Jail Time in Colombia

Colombia was the final country on my trip to South America. I’d only heard glowing reviews. The coffee, the nightlife, the Caribbean beaches – it sounded like paradise. There was only one caveat, don’t get on the wrong side of the police.

My first stop was Calle, a huge, industrial city in the south, known as ‘the capital of salsa”. I’d dabbled a little in salsa by that point, but to say I was a beginner would be over-stating my skill level. 

So I booked into a hostel/salsa school, took a few private lessons, and started to get the hang of the latin rhythms. Before I knew it, I was up on the stage with the teacher, used as an example of perfect technique. 

I was loving Calle. I was getting on great with my salsa teacher, and I’d made a cool group of friends. I was even mates with the barman, Sebastian, or so I thought… 

It was the third and final evening in Calle, and I’d been grooving all day. The hostel had a bar, and my buddies and I had been drinking there all afternoon. Afternoon turned into evening, and by 10 we were all hammered. The rule at most hostels with a bar is ‘no outside alcohol’.  We’d broken that rule and were drinking a bottle of rum in one of the dorms. 

Between 12pm and 1am, shit went down. 

I’d been chilling at the bar, and was heading back for another swig of rum, when I saw the receptionist, Victor, kicking everyone out of the party dorm. We’d been busted. I thought he was being a bit aggro, but fair enough, we were breaking the rules. 

So as everyone was leaving, sad the party was over, Victor was enjoying it all a bit too much. He was a notably small man, in his late 20’s with sharp features and beady eyes. He had an annoying, smug look on his face, like a kid that takes his ball home after he loses the game. My good friend Lauchie, whom I’d been travelling with for the past few weeks, was making his way across the courtyard back to our room, when Victor again told Lauchie to be quiet. Lauchie took umbrage, and started doing a Pink Panther prance – sound effects included. 

In hindsight, this might have been a mistake. 

Victor snapped. He made a dash over the courtyard toward Lauchie, and grabbed him by the lapels of his shirt, swearing at him and shouting that he was being disrespected . (Lauchie said Victor also punched him, but I can neither confirm nor deny, I was pretty lit). I ran over and separated them. Lauchie retreated into our room which was just behind him, and I had to continue to hold Victor back, who was still going after him. When he realised he wasn’t getting past, he changed tac, and announced Lauchie wasn’t welcome at the hostel anymore. I said I understood and we’d leave first thing the next morning, but this was insufficient. Victor called the police. 

I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t interested. He told us to hurry up and pack our bags because we weren’t welcome and we had to find somewhere else to stay. As we were waiting for the police to arrive, Sebastian laughed and said we’d probably have to bribe them. Prick. 

Keep in mind, Calle is known as the most dangerous city in Colombia – a notoriously dangerous country. It was the only city I was told not to leave the hostel after sunset. The streets are full of crack addicts which receive no support from anyone, so resort to crime to feed themselves and their habit. The police are also well-known to be corrupt. 

The police arrived. I was told I could still sleep at the hostel, but Lauchie had to pack his bags and go. We tried to negotiate with the four police officers, but they claimed not to speak any English (my street Spanish was insufficient), and when we asked Sebastian and Victor to help us translate, they refused. We also asked to see the CCTV recording of the incident, but Victor and Sebastian claimed it wasn’t working. One of the officers was called Carlos. He was pretty cool, and turned out to be an ally later on. His English was perfect, but he couldn’t tell us why Lauchie was being arrested, and that we’d discuss it at the police station. After too many questions from us, they pulled out their handcuffs. The conversation was over. We were going downtown. 

Myself and the hero of the night, Cecillia – an A&E nurse from England with excellent Spanish – accompanied Lauchie in the Police car, and we were all driven to the police station. 

We arrived after about 15 minutes of driving, in an incredibly dangerous looking area. There were abandoned houses everywhere and no streetlights. In what looked like a desolate building was the police station. 

We were placed in a courtyard in the centre of the prison, and told to sit on a wall. Just behind us was a massive jail cell, full of about 30 young guys, all of which were excited  to see some gringos. The front door of the cell was about the size of a coffee shop window (5-6 metres across) with the cliché steel bars from floor to ceiling.  There were a few guys hanging their arms through, whistling at us and shouting all sorts of abuse and taunts. A few of them said they couldn’t wait for Ceci to join them so that they could fuck her. All in all, a pretty intimidating situation. 

The threat from one of the guards was that if we didn’t pay the “fine” of 1 million pesos (£200), Lauchie was going in the cell for up to five days. Quite a prospect, but we weren’t buying it. When we told them we didn’t have a bean on us, he said he’d take Ceci, just the two of them, at 2am, to an ATM where they’d get the cash. We said no. We then asked if we could talk to his boss. The boss came over, and when we explained we weren’t having Ceci go to an ATM, he agreed that this was a terrible idea. The police officer who was planning on taking Ceci to the ATM then announced he had finished his shift an hour beforehand and was going home! They were obviously just trying to get some cash out of us.

Then Carlos appeared again, and told us the fine had dropped to 500k. Fine for what? They still couldn’t tell us what Lauchie had done wrong. Now that the fine was changing from officer to officer, we knew it was bullshit. Ceci’s Spanish was solid, so she was negotiating for us. She told them she was a nurse and needed to get back to the UK to fight the coronavirus (true) and Lauchie was a doctor (not quite as true), and if they didn’t let us go we’d tell the media the Colombian police had arrested health staff who were needed on the front lines. This, coupled with a video Ceci had of Victor throttling Lauchie, was enough to turn the tide in our favor. The fine dropped from 500k to 250k, then to 100k. Carlos then agreed to take us home. 

We waved goodbye to the threatening cell of street guys, thanking one of them who offered to help us translate, and got back into the car. On the drive back, we discussed how we’d been enjoying Colombia with Carlos, and found out he was studying sociology at uni. They dropped us around the corner from the hostel, and wished us “buenas noches”. We’d avoided hard-time, but we were then faced with the issue we had nowhere to stay. We’d been left on the streets of the most dangerous city in Colombia – Lauchie with his big backpack – at 4am. Thankfully we found a hotel, just across a motorway, still accepting guests. 

The following morning, Ceci and I went back to get our bags, and refused to pay our bar tabs. Sebastian and Victor weren’t there, and Hector the receptionist, who was a great guy, told us to get in touch with management. So we headed on our way, the next stop – Medellin. 

But don’t worry, justice was eventually served. The three of us wrote strongly worded emails to the upper management, and left mediocre reviews on Hostelworld. Unfortunately they had my card details, so the bar tab was paid in full. 

Sadly I didn’t get further than Medellin. My trip was cut short due to the Coronavirus, and I flew home less than two weeks later. Colombia is one of the great countries of South America, and I loved the small part of it I saw. If you’re going to visit, don’t get on the wrong side of the police. 

 

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