My Stint in Bolivian Jail
I spent my first hours in Bolivia with the police and in Bolivian jail.
You are going to wanna read this one. I jinxed myself when I hoped for a smooth trip to Bolivia.
I attempted to sleep in the airport again last night, but failed miserably. By the time I get on my 5:50am flight to Cusco, connecting to La Paz, I have slept for 4 hours in the past 80 hours.
I finally get to La Paz and I am completely drained. Plus La Paz has an altitude of 12,000 ft, so I'm super light-headed.
Now before I got to Bolivia, I tried to obtain my tourist visa in advance twice. I got denied both times. US citizens can obtain their visa upon arrival though, so I gave it a shot. I just had to pay $160 USD, provide proof of onward travel, and proof of accommodation. I didn't realize you had to have the latter two in paper, so I'm prepared to show immigration my phone. I get up to the counter and the immigration officer says, "papeles."
It's no problem because I have everything in hardcopy too. I set my phone on the immigration desk and open my backpack to get the paperwork. When I stand up and hand the officer my paperwork, my phone is still sitting there. The immigration officer sets the papers down on top of my phone on the desk. I close up my binder and shove it in my bag. The immigration officer issues my tourist visa. No problemo. Then I realize my phone is missing, so I check my pockets and it's not there. I check my backpack and it's not there. I ask the immigration officer if he accidentally grabbed it. He says no. I search my pockets and bag three more times just to be sure and start crying because I'm so mentally drained.
Two airline workers, Melissa and Rayssa, see me crying and ask if they can help. I tell them I think the immigration officer stole my phone. It is such a sticky situation because I don't want to make him angry, but he is the only feasible culprit of my lost cell phone. They walk up to him and ask again if he has my phone. He denies it again. I walk up to him one more time and ask, "can you please just check your pockets? You may have accidentally grabbed it." He "checks" his pockets and it's not there.
The two ladies bring me their iPhone to use the Find My iPhone App, but my phone is not connected to wifi, so it doesn't work.
I'm frustrated, exhausted, light-headed, and not in the mood for this situation. I see there are video cameras, so I ask if we could watch the tapes.
Melissa contacts the head of the airport and within five minutes, we are up in the Head of the Airport's office watching the tape. Sure enough! You see me set my phone on the counter and the second time I bend over to put my binder away, you see the immigration officer slide it underneath the desk. Melissa calls the police, head of immigration, and the US Embassy. We watch the video again and it's unanimous. The immigration officer stole my phone. But it's not that easy.
First, we have to walk off airport property to the immigration officer barracks (I didn't even know that was a thing.). There is about 10 of us, including airport police, soldiers, immigration officers, me and the airline workers. All of this for a cell phone!
We get to the suspected immigration officer's barrack and knock. He opens it; having changed into a different outfit. We straight up ask him if he stole my iPhone. He denies it. We tell him we have video evidence and that he needs to come with us. We walk back to the airport and the suspect gets herded into an interrogation room. I have to go to the airport police office and call the US Embassy. I thought it seemed a little drastic, but this has never happened to me. I first speak with a Marine at the US Embassy and he tells me that they are legally allowed to confiscate large electronics. I try explaining to him that this is different. The immigration officer purposefully snook my phone under his desk with the intention to steal it. He seems exasperated but transfers me to a higher up at the embassy. While I'm on hold, a police officer walks in and informs us that the immigration officer caved in and admitted to having my phone. He claims he found it on the ground...
The US Embassy tells me I will have to go to a police station so the incident is documented.
The police, soldiers, and guilty immigration officer come back and hand me my phone, which is now missing it's case. They tell me to make sure it still works. I turn it on and the butthead stole my SIM Card out of my phone! Again, I start crying. I'm on hour 92 of very little sleep and I'm fed up. He finally hands over the SIM Card, but I never do get my case and pop-socket back.
Now we have to go to the La Paz police station. The two heads of Bolivian immigration show up and take me to the jail. They keep expressing how sorry they are and that they hope it doesn't taint my opinion of Bolivia. I am extremely annoyed but this really isn't a big deal. It's just a cell phone, even though I cannot afford to replace it. We get to the police station/ jail and Mr. Immigration Officer is already there. The police chief asks me if I want to press charges. I decline. The heads of immigration had already fired him and he automatically has to spend 8 hours in Bolivian jail. I don't want to spend 8 hours in US jail, much less Bolivian jail. I think he has suffered enough. I tell the police chief that I just want my phone back.
I have to sign a bunch of paperwork and they made a bunch of photocopies of my passport but then I'm sent on my way.
I would have appreciated an apology, but that never happened. It's such a shame that my opinion of a usual trustworthy figure is tainted because of this one experience. It does bring me comfort knowing that the police, army, immigration department, and La Paz airport were so extremely helpful today! There are good people all over the world. Don't let your opinions be influenced by a select few. Just be more vigilant and don't leave your valuables laying out. Lesson learned.
Plus I got a free ride to my hostel from the heads of immigration. They were some pretty awesome guys!
(I wasn't really supposed to take pictures, but the man in the black is the officer that stole my phone and the men in the second picture are the heads of immigration at the jail with me.)
I wish I could have obtained a copy of my video.
I also cancelled my original hostel reservation and booked a new hostel because I was nervous he would retaliate after his 8 hour stint in jail.
Although this was a rough start to my time in Bolivia, it was not the norm in Bolivia. Every other encounter I had with locals was positive.