Drug bust or drug bastards?
September 29, 1998.

Returning to Bolivia from Chile, I found my self either kidnapped or detained by Bolivia's answer to the keystone cops. To this day I can't tell which ...........

After hitchhiking in northern Chile for a few weeks, I caught the bus past the Chilean border into Bolivia and to La Paz. After a long bus trip, I wasn't even sure which bus station I had arrived at.  These were the days before every mobile phone had a GPS and 7 years before Google Maps were launched.

I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to my hotel, the El Presidenté on Calle Potosi. After 2 weeks of sleeping in workers bunk houses on llama farms, sleeping rough at -15oC, and hauling a 30kg backpack at 15000 feet altitude, I was ready for a little comfort. 

The driver drove forward about 100m. An ununiformed man signaled him to stop. Without warning he and two other men got into the taxi and gave the driver a destination I was unfamiliar with.  The driver began driving out of town. One man flashed an ID at me with quick a flick of the wrist, so fast I didn’t see it, could have been his bus pass. At the same time he said, “Policía”

I told the driver to turn around and take me to my hotel.  He said the men were police officers and they had told him to go to the station.  I knew there were numerous police stations dotted around the middle of town some not far from my hotel, we were on route 41 heading out of town. Suspecting these men were not really police I was beginning to get nervous.

I continued arguing with them. Eventually, they pulled up on an empty road.  They pointed to some sort of a military base down the road in the distance and said it was the police station. It wasn’t a police station. Police stations were finished in a distinct aqua and white painted brick. It was a moot point because we were not even there, we were parked way down the road with nobody around.  The head guy told me he was going to search me right here and not bring me to the station. Given that he was not a police officer and that was not a station, it was no surprise that he wanted to do search me by the side of the road. 

He told me he was looking for drugs and fake US Dollars. I told him I didn’t have any.  He asked me to remove my body wallet. I was at the end of a four-month 10 country trip through Central and South America. My wallet had about $5-$10 currency from each of these countries. Most of it was note convertible in Bolivia.  The government only allows exchange of major international currencies and countries that share borders, Peru, Brasil, Chile, and Argentina.
He pulled a note from my wallet, “¿Ahaa, qué es esto?” he said continuing with his keystone cop charade. “Uno Peso de Mexico,” I replied. He pulled another one, “¿Ahaa, qué es esto?” he repeated. “Quetzal de Guatemala,” I replied. We went through this performance with unexchangable currencies from Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and very small amounts Brasil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.  The one thing I didn’t have that he wanted was any US currency.

Next he moved to my camera bag. It was a large backpack style Lowepro bag with 3 bodies, 4 lenses and a bunch of filters.  We went through the same performance again, “¿Ahaa, qué es esto?” Camera, camera, camera, lens, lens, lens, lens, filtro, filtro, filtro, filtro, filtro, filtro, filtro, I said after each pronouncement. Being a bit of a smart arse, I was very tempted to say, “US dólares falsos,” in response to one of his questions but thought better of it, on the off chance they were not robbers, just really incompetent police. 

At the end of this whole performance, he said, “The driver tells us you have a large backpack in the trunk. Are there any drugs or US dollars in there?” “No,” I responded. “Ok, you can go,” he said.

“Go where?” I thought. We’re in the middle of freaking nowhere.  Nonetheless I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to get away from these dicks. I gathered up my camera gear and wallet contents and got out of the car. I thought they were going to drive off with my backpack. My first thought was that I had a hundred rolls of exposed film from 4 months of travel in the backpack. That was by far the most valuable thing in there. 

To my surprise, the boot popped open and they let me take my backpack out then they drove off leaving me standing in the middle of nowhere.  I packed up and began the long walk back to town.  Police, kidnappers, or thieves?  To this day I honestly don't know and I doubt I ever will.