Getting Robbed in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

A typical day in Paradise – San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

(This article is also covered on my Radical Travel Podcast: How (Not) to Get Robbed in Nicaragua where you can hear me tell the story and hear tips from a travel safety expert!)

I walked down the main road, along the beach in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – past the closed beachfront restaurants and the small party still going on at Iguana’s. This was a backpacker’s town – a sort of perpetual Spring Break where young travelers, surf bums, and travelers of all stripes came to enjoy the waves, sunshine and the cheap beers and good party scene.

I had spent the evening at the Black whale, A fun local dive where backpackers and locals drink cold Toña beers and sip rum and cokes while a band plays a mix of surf rock and reggae tunes. After a relatively mellow night, I decided to head home – I had rented a small room in a guest house near the center of town, just a few blocks away.

Just past Iguana’s, I took a left to head towards the market, where my place was.  When I hit the corner, a young local came up beside me and asked if I wanted to buy weed.  “No, not tonight,” I said.

“You want some coke?”

“No.”

“What do you want? You want a girl?”

“No, amigo, I’m just going home,”

This kind of conversation is a pretty common occurrence in San Juan del Sur. Every kid selling sunglasses on the beach doubles as a drug dealer. They ask if you want to buy sunglasses, or whatever other mass-produced trinket they are trying to pass off as a locally made handicraft, and when you decline, they launch into the standard, weed-cocaine-prostitute line of questioning. So, when this local guy came up to me on the street, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I wasn’t worried about or nervous with the situation. Also, I wasn’t buying – these guys all have the same died out brown, leafy weed, and shitty, cut cocaine. No thanks.

But this guy was different, he was more insistent that usual. We passed by a taxi driver, “Taxi?” He called, “No, gracias,” I replied – I was only 3 blocks from my place. When we got to a corner, he stepped in front of me and slowed us to a halt, telling me that I really should try this weed he had, it’s really good blah blah blah.

At this point, I knew something was wrong. I could tell he was up to something. I tried to move away from him and continue down the road, but he stood in front of me, blocking me. I saw another guy cross the street and pass by us. I got a good look at him, he was smiling. I thought he had walked on down the road, but he had dipped into the shadows and suddenly he was behind me, his arm wrapped around my neck, my throat wedged in the crook of his arm. He flexed and tightened his grip, choking me, cutting off the supply of oxygen and blood to my brain. He pulled me down, slamming me onto the street. I struggled for a few seconds, confused by what was suddenly happening to me. I soon realized that I was outnumbered, and in a very bad position, pulled off the main street onto a poorly lit road with no witnesses – I gave up. The other guy went through my pockets and took my things, and they both ran off down the street, leaving me lying on the ground in the middle of the street.

They got away with 200 Cordobas (about $8 US, not a big loss), but they also got my cell phone. They were actually nice enough to leave my wallet and my keys behind.  I picked myself up, gathered my what was left of my things, and stood there in disbelief.

What the hell had just happened? I’d been robbed! Those motherfuckers robbed me!

I paced back and forth in anger, trying to decide what to do next. I saw a small, full bottle of vodka on the ground. The first of the two robbers had been carrying it, but he must have set it down to rob me and forgot to take it with him when he ran off. I bent down to grab the bottle. That’s when I realized that they had also made off with my hat.

This hat had history. It was well-traveled. It was sort of my trademark. It had a flower and a feather stuck in the band – the feather was from a Yellow-naped Amazon, my father’s pet, that had attacked me as a child, leaving a small scar on my face. I wanted that hat back.

My adrenaline was pumping, and I was enraged. Without thinking, I ran down the street in the direction of the criminals, wielding the glass vodka bottle like a crazed gringo lunatic. I ran up the hill, past the last street light, in to a barrio that I didn’t know. What would I do if I caught them? Could I take on both of these guys? Two experienced criminals versus one traveler with full of rage, wielding a bottle as a weapon. It wasn’t going to be pretty. They probably had a knife. Or a machete.

In the distance, I saw one of them, or at least I think it was one of them. It was dark and hard to tell, but it looked like they had split up – one continuing down the road, and one dashed up a dirt hill. I ducked into the shadows, figuring that the one who was hiding up the hill would eventually come back down, and I’d be waiting for him in the shadows with the bottle, ready.

I waited. He never came back down. And When my adrenaline and anger finally settled, I realized it was a crazy idea to try to take them on myself. I was fighter, I was no vigilante, but I knew I was smarter than these two dirtbag thugs. I walked back to town, back to the taxi driver who had seen me walking with the first of the two thugs. He took one look at me and knew something was wrong.

“They robbed you didn’t they?” he asked.

“Yeah they did! Do you know who that guy is?”

“Of course,” he said, “Everyone knows who those guys are – they work this corner all the time, robbing tourists. They’re here every night.”

The note the taxi driver wrote for me with the names of the two thugs who robbed me.

