Past Gorgona, coming over a rise, I saw a traffic cop parked on the side of the road (that's not him in the photo above - it's just a random shot of a couple of Panama Tourist Police). I immediately reduced my speed but I was too late. He had already hit me with the radar gun. He waved me over (that's how they do it here) and I pulled over a short distance beyond him. I've heard of some people ignoring the wave, driving past and successfully evading any consequences, but I also remember one person who did that and then was pulled over by another car that was waiting for him up the road. When I was younger and stupider I might have tried it, but not anymore.
The officer looked at my U.S. passport and California driver's license, told me I was doing 110 kph in an 80 kph zone, and wrote a ticket for $70. Then he let me go. He didn't seem to notice that my plate was expired, nor did he say anything about my visa status. I made a short trip to Costa Rica recently and returned to Panama on June 2, so I have only been here 2 months. The tourist visa is 90 days and I am allowed to drive with my U.S. license during that time, so I am within the law on that.
I will have to go to the municipal office that handles traffic tickets and wait in line for the better part of a day to pay the ticket.
Continuing on my way, I noticed that the traffic cops seemed to be out in force. This is "spring break" in Panama, a two week school vacation, so maybe the traffic cops are targeting young, reckless drivers, I don't know. I also saw many accidents, and the InterAmerican highway was undergoing major roadwork in several places. I quickly realized that it was a bad day to be on the road.
Entering into Panama, I made my way to Avenida Balboa where I found myself stuck in a traffic jam due to a bad accident on the road. I was inching along in traffic when suddenly I was struck hard from behind. I got out of the car. The trunk lid had popped open. I shut it and it seemed fine. I studied the rear of my car but amazingly could see no damage. The driver behind me had not emerged. His windows were tinted and I could not see inside. I continued to check my car carefully and finally the driver got out. I didn't understand everything he said but I gathered that he was apologizing. Since there was no apparent damage to my car and I did not want to spend the next two hours filing reports, I told him to forget about it.
I went to the insurance office on Calle 50 and found that they had moved. Fortunately the new location was easy to find. It took only about an hour to renew my insurance for another year. I chose basic liability coverage only as I plan to sell the car soon.
I needed to stop at a Western Union office so I made my way to the main office at Plaza Concordia on Via España. By the time I was done it was too late to do anything else that day so I decided to go home. I knew that the route that I usually take to Avenida de los Martires (the road that leads to the bridge) was under construction, so I tried a new route and got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam where I was boxed in by diablos rojos and moved slower than the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks. I spent an hour and a half in that, listening to the radio and watching the pedestrians, and then realized that I was lost.
When I finally got back to a road that I recognized I found myself once again in very bad traffic. Thoroughly disgusted at this point, I said to myself, "Forget it," and decided to go to Albrook Mall where I could eat something and wait for traffic to die down. I headed that way, talking to a friend on my cell phone as I drove. Yes I know it's illegal in Panama. So of course as I'm about to pull into Albrook Mall I pass a traffic cop and he waves me over.
Right away I knew I was in trouble. This cop said to me, "It's prohibited to talk on a cell phone while you drive! Show me your license." He looked at my passport and driver's license and then said, "When did you enter Panama? Show me the stamp." I showed him the immigration stamp that said June 2, 2008. He studied it and said, "You have overstayed your visa. The limit is 90 days." After this pronouncement he folded his arms on his chest and looked up at the sky.
"I have been here just a little over two months," I told him. June and July, and the beginning of August.
The cop squinted at me. "You entered at the beginning of June. So that's June, July and now August. More than three months! Furthermore, your plate is expired and you were talking on your phone. I am calling a tow truck. This car will be impounded."
Wonderful. I didn't try to argue with him on the visa issue. He had me dead to rights on the plate and the cell phone anyway. I began to pack my stuff into my backpack, thinking I would go home on a bus and come back the next day to sort the problem out. I know that some people might try offering a bribe in this situation, but I did not do that for a few reasons:
- I don't believe in encouraging corruption. If a police officer is honest and doing his job, then I would not dream of attempting to corrupt him. My religion of Islam teaches that it is wrong to demand a bribe or to offer one. Both are equally corrupt.
- If the cop is honest then my offer of a bribe could get me into deeper trouble.
- This just perpetuates the perception of the rich gringo as an easy target and can buy his way out of anything.
I don't have that kind of money to spend, but what could I say? I just shook my head and began taking my important documents out of the glove box and putting them in my backpack.
Suddenly the cop said to me, "So, what are we going to do about this?"
Aha. In an instant the situation changed. I understood exactly what he meant, which was, "Make me an offer." Maybe it's hypocritical of me, maybe it makes me guilty, but if a corrupt cop is offering me the option of either suffering some pretty serious financial/legal consequences or getting away with a small dent in my wallet, I choose the latter.
Playing along, I said, "What are my options?"
"Your options," the cop replied, "Are to pay $400 in fines and lose your car for a few days, or if you help me then I can help you."
"How can I help you?" I asked.
"You tell me," he said. "How much can you help me with?"
"Thirty dollars?" I offered.
He raised his chin and looked down at me over his nose. "Only thirty dollars? The tow truck is on its way. It will cost you hundreds of dollars."
"Ok, how about forty dollars?" I said. This was a new one for me. Negotiating a bribe just like I would haggle on a purchase at the market. In a way I felt comfortable, back in familiar territory. It was just a matter of finding a price we could both live with.
"Is that the best you can do?" the cop said. "Maybe you can do a little better."
"Fifty dollars," I said. "That's all I can manage." At that point I took out my wallet and began to remove the money. I held the wallet low, so passers by could not see, but the cop said, "Not here, follow me."
The officer got back in his car and drove several hundred meters to a quiet spot beneath some trees. I followed him. He walked back to my car and said, "Put the money in your passport." I did so. The cop took the passport to his car, removed the money and returned. He gave me the passport and said, "Don't talk on your cell phone while you drive." Then he drove away. Looking back, I suspect that he only pretended to call the tow truck. He probably did not key the radio when he put on that show.
These guys earn maybe $300 per month and nowadays it's impossible to feed a family on that, so "rich gringos" like me are a tempting target. I'm not justifying the corruption, but I do understand it. Anytime you have a society with vast disparities in wealth you're going to have corruption, and a disenfranchised group like foreign expatriates is especially vulnerable. I have a great admiration for those honest police officers who resist temptation.
I finally made it to Albrook Mall, ran into a friend from El Valle and talked, ate at Crepes and Waffles, then on the way home visited with Tracy and Ela in La Chorrera, and a made a final stop at El Rey grocery store in Coronado. I got home at midnight.
If you're driving in Panama, be careful out there. It's wild and woolly these days.