They had me dead to rights: I passed a very-slow-moving camión on a solid line.
That was my first mistake. My second was to pull over when the tránsito flagged me. Traffic at the Crucita junction to Manta was characteristically heavy for a Saturday afternoon. I doubt the two cops would have pursued me, had I neglected to stop. Tránsitos, like most officials in Ecuador, are proof of Newton’s first law of motion.
In my defence, I was not the only driver to pass that truck. The rattling, belching contraption was of primordial vintage and going at roughly the same velocity as an octogenarian with an IV pole.
I was, however, the only one to get caught. Or, more accurately, the only one to take the arm-flapping tránsito seriously enough to yield.
This was hardly my first encounter with tránsitos. During our initial exploratory trip to Ecuador, in 2017, before Chantal and I retired, I got pulled over three times while traveling from the airport in Guayaquil to our Airbnb on the coast. They’ve been a regular feature of my expat experience ever since.
Of course, I spoke no Spanish then. As it happens, not speaking Spanish gets you off the hook for any number of alleged offences. Language proficiency, it seems, is vital to a proper Latin American shakedown.
This time was different, though. This time, I had committed an actual moving violation. They saw me commit it. I was now the reluctant lead in their three-act farce.
Here’s how it went down.
Act I: The Infraction
I engaged exclusively with Tránsito A. Tránsito B remained in his vehicle the whole time.
Tránsito A was Good Cop. He treated me with well-rehearsed courtesy. Tránsito B was Bad Cop. His body language and mirrored aviator glasses suggested that I’d be going straight into a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison.
Tránsito A politely asked me to step out of my car, and to accompany him to his cruiser. There, he explained why he pulled me over, and then he showed me an attractively designed list of infractions and penalties. He pointed one out.
“Extremely serious, señor,” he said reprovingly. “Two hundred and twelve dollars in fines, and six demerit points.”
This seemed like a lot. Perhaps he had me confused with a vehicular manslaughter. I said nothing.
“Very, very serious,” he reiterated, to drive home the extreme seriousness of my situation. “Very costly.”
I looked over at Tránsito B. He was studying his sidearm.
“How much?” I asked, perhaps too impatiently. Tránsito A feigned offense, but in a good-humoured way. We were following a script.
“First, you will agree that this is a serious violation,” he said.
“Sure. Why not?”
“You will also agree that the fine is quite costly. Two hundred and twelve dollars is a very costly fine. And six points!”
I didn’t know it then, but it takes 30 demerit points and one profoundly stupid driver to lose a license in Ecuador.
“How much?” I asked again. He waved away my question.
“That is not important now. What is important is that you agree that this is a serious and very costly situation.”
“Yes, it’s very serious and very costly.”
“Then we agree.”
“Yes. We agree.”
“We also agree that it would be to your benefit to avoid having to pay such a costly fine, and with such serious consequences for your license.”
I think I may have chuckled. This was idiotic. Nevertheless, I had a role to play.
“Oh, yes,” I said with exaggerated remorse. “Very serious. Very costly. Whatever will I do?”
Glad you asked, was the expression on his face.
Act II: The Negotiation
As luck would have it, I had only to pay a discounted cash fine to Tránsito A and his partner. There would be no demerit points; they would see to it personally. Tránsito A helpfully explained that my roadside payment today would spare me the shame and expense of tomorrow’s sullied driving record. Surely, I would agree that this was the best of all possible outcomes.
“Surely,” I said. “How much?”
Tránsito A shrugged. “Whatever you feel is appropriate. Given the seriousness and cost of your violation.”
This was my first bribe. Er, propina. (Tip, in Spanish.) How much should I offer? There were two of them. It occurred to me that whatever I felt was appropriate must be easily divisible by two. Math is not well taught in Ecuador. Try to buy anything without exact change, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Forty dollars,” I opened.
“Fifty.” Apparently, Tránsito A also knew his fractions.
Act III: Payment
It should go without saying that you never hand cash to a tránsito, in broad view of everyone driving past. And yet, that’s precisely what I did.
“Ack!” Tránsito A exclaimed when I pulled out my wallet. “What are you doing? Not here! In your car!”
“Mrrph,” I said and wandered back to Chantal’s open passenger-side window.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’m bribing a tránsito,” I told her. “We settled on fifty bucks. Do you have a ten? Something tells me this guy doesn’t break twenties.”
“Here. Don’t bother with the receipt.”
I passed the two twenties and ten to Tránsito A, in the form of a surreptitious handshake wink wink, and Tránsito B offered me a two-fingered salute from inside his squad car. Our theatrical performance concluded, Tránsito A thanked me for playing along and wished us a pleasant journey.
I drove away, feeling ever-so-lightly soiled.
Some expats will insist that you not bribe officials because it encourages corruption. To which I say, get real. Corruption in Ecuador doesn’t need encouragement to flourish. It’s baked into the culture. As my friend Luis puts it, you can buy anything in this country.
After hearing my story, a few of my expat acquaintances told me that I should have called their bluff and demanded the citation. Great advice, except I was absent that most vital of bargaining tools: leverage. Hard to talk your way out of a ticket when you’re guilty of the charge. (Unless, of course, you happen to be a pretty white girl. Ask Chantal about the “stern warning” she once received whilst speeding on a 400 series highway.)
Ecuador is a cash society. Money, not alcohol, is the social lubricant. It can pry a driver’s license from the hand of a reluctant ANT (Agencia Nacional de Tránsito) administrator. It can change a court-appointed expert’s sworn testimony. A thick enough wad can purchase a loaded weapon and a sicario to wield it. This is what some Ecuadorians call “the $400 solution” to any problem. I wish I were kidding.
I’ve written it before: Ecuador is not for the fainthearted. Behind those Instagrammable landscapes, deep sea fishing charters, volcano adventures, and Andean artisan markets runs a vein of unseemliness that you are required to accept, if you wish to conduct your affairs with minimal interference.
I didn’t move to Ecuador for its constipated bureaucracy. If it costs a few extra pieces of silver to get what I want when I want it – well, label it theatre of the absurd and I’ll take my bows.