Citizen's Arrest: Adventures in Bolivian Babysitting

I woke up to an extraordinarily loud “Screech! Chunk! Thud. CRASH! from Simon Lopez, our busy city street. I run down the stairs to hear “Lorien! Camera!” and my siblings yelling, “The van! The van?” The crash was not our van, but instead a drunk driver crashing into one of our large metal gates.

Juan, the drunk driver, had swept the side of his car into a tree by the road.

The Wrecked Tree

He was driving so fast that he had enough momentum to go forward into a little parking lot off the street and swerve hard left. He crossed the raised cement and grass divider between the east and west bound lanes, and drove head-on into our secondary gate. The owner of the house had previously installed a cement block to prevent cars from entering that driveway because it’s too steep for anything but a Range Rover. That cement block prevented the vehicle from entering our garage. Having crashed into our gate, he reversed and drove off.

The Wrecked Gate

To be clear: this man was drunk; he was driving on one of the busiest streets in the city; he rammed a tree; he almost rammed a hardware store, he almost rammed two houses, he crossed four lanes of traffic, crashed into our gate, and drove across two sidewalks where people, including children, frequently walk. The sidewalks where he hit were empty, but this was extremely unusual – we usually have people of all ages walking on those sidewalks. Where he crashed is a part of the sidewalk where my brothers will usually walk down to the bakery for fresh morning bread. Only coincidence prevented him from killing people in his drunken rampage.

Nicholas found Juan and his wrecked car on a little dead-end street behind our block. Dad reached it before me, and as I went to meet him a crowd of witnesses followed behind. In that moment I felt very strangely Firth-like (not something I would normally say. The video cuts out some of the crowd-following sequence.) as the gringa with a crowd of “What’s going on? Looks like a good show!” Bolivians in tow.

At the top of the hill and around the corner sat two vehicles: Juan’s and that of a Radio Movil taxi. We really have no solid idea as to why the taxi was present. As far as we could tell, his car was not damaged and none of the witnesses to the accident had observed his involvement. We do know that Juan paid him 250 Bolivianos in cash ($35.71) to absolve his guilt from something or another. Mom thinks that the taxista was blackmailing Juan. The taxi attempted to leave, and I asked him to stay and wait for the police. He refused. As he was leaving I took his photo, which made him extremely angry.

“Why would you take my photo? This is not my fault! I have nothing in this!”

“Why did he pay you 250Bs?”

“I have nothing in this! You do not need my photo!”

As he said all of this, he loomed closer and closer, which prompted my father to get between us. The taxista had clearly been drinking as his breath stank of it and his eyes were more red than white. He did eventually leave.

Juan also attempted to leave.

Lorien: “No, we all have to wait here.”

Juan: “But I’ll pay for the gate! I will! But I have to go.”

“No. The police are on their way. We will all wait here for them”

“Please, I need to leave. I will pay you!”

“No. Wait here.”

He motioned put his keys in the ignition – I attempted to grab them, but missed. That rather annoyed my father (“That’s my job.”). Meanwhile, when Juan opened his driver-side door… out tumbled an empty beer can. He hurriedly stuffed it into his pants pocket.

We spent the next hour waiting for the police to arrive, and trying to keep Juan from running.

The witnesses were fantastic. The entire experience was country justice at its finest. The people, a combination of curious witnesses and our neighbors, were lined up along the side of the road which had a steep hill down to a bike path.

For the first ten minutes or so my father and I were very conscious of needing to maintain the support of the people. Juan was a crook – no question. The people of Cochabamba are just astoundingly good-hearted. However! The reality of the situation was also that a a big, scary gringo (Dad!) was glaring down at an increasingly pathetic young Bolivian. The loving spirit of Cochabambinos will usually side with the underdog, and specifically with the Bolivian underdog, even to the detriment of justice. This is understandable, but sometimes delicate. When my father verbally defended my mother from a man who physically assaulted my mother, our neighbors sided against us – and they did so by saying that we were foreign, etc. Again, understandable, but frustrating.

Frankly, too, it took a good ten to fifteen minutes for the group to accept that we weren’t going to beat up pathetic little Juan. We just wanted him to wait for the police. They were watching both Juan and us with eagle eyes, waiting to see who was going to be worse.

Juan: “Please. Please. Let me leave. I’ll fix your gate.”

Lorien: “No, you must wait. We are all waiting. You need to wait.”

“I can’t be here!”

“You must. We know the law of Cochabamba, and you have to wait here.”

One of the men concurred, “Listen. They’re foreigners. They know the law.”

I don’t know why a foreigner is expected to know the law, but whatever, I wasn’t going to argue.

Juan: “Please.”

Lorien: “No. It’s better for Cochabamba, it’s better for us, and it’s better for you.”

“Not for me!”

