The overnight bus usually arrives to La Paz in the wee early morning hours. It was still quite chilly as I made my way down from the terminal to catch public transportation to meet my uncle. The road from the bus terminal is a steep downhill descent that eventually intersects with the main road that eventually becomes El Prado.
There was quite a bit of foot traffic on this well-traveled sidewalk, when I was approached from behind. Some anonymous fellow informed me that the hotel up the street had just been robbed. Wearing the Bolivian-equivalent of a "Members Only" jacket and sporting a fresh shiner, he reached into his coatpocket to show me the poor-looking fake badge card that read POLICIA. As I quickly inspected the Xeroxed card, another unsuspecting pedestrian would pass by. The "cop" would stop him too and feed him the same story asking both of us to show him our wallets. The other person had no problem pulling out his wallet. Reeking of a scam, I politely said "No thanks" and went on my way. After a few paces farther down, I turned around and neither was nowhere to be found. Then it occurred to me, they were obviously in cahoots and their intended target was me.
Stories like this are not uncommon in Bolivia. A friend from college, who was doing volunteer work in Montero, came to visit me in Cochabamba. Also arriving in the early morning, she and her friend were stopped by a generic taxi blanco (white cab), where the passenger posed as a policeman. Asking to see their backpacks because they were supposedly looking for counterfeit bills, they reluctantly handed over their bags. Without taking their eyes of the bags for a second, the fake cop somehow managed to lift several hundred dollars.
Tourists and foreigners are not the only ones who fall victims to these types of crimes. Poor campesino men and women are often seen as easy targets because they are perceived as naive. I have heard several variations on the same story involving an unclaimed lottery ticket or an uncashed check. The attraction is that this stranger happens to find a winning lottery ticket, but is in a hurry and cannot go to claim the prize. Offering the ticket to his new "friend", all it would take is a cash advance for his half of the prize, then his mark could go cash the entire winnings. Obviously the ticket is a fake, and the poor man or woman is out an entire life’s savings. Falling victim to this crime actually led to the unfortunate suicide of a man who could not bare to live with that shame.
Sometimes the police are often involved in these scams. A common ploy involves a conveniently dropped purse, wallet, or envelope. Not suprisingly a police officer is nearby and finds you in posession of the item, which may contain a lot of money or another personal object. Suddenly the owner would materialize claiming that you had stole the envelope or wallet, and it would appear as if the person is caught red-handed.
Spending more time in Bolivia, I soon heard about all of these little ploys and learned when to cast a suspicious eye on something that seems too good to be true or when something seems too outrageous to be legit.
Six months after my first encounter with the "undercover police", I returned to La Paz to visit my grandfather. As usual, I made my way down the downhill pavement, when I ran across an apparently lost man who had purposely slowed down so I would pass him. With an outstretched map, he stopped me to ask whether I knew where so-and-so place was. Admitting that I was from Cochabamba, I told him I was not very familiar with the capital. Just then, another man ( a little better dressed this time, minus the black eye) came by and flashed an even worse looking police I.D. Claiming that there had been a string of robberies in the area, he assured us that he needed to see our wallet and our i.d’s. Right on cue, the "tourist" cooperated and took out his wallet. When it was my turn, I laughed to myself. I caught a policeman out of the corner of my eye, who was directing traffic on the main road.
"No problem," I would say. "Let’s also go inform your colleague about these robberies, I’m sure he would like to know," I stated while continuing to make my way down to the main thoroughfare. Right then, they both mumbled something, turned around, and started back uphill.