If you engage in a discussion about the government of most countries, whether it is in Latin America or Asia, chances are good that the “C” word –corruption–will soon enter the conversation.
We have become almost immune to the headline-grabbing scandals featuring companies such as the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, which admitted to bribing officials to secure contracts in Brazil and other countries in South America.
It also happens all-too-often on the individual level as well. A survey of more than 20,000 people in 16 Asian countries by Transparency International, a global organization dedicated to fighting corruption, found widespread corruption among public officials. An estimated 900 million people were forced to pay a bribe in the previous 12 months, with the police being the most common group demanding kickbacks.
But you may feel that while large government contracts given to favored relatives or kickbacks are wrong, corruption doesn’t affect your day-to-day life as a foreigner living there.
The sharp bite of crime
Until it does. Unfortunately, as a foreigner, you are sometimes a target for small petty bribes, one small bite (or mordida) at a time. While corrupt police officers may be the most common and visible culprits, you can also be snookered by anyone from taxi drivers to passport officials.
That is not to say it happens all the time or even most of the time. But it’s good to know in advance what can happen in case it does. Keep in mind that Chile is the only country in South America where bribery is illegal.
Sometimes it happens when you are driving down a road, minding your own business. A police officer stops you, demanding to see your documents and citing some arcane traffic rule that you never knew you had to follow but requires payment of a fine.
To pay or not to pay?
So if you are not sure if you have, in fact, violated a law or are a target of a bribe, what do you do?
Those who have been through these patience-trying incidents will tell you that if you get stopped by an officer, just hand over photocopies of your documents–never the originals. You can tell it’s a bribe when they start feigning sympathy for the high multa (fine) and tell you they can help your pain disappear if you slip them a little cash. You may want to avoid any further hassle and hand over the money.
Ask the officer to write up the fine. If you know you have not broken the law, this will create a paper trail that will lead back to him or her.
Report the officer. Most police officers soliciting bribes do not want you to see their badge number and name or license plate. This may or may not be helpful advice. I was told by a Spanish teacher in Mexico that corruption is so rampant that this may actually be a counterproductive move.
Refuse to pay the bribe. The practice continues because it continues to be successful. But if you feel, for some reason, that your personal safety may be at risk, do what you need to do to negotiate the bribe and get the hell out of Dodge…while still obeying the traffic laws, of course.
Ever been on the other side of a scam in a foreign country? Maybe you have some pointers that you can share with the rest of us. We promise to pass along your sage advice.