I don’t know how they can let something like this go on every night in a town like this. When the only industry in town is tourism, you have to protect your tourists. You have to run the ladronesout of town. The taxi driver was nice, and told me I should talk to the police. He even wrote down the names of the two criminals on a piece of paper for me.

Palacito, and Chicha.

Now I knew their names. And these guys were going down.

I went to the police station the next morning. They didn’t want to help me at first, saying there was no way I could prove it was those guys who robbed me. Just because some taxi driver told me I had been robbed by those two guys, how could I be sure it was them? I asked if he knew who they were, I got the same answer the taxi driver had given me: Everyone knows them – they are the town criminals.

I told him we should go to their house, I’d point them out and we’d find my cell phone and my hat and we’d throw these guys in jail. I didn’t even care about the things, I told him, I just wanted justice. I was angry that this kind of thing was normal here. I wanted these thugs off the street.

The police officer told me to relax. They were going to go find these guys, bring them in, and I’d pick them out of a lineup.  4 cops jumped into the back of a pickup truck and sped off down the dirt road. And I waited.

The small San Juan del Sur police station is an interesting place. First of all, it’s the Tourist Police Station, but no one there speaks English. You’d think that would be a pre-requisite in a town full of gringo backpackers. The main room of the station has one small desk and a computer. There are a couple of chairs and a TV in one corner, constantly playing the Spanish version of Cartoon Network, even though no children were ever present. When the phone rings, it launches into a crazy song that sounds like a digital mariachi on speed – I don’t know how they answer that thing with a straight face and say, “Policia.” I actually witnessed one cop checking his empty holster, and then miming to another police officer as if to say, “Where the hell did I leave my gun?” He eventually found in an unlocked desk drawer – his loaded pistol, totally accessible to anyone who might have stumbled across it.

Finally, when the truck came back, the officers scrambled to hide me so that the criminals didn’t see me there, waiting to point them out and send them to jail. They shuffled me down the hall and into a small storage alcove with no door. Apparently, there was no actual room for this kind of thing. So instead of being put in a secure location, I was told to stand in this small storage area off the main hallway. If I took 2 steps forward, I’d have been seen. I leaned against a table, next to me was a stack of traffic cones. Above the table hung 7 machetes.

I heard some muffled talking in Spanish, a door opened, a door closed. I was then taken into an office that had a darkly tinted window that looked out to the main room of the station. They filed 4 boys out of the adjacent cell and made them line up, facing me. The window had a dark tint, but I didn’t know if they could see me or not. It wasn’t like the one-way mirrored walls of the movies.

My heart was pounding as I scanned the lineup. I was hoping to see Palacito, I had gotten a better look at him, his shaggy hair, his missing tooth, he would have been easy to recognize. But he wasn’t there. One of the faces in the lineup jumped out at me immediately. It was Chicha, the muscle. I had barely seen him the night before, but I recognized him straight away. All the other boys stood at attention, eyes wide, nervous. Chicha was wearing board shorts and a t-shirt, standing shoe-less and leaning nonchalantly against the wall, legs crossed at the ankle. I wanted to grab him and smash his smug little face against the glass. I wanted him to pay. I pointed him out to the police officer and he nodded in approval and told me that he was, indeed Chicha, and that he would be put in jail. The boys were herded back into their cell and I was sent home and told they would also find Palacito, but that I didn’t need to come back for another lineup. They would throw him in jail too, but they couldn’t tell me for how long.

I was simultaneously impressed and shocked by the whole process. On one hand, the police had been surprisingly helpful. The two thugs were now in jail and the town was a safer place. But was that really justice? There was no red tape, no hoops to jump through, but there was also no trial – the thugs didn’t get to defend themselves. A gringo points a finger and the local gets thrown in jail without any real investigation. They didn’t find my cellphone or anything – they just believed me when I said they robbed me. I was happy that the bad guys were in jail, but I was troubled by the whole experience.

My hat! Safely back home, a little worse for wear, now with an even more interesting back story.

A couple days later, I ran into a friend who said she had seen my hat. The bouncer at the Black Whale was wearing it the night before. When I went to ask, he said that he had bought it for 200 Cordobas from a taxi driver, who had probably bought it from the criminals themselves. At least that was his story. He wanted to sell it back to me. I haggled him down to 150 Cordobas. I got the feeling that everyone was in on this hustle. It’s a strange little industry where the thieves rob the tourists, and then sell their belongings back to them. An evil economy. I’d also heard that the Telcel shop in town bought stolen phones from thieves and sold them back to their original owners. I checked in a few times, but with no luck.

Regardless, I had my hat back, and the two criminals were in jail, at least for now, and I survived with whole thing with only a lightly bruised ego. So I considered that a win.

I waited on the police to find my phone. They kept assuring me that they were looking, and that they would find it.  I was told by a friend that I had to “motivate” them by offering to give them a “gift” if they did find it. Basically, I had to bribe them.

3 gringos on a quad – apparently illegal.

