A Little Questionable… Yep, a Guatemalan Drug Bust

San Pedro Lake Atitlan

Streets of San Pedro

Nestled into the cozy, cushioned table beds in Café D’Noz on Lago de Atitlán I was taken off guard when my server climbed up onto the cushions to whisper in my ear. At first all I heard was a bit of hushed syllables inaudible over the blaring movie showing in the café. With a questioning look from me she repeated the sentence in a hurried voice and rapidly stilting English.

“If you have drugs – flush in toilet now, police do drug raid next door. Do now.”

San Pedro on Lake Atitlán is a really big party town; the tiny town is full of backpackers and has a lot of English speaking ex-pats running trendy little bars. It’s far from the quietest spot on the lake and was only going to be an overnight spot for me before heading a bit up the road to San Marcos for a couple of weeks of relaxing on the lake.

Because despite the drug raid in progress, which would taint my experience on the beautiful Lago de Atitlán, this area is one of the prettiest spots in all of Guatemala.

After our server moved on to the next table to quickly spread the message, my friends and I were torn – do we stay and finish watching the movie or just go home to avoid any interaction with the police? None of us had drugs so we figured we were safe to watch the last 20 minutes before heading back to the hostel.Boat on Lake Atitlan

Those 20 minutes probably saved me from spending the night in Guatemalan jail.

The police never showed up to our café so we walked straight back to our hostel, warning a group of travelers in the process about the current raid rumors before parting ways and going straight to bed.

About four hours later, in the dead of night, an incessant and soft knock woke me up. Earlier in the day I briefly met the woman sharing my hostel room and the woman now knocking at the door was not my friendly British co-habitant. In rapid Spanish she asked me to help me find my roommate’s passport as fast as possible – my roomie had gotten put in jail as a part of a street sweep (right at the time I was finishing my movie) and was trying to get out in time to catch her flight back to the UK later that day.

I helped. My roomie paid her way out just in time to run back to the hostel, grab her pack, cry a little, and then catch the shuttle heading to Guate City.

The rest of the day the entire town was buzzing about the backpackers still left in jail; two young male backpackers (with zero knowledge of Spanish) had actually spent the night cuffed wrist to ankle waiting for release.

Through all of this, I have no idea the drugs the police actually found on the travelers they arrested. What I do know is that roughly 40 backpackers got put in jail for not having their passports on them.


And what I find particularly interesting is the way this story evolved in the two months I spent in Central America after the drug raids (which were condemned by the Guatemalan police later that week once the embassies got involved and the San Pedro police were told to stop arresting backpackers for the passport issue).

Once I moved on to other parts of Guatemala and into Honduras I happened to overhear (twice!) travelers at the hostels gossiping about the “fake” drug busts in San Pedro designed to scare the backpackers. Their conversations ran something along the lines of: “ha, ha” clinking of beers, “like that really happens,” sharing of questionable substances, “ha, ha.”

Um, ok. I’m not here to sit on a soap box or be your mom and tell you what to do, so I’ll just share my two personal lessons from this story:

  1. ALWAYS carry at least a photocopy of your passport on you. Apparently it’s illegal in a lot of countries to walk around without identification. Who knew?!
  2. Tearfully calling my dad for help out of a developing world jail (or any jail for that matter) is not high on my bucket list so I’ll stick to a country’s legal activities.

Oh, and in case you couldn’t tell, beyond all of this drug raid story, Lake Atitlán is actually pretty gorgeous and worth a visit!Lake Atitlan (Lago de)

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30 Responses to A Little Questionable… Yep, a Guatemalan Drug Bust

  1. Jeff June 26, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    Wow, wow, wow! GREAT STORY! Thanks for sharing Shannon!

  2. Jennifer Barry June 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    This is a great story! I have featured this post on my blog today.

    • ShannonOD June 29, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

      Thanks so much for featuring my piece! Will try to Tweet & stumble :)

      • Jennifer Barry June 30, 2010 at 12:43 am #

        No problem, thanks for passing it on!

