Dealing with Police in the Developing World

Security official in Lahore, Pakistan

Most of us raised in the US and other democracies have been taught from an early age to seek out a police officer for assistance when they have a problem.  Unfortunately this is not always the best course of action in the developing world.  In these locations police and other security forces are often best avoided.  Frequently the best case scenario is that the police will be incompetent — under-trained and poorly funded. In some locations there are cases where the police are unable to respond to incidents because they have no fuel for their vehicles.    In Venezuela reportedly 90% of homicides go unsolved.  It’s also typical to expect some level of corruption on the part of the police who are usually underpaid and in some instances may literally need to partake in at least petty corruption to earn a living wage.  In the worst cases, the police are sometimes also involved in criminal activity – Mexico and the Philippines are two countries offhand where there have been issues with this.  In both of those countries off-duty and even active duty police have been involved with kidnap for ransom gangs and of course the extensive ties between serving members of Mexican law enforcement and the drug trafficking organizations has been widely reported and is well known.

In some places in the Islamic world their are ties between members of the police and security forces have ties to militant jihadists.  The paradox in countries like Yemen and Pakistan is that one element of the security forces is fiercely fighting the militants while another element is sympathizing or colluding with them.

These factors should be taken into account when encountering law enforcement and security forces overseas.  Expectations that police response will be like what you are accustomed to at home will likely leave you disappointed.  Remember to that interaction with police in some countries can increase your risk not lower it.


Nothing Good Happens After Midnight

This may be a generality but all-in-all its a good rule of thumb.  In some countries it might be better to say 1am and in others maybe 10pm but the principle is sound.

Especially when traveling abroad its important to be cautious about your alcohol intake as this affects your judgment, your ability to respond and generally makes you more likely to be a victim of crime or even social violence.  As you — and others around you become more intoxicated the potential for trouble increases.  Social violence — often manifesting itself through barroom confrontations with other patrons and similar activities — can be potentially very dangerous.  Writer and corrections officer Rory Miller describes these types of social confrontations as the “monkey dance” drawing parallels between human behavior and that of our simian cousins.  You don’t want to do the monkey dance – or worse the “group monkey dance” in a bar in your home town let alone a bar thousands of miles away where cultural and language barriers can fuel the confrontation and potentially the violence.  The best way to avoid these types of situations is to avoid these types of establishments, especially after a certain time of the evening when a significant percentage of the patrons may be drunk.

Another old adage that usually holds true is that if you look for trouble you will probably find it.  If you are wandering around a strange city at night looking for companionship, drugs or whatever else you are likely to find yourself on a bad situation.

If you do go out late at night go out in a group and choose your companions wisely.  Have a transportation plan to get you back to your hotel or other accommodation safely and limit the amount of valuables you are carrying so that if you are robbed the result will not be catastrophic.

Taxi Crime

Taking taxis in many countries is an activity fraught with risks.  In most locations the safest option if you need to use taxis as opposed to dedicated prearranged transport is to use a radio-call taxi or a taxi set-up by a hotel or restaurant.  Getting into taxis on the street can open you up to everything from minor theft – such as over-charging to serious, potentially violent crime.

A common modus operandi in many cities around the world is for a taxi driver to pick you up and then drive you to a secluded area where his colleagues jump into the back seat with you — usually one on each side — and rob you.  This can escalate to an express kidnapping as well if they choose to abduct you and drive you to an ATM machine to withdraw money.  In more serious cases there is the risk of serious assault, rape or murder.

Yellow Taxis & CNGs in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Therefore hailing street taxis should be avoided and in many locations caution should be used when using any taxis.

  • Never get in a taxi that already has any other passengers in it.  In some countries taxi drivers will try to pick up multiple fares.  If this customary in your location tell the driver you want a “private taxi” and if necessary pay extra.
  • Sit directly behind the driver.  This might seem weird or awkward but its very difficult for the driver to control you when you are in this position and its very easy for you to control him should the situation require you to.
  • Lock doors and roll up the windows.  This should be pretty standard practice when traveling in a vehicle in the developing world anyway — even more so when in a taxi.
  • Be alert to pedestrians on either side of the vehicle when stopped – either in traffic, at a red light, etc.  Be prepared to exit the vehicle quickly if someone should try to get in.  Also watch for signs of any communication or signaling between the driver and pedestrians or people in other vehicles.
  • Don’t accept food, drink or chewing gum if offered by the driver.  In some crimes involving taxis the passenger has been drugged as a precursor to a robbery or sexual assault.

Civil Unrest – Some Considerations

Civil unrest can be one of the most difficult challenges you may face in international travel and may be one of the times when you may truly be a random victim of circumstance.  One of the best ways to prepare for civil unrest is to know the location where you are traveling.  Some places have a history of political unrest and civil disturbance and there may be patterns and trends that you can learn from.  These may relate to particular times of year or trigger events that spark unrest or specific hotspots or focal points where crowds often gather and unrest is likely to occur.

Its important to note, however that this is not always the case and past history is not necessarily indicative of future events.  Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the Arab Spring.  The Arab Spring was an eye-opener and in many ways a game changer for many security professionals, governments and businesses.  Notions of clearly discernible trip wires or trigger points that would provide significant indication of a deterioration in the local environment were turned upside down.

