Before we took this trip to Nicaragua, I did my research reading everything from Frommers to internet blogs. A recurring theme was crime and being safe as it is with all Central America countries. Nicaragua claims to be the safest country in Central America. Although I couldn’t find any statistics to verify that, at no point during out trip did we feel threatened or afraid. Being a police officer in the states, I am trained to deal with a certain amount of stress as well as encountering a segment of the population that you would rather avoid. Nicaragua is by no means an exception; however, most of the people we encountered were very friendly even with the language barrier.
Policing in Nicaragua is a lot different than it is in the US. You don’t see police vehicles patrolling the roads on a regular basis. The only police vehicles I saw were Toyota trucks that are usually filled with police officers in the bed. Policing in the major towns is done purely by foot. The vehicles drop off the officers at intersections throughout the city. To make a traffic stop, the officers point at you and motion you to pull over. Instead of receiving a ticket and appearing in court, you pay the fine to the officer. If you are unable to pay the fine, your license is confiscated and you must pick it up at the local police department until you pay the fine.
On our second day in Nicaragua, we proceeded to leave Managua and travel up into the mountains. After getting caught in the market traffic, we eventually found our way back to the Pan-American Highway. I was stopped at the traffic light attempting to turn right. I made a right turn on red and I got no more than twenty feet before a police officer was pointing at me to pull over. He walked over to my vehicle and because of the language barrier it took a little time to figure out what I did wrong. Obviously, right turn on red is illegal in Nicaragua or it could be that I was an easy target. After presenting him my Indiana driver’s license, I asked him how much the fine was. He told me that it was 600 Cordobas or $30 US. I gave him 600 Cordobas and we were back on our way
Later that day when we got to our destination and made contact with a friend of ours who lived in the mountains, we discovered something very interesting. The fine should have been $10 instead of $30. I was told that because I was an American, I am viewed as having money. A police officer in Nicaragua makes about $120 a month so they make money anyway they can, even if that means preying on innocent American tourists.
On our last night in Managua, we were trying to get in those last minute sites that we didn’t do the first day we were here. We were trying to go the National Museum and as I approached the intersection, I noticed that I had a green light. I turned right and as I did I noticed a police officer waving me over. Once again, he wasn’t stopping me to say hello. It appears that this time, I made an improper lane change. Since I already been through this before and after ten days being away from home, I was getting a little irritable. I thought that I might get a warning. After all, I give plenty of warnings to people that I stop. I guess the only difference is I make a lot more money than they do.
He told me the fine was going to be $30. My wife, who has a temper, started yelling at the police officer about how we paid this fine before and found out later that the fine is supposed to be $10. She said we are not going to pay it. All I can think is that I am going to a Nicaraguan jail never to be heard from again. I don’t know if he understood anything my wife said, be he did understand a twenty dollar bill when he saw one. We gave him the twenty dollars and he was satisfied. He was nice enough to give us directions to the museum after he robbed us.
Although my two encounters with the police in Managua didn’t go very well, I had some great encounters with the police throughout the rest of the country. Checkpoints are very common in Nicaragua, especially on heavily traveled routes. Drug trafficking is still a big problem throughout Central America and Nicaragua tries to reduce the amount of drugs flowing into the country. It is a pretty painless experience at the checkpoints. The officers check your license and vehicle registration and then send you on your way. It is when they point at you individually when you need to start worrying.
Leave it to me to get to traffic tickets in a country where there are no traffic laws.