We all dread being pulled over by a police officer – especially in a foreign country and especially if you aren’t fluent in the native tongue.
The time, the money, the fear and worst of all, the general aggravation will inevitably tax even the most seasoned traveler.
Traveling surfers with pick-up trucks loaded to the hilt with big board bags stand out like pepperoni pizza in a homeless shelter. These days, it’s getting more difficult to drive from the airport out to the beaches without getting pulled over for a meaningless infraction and getting hit up like an ATM machine.
Here are some things that I’ve compiled to increase your odds against receiving an infraction, reduce the dollar amount you pay, and take away your fear of getting stopped by the police.
What happens when you get a ticket in Nicaragua?
First of all, it’s important to know what happens when you “get a ticket” in Nicaragua. The idea is that if you understand the process, you can understand how best to deal with it. It is very different from getting a traffic citation in the United States.
When you get a ticket (called a “MULTA” in Spanish) in Nicaragua, the police officer confiscates your license, puts it in an envelope and gives you a yellow slip (the MULTA).
The MULTA serves in place of your driver’s license, which can be picked up at the police station – after you pay your fine. You have 30 days to retrieve your license. Use this to your advantage!
The yellow MULTA serves as your license and gives you the right to drive in the meantime. You can receive up to two infractions per yellow MULTA, which the officer will physically write on the same yellow slip.
After the third infraction, they replace the yellow MULTA with a red MULTA. You can only drive for 24 hours with a red MULTA.
While it is the most serious of all MULTA’s, having a red MULTA is like having a free pass to drive however you want for the day. If you get pulled over with a red MULTA, they can’t really do anything else to you, so if you ever get one of these – GO FOR IT!
Avoid getting pulled over by the Police
1) Obey the Law – The best way to avoid getting a ticket in Nicaragua is to not get pulled over in the first place. Obey the Law and you greatly reduce your risk of getting to know the legal system in Nicaragua. Some of the most common infractions include:
• Crossing/passing over a solid yellow center divider line (even if you are behind an ox cart going uphill)
• Changing lanes inside a rotunda (i.e. round-a-bout)
If you avoid these three violations, you’ll reduce your chances of getting a MULTA by at least 50 percent.
2) Be Inconspicuous – A bunch of board bags on top of your vehicle is a sure way to broadcast your “touristness” to the police. Try putting boards inside your vehicle whenever possible to look less conspicuous on the highway.
If they don’t fit inside, the back of the truck is preferable to the roof – that way they are less visible as you approach a checkpoint since the police view your vehicle from the front.
3) Play Dumb – Nicaraguan Police are either in a car, on a motorcycle or on foot. A police officer on foot will not attempt to chase a vehicle. It’s too much work. Furthermore, the Police in Nicaragua do not have radios and don’t communicate very often. Some of the higher-ranking officials have cell phones, but they rarely have “minutes” and are usually unable to make a phone call.
So, let’s say you are being waived over by a police officer, who DOES NOT have a vehicle. If you happen NOT to SEE HIM (wink, wink) and accidentally keep on driving, chances are, that’s the last you’ll see of him.
It’s also important to note that if you look in your rearview mirror and see him getting on a motorcycle that you didn’t know was there, you can easily pull over, play dumb, apologize and go to Step No. 4.
4) Talk your way out of it – If you are pulled over and it looks like you are going to get a ticket, try to talk your way out of it first. It really helps not to be in a hurry and to act unconcerned about the ticket he is telling you he’s going to write you.
Be nice, be apologetic and let him lecture you – he’ll likely repeat your infractions over and over to you during this process. This is a cultural thing so give him time and let him do his thing. He wants your money, but this is the worst time to offer a bribe. Try to outlast him first.
The longer you can talk to a police officer, the more likely he is to give up and the more likely you are to get your way.
5) Offer a bribe – If the waiting game doesn’t work, you can choose to offer a bribe – which is much easier than going through the MULTA process. Average Police officers earn the equivalent of $150 per month – that’s five bucks a day.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that all police officers take bribes to supplement their incomes…especially from unsuspecting gringos who would rather pay than deal with the hassle of getting a ticket.
Wait until he has his pen out and is writing you the MULTA. This is the point of no return – you will either get a ticket or he will accept a bribe. It’s easier to bribe a police officer when he is alone (for this reason, I recommend pulling over 100 metres or so away from any checkpoint with multiple officers. The officer will have to walk out of his way to approach you and will usually be alone.)
- Keep your bribe money separate – That way, you can reach in your pocket, wallet, or wherever you keep it and say “this is all that I have”. They won’t believe you, but it looks better than pulling out a wad of cash and only offering them part of it.
- Be discreet – Bribes are common, but they are still frowned upon. Don’t offer bribes when multiple officers are present. Don’t wave bills out the window.
- Make it sound more “legal” – Offering money to avoid a ticket is a bribe no matter how you look at it. Try offering to “help the police pay for gas” in return for not having to drive all the way to the police station to collect your license. They will end up pocketing your money anyway, but it will be looked upon more favorably and give the officer a moral rationalization.
- Don’t ever pay more than $20 for a bribe – Besides ruining it for the rest of us, you are wasting your money. You can always let them take your license and issue the ticket. It will cost you less than $20 to get a new license when you get home.
6) Accept the ticket – Accepting a ticket is not the end of the world and may actually be the easiest and least expensive option for most people. They will take your license, but you’ll be able to drive on the Yellow MULTA during the rest of your trip (you can even receive another infraction on the same MULTA). Just let them keep it.
Remember you can get a replacement license in most states for under $20. (In FL it’s only $14 and you can order it on the internet and have it mailed to your house in a few days.) Why would you ever offer a bribe over $20?
Unclaimed licenses in Managua are pretty much lost forever. I think they have about three of mine. The system is not computerized and they have no way of enforcing past infractions if you come back next year.
This information should cover about 90 percent of all traffic stops and help you better understand what to expect should you encounter the police in Nicaragua.
This article was written with over four years of personal experience living and driving in Nicaragua, numerous (too many to count) traffic stops and countless MULTAS, bribes and trips to the police station. My pain is your gain.
Follow the steps outlined above and you’ll be able to avoid many of the common hassles that have the potential to wreck your vacation.
And remember, while these things have been successful for me, do them at your own risk. If you end up pissing off the wrong cop and going to jail, I’m not coming to get you out!