  3. Shane June 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    Though I wore away the emblem on my passport from having it in my money belt for so long, now I'm home, in Turkey, I neglect to carry it despite being a foreigner here. Luckily the Turkish authorities seem to have lightened up a bit since Anil was a teenager. Even though I tried to show my Garanti bank card as ID all I got was a 'I'm a policeman and don't find that amusing' stare rather than a night in the cells. I do tend to carry it when travelling elsewhere in Turkey though.

    • ShannonOD June 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

      Thanks for weighing in Shane – it's so interesting to find out the nuances
      that are just never mentioned about traveling, but now doubly good for me to
      know for when I head to Turkey in the future! Glad that it sounds like
      you've only had a few close calls too :-)

  4. Anil June 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    When I was a teenager in Turkey, it was common to get asked for ID, especially if male and out late at night. If you didn't have your national ID card (or passport for foreigners) it would mean a night in jail until they could verify your identity. I've been in the habit ever since. Now though, in other countries, I don't carry my passport but make sure I always have some ID on me. You never know!

    Glad to hear it was nothing more than a close call for you :)

    • ShannonOD June 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

      I can honestly say that I really didn't have an awareness that this type of
      policy was in place for citizens even – wow! I guess that you would be
      pretty used to it though after living with Turkey's policies. And like you,
      so grateful it was just a close call :-)

  5. Earl June 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    I remember hearing that some places require you to have ID on you at all times but I also have always preferred to keep my passport in my room.Perhaps it would be wise to carry a photocopy at least although I'm usually quite lazy about this kind of stuff. But this story is reason enough to start making sure I have some ID on me.

    And I'm glad that you weren't forced to type this story from the inside of a jail cell!

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:41 pm #

      I definitely think the photocopy is the best option – I also by far to not
      have mine on me if the hostel seems safe enough – and I second you on the
      sentiment, although it would have made an amazing story later on I am glad
      it didn't happen to me! :-)

  6. Nomadic Chick June 21, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    Sobering story, and great reminder that one should always carry identification on them. At all times. I'll be retweeting this one for sure!

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

      Thanks so much Jeannie! I just found it incredible because I had no idea
      they would take such severe action just because you didn't have your
      passport! Craziness but good to know for sure :-)

  7. adventurerob June 20, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    I'm aware of the 'you must have your passport on you at all times' by some countries. I've had it mentioned at border gates a couple of times before as well. Typically I leave mine in my backpack at hostels though, as I feel it is usually safer there.

    I usually leave it when going on a night out too, but my UK licence is not a valid ID in some parts of the world (Australia for example – A few places wouldn't accept it and wanted to see a passport) so I have to get in the habit of bringing it when abroad.

    I'm surprised they actually arrested people without one though. It seems a bit extreme. Although I'd understand if they have drugs on them!

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

      Like you I really prefer to leave mine at the hostel – I feel like the
      biggest threat at hostels is to my electronics and other travelers aren't
      likely to swipe the passport at the end of the day. I have never once had a
      border agent tell me that the passport was required so it was such a shock
      to have the police reacting like that to the backpackers without their's –
      the Guate government though definitely didn' approve of the strong action
      though and I don't think it's likely to happen like that again soon – it was
      just a case of local police going a bit overboard!

  8. Maria Staal June 20, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    Interesting story. You were indeed very lucky, Shannon! Since about three years it is now also compulsory to have identification on you in the Netherlands. It was a bit weird at first, but I am now getting used to having my passport on me at all times.

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

      Wow, that would just freak me out to have that on me at home too! I guess
      you get used to the concept though, kind of wild that it's required and yet
      so very rarely mentioned!

  9. mina June 19, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    wow, i would not have known that this kind of thing goes on near lake atitlan. the place we stayed was so peaceful and there were no other backpackers there… panajachel seemed to be where all the partying took place.

    well, lucky you! glad you were able to enjoy it. we got a similar photo of a lone boat on the lake.