A few days later, I was riding on the back of a quad ATV. We were 3 people and the bike was only meant for 2. In a country where you routinely see entire families on motorbikes and pickup trucks packed with 10 plus people, we didn’t think 3 people gringos on a quad would raise any eyebrows.  But we got stopped by 2 cops tried to give us a 400 Cordoba ticket. They said we had to follow them to the police station. We followed them back down the dirt road until they stopped at an isolated bend and said we could just pay the fine directly to them. “How about 200 Cordobas?” I asked, cutting the “fine” in half. He was happy to get his cash.

These were just the crooked cops I was looking for. I told them about my robbery, and about my phone, and told them that if they could get it back to me, I’d give them a nice gift. They were excited about the opportunity to make some extra cash, and told me they’d look into it.

That night, I saw Chicha back on the street again. Same t-shirt, board shorts, and no shoes, milling around the same corner where I had initially encountered Palacito.  It had been less than a week since I had gotten him thrown in jail, and he was already out. I was wearing my hat. We made eye contact for a split second when I walked by him with a group of friends. I was sure that he recognized me. And I was sure that he wasn’t happy about being thrown in Nicaraguan jail because of me.  Even though I was behind a blacked out window when I pointed him out in the lineup, I’m sure he know it was me. I’m sure he knew that the guy he robbed the night before, the guy with the hat, was the one responsible for him getting caught.

I was suddenly very worried that I’d be jumped on my way home by two angry thugs, fresh out of jail. I told my friends what was up, trying not to sound like a paranoid lunatic. When we left the bar, I made sure it was with a group. I didn’t see him again on the street and I made it home safely. I had planned on staying in town another 10 days, but would I always have to be looking over my shoulder, waiting to be jumped by these guys? I was advised to shave my beard and stop wearing my hat out so that I was less recognizable. Part of me felt like I should just cut my losses and get out of town – better safe than sorry. But another part of me said, “Fuck those guys – Fuck them for making you afraid, for making you change your look and change your plans. If you do leave, they win.”

So I stayed.

I went back to the police and they confirmed that yes, the two criminals were out of Jail. They told me that they never found my phone, so they couldn’t confirm the crime, and the officer informed me, very apologetically, that they aren’t allowed to use torture to get a confession for a crime like cell phone theft. Torture? I felt that was a bit extreme, and I certainly didn’t want them being tortured, so I didn’t press the issue.  But I did inquire about my phone.

He told me I could set a court date. The conversation got somewhat technical at this point, and when we came to a Spanish word that I didn’t understand, we decided to use an online translator. I leaned over his desk to see his computer screen, and saw the unmistakable image of a large, brown-skinned ass, poised over an erect penis. It was a paused hard core pornographic video. On the computer of the police officer. In the main office of the San Juan del Sur Tourist Police Station. I shook my head in disbelief. He quickly clicked away, vaguely embarrassed. I wanted to smash the computer on the ground and tell him to take his fucking job seriously. He was supposed to be helping people, protecting people, not soliciting bribes and watching porn at his desk. The police here were obviously a joke. They were all on the take, you had to offer to pay them to get your things back, and that’s only if you could even pull them away from jerking off and watching cartoons while on the job. What a joke.

I left the station feeling helpless, hopeless, and still knowing that these two criminals were on the street, and probably looking for me…

I think it’s important to clarify that this incident, while not an uncommon thing in San Juan del Sur, certainly does NOT give an accurate impression of what it’s like in most of Nicaragua. And these two criminals are not representative of the majority of Nicaraguans. I love it here. Most of the local people I meet are truly kind and wonderful people. Just the other day, an old man who I had just met invited me into his house for dinner. People are like that here – kind, inviting, curious. And yes, there are a few criminals, but don’t let them spoil your concept of this country or its people. San Juan del Sur is an up-and-coming destination, it has seen a boom in tourism over the recent years and it’s still trying to find its footing. The country, and this city still have a long way to go, but all in all, I’d say it’s off to a pretty good start.

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  • http://twitter.com/WheresP Wheres Pablo

    Crazy story! Good to hear you have your hat back though.

    I was just in Nicaragua for some time this past summer and I have to agree, even though there are some bad incidents with locals that doesn’t reflect the majority of the people there. I would recommend Nicaragua to anybody.

  • Rick I.

    Your description of the police station and its representative officers is spot-on. After my friends and I were robbed at machete-point at Playa Remanso, our taxi-driver took us there, where we were shooed out of the line-of-sight of the television. The ‘officers’ were watching Terminator and debating the quality of the special effects. 

  • Stevehardin1959

    I got mugged in Ometepe under similar circumstances with the security guard watching. He said it wss to dangerous for him to help. He said he coulf get my wallet back for forty dollars.

  • noonie

    you are a fool.

  • Danielle

    This is so frustrating. The only way to get it to stop is by taking the tourism away. My friend was robbed at gun point today at 4pm…broad daylight. Violent crimes like these are shocking and paint the county in a very negative light. I’ve travelled to over 20 countries by myself and have never encountered anything like this.