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When coke appears on a Bolivian bus

The Chilean custom’s agents stepped out and stopped our bus just as it was about to pull off.  We’d had our passports stamped, our luggage x-rayed, and were due in the port-city of Arica four-hours later.  My friend and I watched curiously as they started fiddling with one of the seats up front.  By the time they were done, they’d ripped up six seats and pulled out eight kilos of cocaine.  Not the best situation to be in as the only foreigners on a Bolivian bus crossing the boarder.  Some of our decisions in the next hours made it even worse.

At first, we weren’t sure what to do.  With stories of corrupt police running through my head, at least I had the presence of mind to slap my friend’s hand when she tried to pull out the camcorder.   But that was about the last good thing that happened.  At a frontier crossing in the middle of nowhere, we were four-hours from the embassy in La Paz, and well out of the range of any cell-phone tower. 

So for two hours we sat there and waited.  We waited as they pulled out bag after bag of hard drugs.  We waited as they pulled other people off the bus for questioning.  Eventually, we didn’t want to wait any more.

So what did we do?  What any good American would, we got off the bus in hopes of contacting our embassy.  Oddly, nobody stopped us as we disembarked, and we managed to get back into the customs station and out of the cold.  So far so good, but then came the problems.

We went up to the counter and asked one of the custom’s agents if they had the number to the American embassy in Chile.  They didn’t.  This posed a problem.  We were 15-minutes past the Bolivian checkpoint, and didn’t have a Chilean guidebook.  Even if we could get in contact with the U.S. embassy in Bolivia, there’d be little they could do outside their jurisdiction.   What we’d find out soon, was whether we had the number didn’t matter anyway.

Out of luck and getting nervous, we decided the next best thing to do would be to get our bags off the bus and away from the scene.  If corrupt cops were lurking, we didn’t want to be the “Rich Gringos,” on board.  We went back to try and grab our things from the baggage area.  Since others were already being questioned, we figured we probably weren’t suspects, and they’d let us go.  Big mistake.

Our attempts to grab our things and get away must have aroused suspicion.  At first, the customs agent merely told us that nobody could take anything off the bus.  It didn’t matter that it’d been x-rayed.  But only a couple of minutes later, as we tried to make another call, a large Chilean police officer in a Soviet-era fur hat asked us to if we’d come his way.  He did it under the pretext that’d we’d be allowed to make a call.  The next five hours would attest that nobody could be trusted.

As the sun set, the temperature dropped, and my friend and I were forced to sit down in two chairs inside the police station.  Cops in army-green uniforms were scurrying everywhere.  Bags of cocaine were brought in and inspected and labeled right in front of us.  Other passengers from the bus were led into rooms, and the doors were closed.  Again, we asked to call our embassy.  The answer made me nervous.

“You can’t call,” the agent said in Spanish.  “We don’t know that you’re not trying to warn another bus that’s coming from behind.”

We tried to reason with him.  We tried to explain that he could give us the number.  He wouldn’t hear it.  What happened made me realize I had no rights.

Escorted by a police patrol, the bus driver and the other worker from the bus company were escorted into the station and forced to sit directly in front of us.  Then about seven officers flooded the room, one with a video camera, one with a dog.  My friend and I watched, adrenaline pumping, as the bus driver and worker were made to stand up arms and legs spread as the dog sniffed all over them.  Then they turned to us.

I’ve never touched a drug harder than alcohol, but I’ve never been so scared in my life.  Arms outstretched, I must have looked guilty quaking in my shoes.  Totally helpless, out of contact with any other Americans, a dog was sniffing me for whatever these police wanted it to find.  For the first time in my life I was powerless.  If these police wanted me to be the guilty party, they could say the dog was acting a certain way, and that would be the end.

The whole ordeal felt like eternity.  First to go, I was relieved to have seemingly been found clean, but I still waited on my friend.  It was terrifying to watch as the dog sniffed her up and down, the officer saying, “bien, bien, (good, good).”  It found nothing.  You’d think that’s where it would have ended.  But the next moment brought the scariest moment of the night.  They wanted us to follow them again.  Out of people’s sight, deeper into the station.

I’m very surprised they let him go: the eyes..

My rights violated, dignity taken, I started thinking of ways to offer them a bribe.  I’d lost my rights as an American, but at least I had some cash.  They turned the key to open the door.  My eyes waited for the sight of a cell.  Then a miracle happened.  Satisfied by the search, they took us into their break room, gave us tea and coffee, and sat us down to watch TV. 

Later we’d find out that Chile is a remarkably developed country, one where police get sued for violating the rights of prisoners.  Perhaps that’s why they let us get our picture taken with them.  Perhaps that’s why they joked around with us and showed us their big weapons.  All’s well that end’s well I guess, but I learned an important lesson. When you’re overseas, when it comes to your rights, it doesn’t matter if you’re American.  So you’d better be prepared for whatever that country has to offer.

More about Stephen and his upcoming book at

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