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

      I remember your posts from Lake Atitlan and it def sounded a bit more
      peaceful for you – a testament perhaps to why it's good to get away from the
      hostel scene sometimes like you guys do! :-)

  10. MeganRTW June 19, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    Scary! I'm not heading to Central or South America, but it's a reminder to start carrying my photocopy around with me – this is certainly not a situation I want to find myself in! Sounds like it's a recipe for trouble whether you're on the right side of the law or not!

    I can never decide where it's safer to leave my passport though – on my body, in a hotel/hostel safe or locker or hidden somewhere else in your luggage?? So far, I've been doing a combination of those. It's not fun walking around wearing a money belt in 40 degree C heat, and it's rather embarrassing registering at guesthouses with a warm and slightly moist passport!!

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

      The passport issue is just so tough – I would recommend not often hiding in
      your bags, I very often leave mine behind but only if I can lock it up or
      leave it with the hostel staff in the official safe. But definitely keep a
      photocopy in your purse when you leave it because other ppl have commented
      that it's required outside of Central and South America as well!

      And as for the moist issue – yeah, I've had those embarassing moments when
      you're trying to slyly wipe the sweat off without them noticing! Lol :-)

  11. Andrew June 19, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    I remember when reapplying for my passport there was an option to get a passport card for just Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. If I remember right, you could get it instead of or even in addition to the normal booklet passport.
    I don't like carrying my passport due to the size and in warm places the sweaty square it leaves. I wonder if the passport cards, while not completely legal for travel further afield, would be just as good or even more official looking than a photocopy.
    Does anyone know what they look like, are they more drivers license style cards? Anyone tried this?

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

      That's actually a pretty good idea – I don't know how official it would be
      if you ever got into serious trouble but I am betting that one of those
      cards would work well as something to carry when you just want to leave your
      passport behind – also more durable than the paper passport photocopy I
      currently carry around!

      Doesn't sound like anyone has tried but having one of those versus having
      nothing is certainly ideal – I must ponder now and look up prices! :-)

  12. The Jetpacker June 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    Woah, that's crazy! We always hear mixed advice on the passport issue. Some say to always carry your passport with you while others suggest leaving it in a safe place along with a photocopy hidden away – just in case.

    I love the candor of the waitress telling you to ditch your drugs. I guess drug use is frequent enough to assume everyone has drugs on them?

    • ShannonOD June 18, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

      I think that all of the mixed advice is correct – sometimes its best to have
      it on you, but like you, I prefer to leave it safely in the hostel,
      particularly if I am going for a night on the town. The Guatemalan
      authorities conceded to allowing passport photocopies as sufficient and I
      think that will work in most places unless you are just incredibly unlucky

  13. adventurouskate June 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Scary. You're so lucky!!

    What about carrying a copy of your passport? I know it wouldn't have helped in a “fake” drug bust, but what about otherwise, in other countries?

    • ShannonOD June 18, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

      Agreed – it freaked me out a little. As for the copy – the copy of the
      passport would have definitely helped and now i always make sure that I have
      at least that on me when I leave the hostel! You really just have to have
      proof of official ID – which is the passport, copies should normally work.

  14. marta@atravelaroundtheworld June 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    glad you didn't have any trouble. We always carried our passports on us on our stylish lingerie-money belts. In Italy is compulsory too to have always an ID on you otherwise police can take you in and even fine you but strangely in the UK you won't even need to have your driving licence on you while driving and not even an ID while walking around, how odd is that?

    • ShannonOD June 18, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

      Like you I have a money belt, but if the hostel was safe or had a safe then
      I would leave it behind – not any more though! Crazy though about the UK –
      that seems just ridiculous, how do they know if the person can legally

    • adventurerob June 20, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

      That's not technically correct. It is in the UK highway code that you carry your licence on you in the UK, it's just not enforced or used by the police as they rely on computer checks. Although after watching the UK police programs I do wonder why it isn't enforced.

      • ShannonOD June 22, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

        Thanks for clarifying Rob – odd that they don't enforce having your ID on
        you – that seems like it would be standard everywhere!

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