Law and Order
Chile has come out of a dictatorship and is still struggling with its legacy. Argentina's people are trying to come to grips with its period of political "disappearances" that has not even come to a defined end yet. How are you as a traveler affected by these facts? First, you are probably cautious not to get into any trouble with the authorities and second, as a tourist, you enjoy a fool's liberty. Good for you. Then, from under this protective blanket, you can peek to get a glimpse to discern aspects of the truth.
As a general picture in Chile, I was told that "The government is OK, even the police. But you have to watch out for the military...." To be practical,I am not sure how a bike rider watches out for the military (except to respect the obvious superiority of their vehicles) but I tried to heed the advice. Maybe that's what the powers want you to do: Let no one think they could ignore them - let them be anxious!....
thing I noticed were the frequent police checkpoints beside the road. Many were not
manned, but you have to realize that they omnipresent, at every fork of major country
roads, at the entrance to villages and towns. The typical one in Chile looks something
like this: A distance before there's a sign cautioning you about the upcoming carabineros
checkpoint, it's green and has two crossed rifles. Then, as you approach the kiosk-looking
building beside the road, drivers slow down and wave at the cop. Buses will stop
completely and exchange a few words before driving on. The whole process is benign but you
cannot help but reflect on the potential of such a system that, within a few hours, could
clamp its vise on the liberties of movement across the whole country. As a cyclist, I was
never challenged. Maybe it's part of the friendliness that all people extended
towards me, or it could be that no one with self-respect will bother with an old guy on a
At the borders, I generally got away easier than people with cars. There were usually line-ups and people had to fill out forms that want to know not only your name but also marital status and profession. It's really not worse than passing the scrutiny of a US border inspector. Only once did I have a zealous cop (there are three arms of the government that you will have to stand up to at the border: immigration, customs and the police) try to give me grief: first he incorrectly challenged me because of an allegedly missing exit stamp from a previous visit to the country (the stamp was there but he did not see it) and then he tried to send me back to repeat a customs inspection, to save his face. Well, I talked my way out of this one...
Can the public speak up? Both countries' TV networks have programs that criticize the
government and the press doesn't hold back either.
Someone asked me whether the honesty of the people there could be attributed to the threat of being caught by an unforgiving police. There is a connection, but I think that other factors are at play as well, factors that maybe are more significant. As example, in Santiago, which is not known for a more relaxed police rule, I was cautioned to look after my possessions while in the south I enjoyed a respect for my property. Maybe the honesty that I experienced is typical for small communities where each one knows the other and acceptance by the community is a powerful motivator.
Was I ever scared of the police? Yes, I was, not of the institution but of an individual who was a member and thus had access to their power. I was sitting in a restaurant in Puerto Montt, studying a map, and group of men asked to look, as they were all from the same village near the border. I like this sort of interaction and they came over and pointed and we chatted. The guys were police in civil garb and just having a good time. Eventually they drifted back to their own table, but one guy stuck with me and wouldn't leave. He had had some contact in Canada, someone who had written him a post card once, and he thought I should be his future contact. He had ideas and offered to go into business with me - not sure what he meant - but I was getting uncomfortable, and so I declined. As I tried to steer the conversation to more benign topics, he wouldn't let go and when he realized that I wasn't interested, he offered me protection. Yes, protection, in a place where I felt safe and respected by everyone that I had met so far. I could picture myself owing favors to this cop and accepting offers that I might not be able to refuse, from a guy with a gun and the power to harass me and throw me into jail under some pretext. Bleah! I finished my meal and beat a retreat to the exit. Everything had changed: I walked home, taking a circuitous route and looking behind me to make sure no on followed. I was scared.