are always organized, and I research the experience of other travelers in detail. In many of these countries, those border officials are important people, used to being respected. I have found the more respect, kindness, and smiles I pay in their direction, the less they ask in money or delays from me.
As travelers, it is our responsibility to resist paying bribes as much as safety allows, but I would caution against being too critical of others that may have acquiesced to that pressure or fear. I still remember the mirrored Ray-Bans and the crooked smile on that federale from my first trip to Baja. In perfect English, he said, “You were speeding, and now you will pay.”