Cops In Uruguay – Pan de Azucar, Uruguay

Cops In Uruguay
Pan de Azucar

You know the TV show “Cops“? It’s that show on the Fox network where they follow policemen around with a video camera as they pull over drunk drivers, bust drug dealers, and arrest pretty much anyone who disrupts the peace – you know, the bad guys. Now, I’m an upstanding citizen and I usually only see these arresting scenes (pun intended) on the show, in the comfort of my easy chair, remote control in hand. That is, until I became a part of the show – although not really because there were no cameras rolling – which is not such a good thing, because I’m not a cop and not such a bad guy at all. (You can even ask my mom.)

I was in Uruguay visiting my childhood friend, Jack, who is not such a bad guy either. He had been living in Montevideo ever since his parents decided to move the family back there from our hometown in New Jersey, when we were both in the sixth grade. Although his fickle parents decided to move back to the States about a decade later, Jack stayed in Uruguay to finish up veterinarian school before going back to the U.S., the country of his birth.

Before that happened though, I decided to pay him a visit during Uruguay’s summer to check out the scene, and escape the North American winter. We rented a pickup truck and headed off to a wildlife reserve in the city of Pan de Azucar, in the nearby department of Maldonado. (A department is just like a state in the U.S., only it has five more letters and is spelled completely different.)

In the various departments of Uruguay, different driving rules apply. As we left Pan de Azucar, we crossed over the border between the departments of Maldonado and Canelones, which wasn’t an official-looking border or anything, just a line – invisible to the naked eye – that can only be seen with special high-tech equipment (a road map). We were suddenly subjected to the law that requires headlights to be on at all times, even in the daytime on a bright, sunny day. Of course, living in a department where daytime lights aren’t required, turning them on in broad daylight just immediately after leaving a parking lot wasn’t the first thing on Jack’s mind. After about two minutes of driving down the highway, we drove right into a road trap. A police officer was stationed specifically to catch those people who made the common error.

“Shit, we’re being pulled over,” Jack said. He had told me before that – unlike the do-gooders of Fox’s TV show – the police in Uruguay are a shady bunch. It is common practice for a cop to ask for a bribe so as not to send you to jail for something stupid like driving with your lights off in the middle of a sunny day, or wearing shorts in a No Parking Zone. In some countries, cops use ATMs for cash. Here, they set up road traps.

The policeman pulled us over. Jack and I sat in the car nervously wondering what the problem was, because at the time, we didn’t realize we had broken the headlight law. The officer approached the driver’s side and began his spiel – the same way you see over and over in the show “Cops”, if it was dubbed in Spanish. Despite my Hispanic last name, I don’t know Spanish too well. I’m Filipino-American and I took French in high school. However, I was able to figure out that we were getting busted for not having our lights on, and for not wearing our seatbelts (another law broken). Plus, Jack’s Uruguayan driver’s license expired four months ago. This was a triple whammy, and quite enough for this shady Uruguayan to make a major withdrawal from the ATM.

The officer and Jack went at it in Spanish for a good twenty minutes. I sat in the passenger seat quietly, watching the whole thing. It was like a DVD playing with the Spanish audio track stuck on “on” and my remote control missing. For a brief moment, Jack turned to me and asked in English. “You don’t have your American license, do you?” to which I just said, “No,” while shaking my head.

I thought we were in deep shit for sure. The two went at it again in non-stop Spanish, and my remote control was still missing. Soon, I noticed they were smiling, like they were old friends. Jack bade the officer farewell and cued me to say goodbye as well. “Adios,” I said, one of the handful of Spanish words I know. Others include: no (no) and entiendo (understand).

Soon, the officer was gone, and without a withdrawal slip. We drove away as Jack translated the Spanish audio track for me.

“I told him we were both Americans from New York, and that I came here to visit my relatives for the summer, and that you came down with me. I told him I was showing you all around Uruguay,” Jack told me.

“I said that as Uruguayans, we can’t very well give you a bad impression about the people and he agreed. But he kept on asking me about my life in the States, about life in New York since September 11th. I told him I actually lived in Jersey City in New Jersey.”

(This was true, but for me, not Jack).

“He was really interested in my life and he kept asking me about September 11th. I told him I work in Manhattan as a Web Designer about twenty blocks up, and I saw the whole thing with my own eyes.”

(This was also true, but for me, not Jack).

Jack continued telling me about the whole twenty-minute conversation with the officer, and apparently, the more and more the officer grilled Jack, the more and more Jack had to borrow my identity to keep the alibi going. Without my knowing, he took my identity to thwart off the officer, the way a shady character takes someone’s identity to thwart off the cops in a Hollywood thriller movie. It was actually good that Jack veered the cop’s attention away from our three violations. The cop never questioned why Jack would have an expired Uruguayan license if he was just the visiting American he claimed to be.

We rode off to the Uruguayan Riviera to continue our tour of the country with our seatbelts belted and headlights lit. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if something like this happened again. It could happen to anyone, even readers of this story. So all you bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

Traveler Article


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