Perhaps largely due to the use of social media and the rapid flow of information to a wide audience, events during the Arab Spring moved at a pace that was so quick it left many organizations and individuals struggling to catch up.  Regional governments that were largely perceived as stable folded surprisingly quickly and governments that endured still face significant challenges that came to forefront during this period.

If you are in a location where civil unrest occurs, and in particular if it is widespread and unfolds rapidly you will normally have two options: evacuate or shelter-in-place.  Which option to take will depend largely on the particular situation and circumstances.  Many times if you are at a safe location it is best to stay there until conditions stabilize.  Trying to get to the airport or cross a border while running a gauntlet of angry mobs or warring factions will likely further jeopardize your safety.  Conversely if you are not in a safe location and are not able to get to a safe location or if you have sufficient lead time then evacuation might be the better option.  This is especially true if the situation is likely to get progressively worse.

Arrivals Abroad

One of the most vulnerable points in international travel is arrival at a foreign airport and subsequent movement to your accommodation or first meeting.  You are more likely than not going to be tired and a little disoriented and if it is your first visit to the particular city you will need to navigate the formalities such as passport control, perhaps reclaim your checked baggage and find your transportation.  Pehaps dealing with a language barrier while you are doing this.

Criminals know you are vulnerable at this point and therefore lurk in and around airports waiting to prey on unsuspecting travelers.  This may take the form of petty theft of baggage, pickpocketing or fraudulent taxi services where you are grossly over charged to more violent and dangerous types of crime like kidnapping and armed robbery.

To limit your risk consider packing lightly whenever possible and avoiding checked bags – or at least multiple checked bags if possible.  The more encumbered you are the more likely you will be to be distracted and therefore a more attractive a target you will be.

It goes without saying that the more you are able to rest or sleep on your flight — especially if its a long flight — the more rested and refreshed and therefore more aware you are likely to be.

A critical component of staying safe during the arrival process is selecting your ground transportation.  Prior to departing you should research options for ground transportation at your destination and determine what is best and most appropriate for you.  These options may run the full spectrum from public transportation to a close protection detail depending on the location and the specific circumstances.

In some Western European cities such as Paris, London and Amsterdam – there are reasonably efficient train services that will take you directly from the airport to the center of the city.  These can be used safely provided you take reasonable measures to guard against pickpockets and other petty criminals.

In most locations the best option is usually to be met at the airport by a trusted local contact if you have one.  If this is not possible then the next best option is to use prearranged transportation.  This can be composed of anything from a car service or limo service to a close protection detail depending on the threat level of the location and the nature of the visit.  When using prearranged transportation you should develop identification protocols in advance.  You may want to not use your name or company name on the sign and instead have the driver use a predetermined alpha-numeric or other identifier.  When possible at higher risk locations its good to try to get a photo of the driver in advance.  Upon meeting the driver on arrival you may also want to ask for his identification or ask him questions to determine he is in fact your assigned driver.  You should also have a contingency plan in mind in case you cannot find the driver.

Another less desirable option is to take a taxi.  In mid-to-high threat locations taxis should generally be avoided due to the prevalence of taxi crime.  When they must be taken it is strongly recommended to use a taxi stand at the terminal and not hail a taxi or accept an offer from touts who may be soliciting passengers in the terminal.  In some airports there are prepaid taxi kiosks where you can arrange a taxi and prepay for your journey.  If this option is not available and a taxi must be used then check with an information booth, taxi dispatcher or other source in the airport and get an idea of approximate cost for your trip and then verify the cost with the driver.

Dummy Wallets & Protecting Your Valuables

Dummy or throwaway wallets should be a consideration when traveling abroad.  Carrying an old wallet with some cash – enough to pacify a local criminal (for most locations probably $20 to $60 USD) gives you the  option of surrendering this wallet and some cash without risking losing everything.  Ideally you should put some other paper in the wallet such as receipts but avoid having any documents with your personal information that could be used to track or locate you.

If confronted in a robbery situation you can surrender the throwaway wallet and the criminal will likely want to take it and get away as rapidly as possible allowing you to avoid losing your real valuables.

Even if you don’t use a dummy wallet another good strategy is to divide your money, credit cards and other valuables among different places so that a theft will hopefully only result in the loss of some of it and not everything.

Be cautious about securing anything valuable in the safe in the hotel room.  Staff can access the safe and its the first place someone will look.  Additionally there are methods for defeating hotel room safes.  In some locations the main safe in the hotel might be an option if you get a receipt as the hotel has some accountability.  In some places even the hotel safe isn’t a good option and alerting the staff you have valuables may increase your risk of being targeted.

Its best to leave unnecessary valuables at home and things you must bring like cash and credit cards can be dispersed in different locations on your person and in your belongings.  You can also consider putting some of it in a money belt or in specially designed security containers that are designed to look like other common objects (shaving cream cans,etc.).  The effectiveness of these security containers is debatable and they vary in terms of quality but they are an option.  Padlocked bags may provide some deterrent but any softsided luggage can be breached at the zipper with a cheap ballpoint pen and usually subsequently closed without leaving a trace of the intrusion.  Anyone given sufficient time to search will likely find where your things are stashed but many times the thief may not have the luxury of time.