“Yes, for you. I know it’s very hard for you now, but you must learn that this behavior [ed. I actually said manner, but I didn’t know how to say it properly] is not good. You need to learn, and then your life will be better.”

Mind you, in the States that patronizing crap wouldn’t fly. It’s true, and I meant it genuinely. But while in the States it wouldn’t have been… kind to say it out loud like that, here in the semi-open air of Bolivian dialogue it worked. Juan wasn’t just a kid who had made a little mistake, Juan was a young man who came very close to killing people because he a) drove while intoxicated, and b) probably stole a car. Juan didn’t buy the explanation, but the people around us saw that Dad was NOT attacking the punk, and I was speaking firmly and sweetly, while talking about the good of Cochabamba and Juan’s future. I was speaking more nicely to him than any of the people there. Go figure.

Juan didn’t want to hear it, so he turned around to walk over to my father. Now, for context: my father had already spoken to Juan in limited Spanish (“No! Wait here! No!”). He’s still learning Spanish, and because of our extremely low funding his classes have been put on hold. All Juan knew, though, was that I had been talking to him in limited and childish but essentially understandable Spanish, and that my father had used some Spanish with him as well. So he turned to my father and again began with, “Please, I cannot meet the police.”

Dad didn’t want to argue more. He crossed his arms, and in the most perfect Spanish accent of all time, “No entiendo espaƱol.”

The people cracked up. One guy doubled over and clapped his knee. Juan turned to them in frustration, and the fellow in the open shirt exclaimed, “Nope! Can’t talk to him! Just her!” and cackled.

Juan: “Please!”

Lorien: “No.”

Juan assessed his situation. His best bet was to jump down the hill and run down the bike path. He tried to subtly move closer to the edge of the hill. The group just as subtly inched down closer to him. My father met him at the edge, and when Juan stepped onto the hill Dad grabbed his arm:

Dad: “NO. Wait here.”

Juan stepped back up, and Dad released his arm. Juan came back to me.


“No. We are all waiting here.”

He got right up to me, inches from my face.


“No, and please, I want space.”

He didn’t move.

Juan, the Rather Pitiful Drunk Driver

Louder, “Space. I want more space.” I held up my hand as if I was about to push him away. “Give me more space.”

He didn’t move. Dad took a step closer. Juan didn’t notice, so I swiveled around so that the group could see the space differential. “I WANT SPACE. PLEASE.”

The men took a step closer to us, and Juan stepped back once.

I moved away so that I could observe but so that I wasn’t between him and the men. Juan turned as if he was going to just walk off. Dad stood in his way.

“Here. Take the keys. You can have the car. Just let me leave.”

He dropped the keys to the ground.

“No. Wait here.”

Dad picked up the keys anyway, although Juan tried to step on his hand. Juan decided to go sit in his car. He had another set of keys, so he was still a flight risk as far as we knew. He started gathering his things into a duffel, preparing for a run.

Dad walked over and opened the car doors. Again, the group found this hilarious. The perfect solution: we weren’t touching him, we weren’t hurting him, but he wasn’t going anywhere. They loved it.

Juan put his duffel in the trunk and went back to standing in the middle of the little road.

He pulled out his phone and pretended to have a conversation, acting all nonchalant about everything… but steadily stepping further and further up the road. Dad just went up and blocked his path. At first it was subtle. Juan would take a step forward and to the side. Dad would step back and to the side. A happy little waltz. After fifteen feet of this, the group started laughing.

Some of the Neighbors

One pointed at Dad and tapped his own skull, as if, “ha! clever!” Juan started freaking out and taking bigger steps. The guy in the gold shirt walked up to block the corner. I thanked him, and he nodded as he walked up to give Dad backup. I’m rather perturbed because in the video it sounds like a grassy-ass gringo accent. Sigh. Anyway, I was taping that bit because if he did run for it I wanted to have evidence of the sequence of events.

The Waltz of Dad and Juan the Drunk from Lorien Johnson on Vimeo.

Juan got ticked and gave up on that tactic.

He had already said that he didn’t have a license. Dad asked me if he had a general ID.

Lorien: “Do you have a carnet?”

Juan: “Carnet? Yes.”

Gold Shirt Guy was standing a few feet behind him, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what he mouthed in Spanish but he motioned and my brain translated it as “Get it!”

Lorien: “Can I see it?”

Juan: “My carnet?”

“Yes, can I see it?”

He pulled out and opened his wallet to display his ID in a clear plastic pocket.

Lorien: “Can I read it?”

Juan: “Read it or take it?”

I just laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t understand. Can I just read it please?”

He took it out, turned it over, and replaced it in his wallet.

Lorien: “I can’t read it in the plastic. Please?”

I held the wallet as if I was tilting the angle to read, but his grip was iron and it would’ve been a fight, so I let it go.

He put his wallet back in his pocket and backed up to stand on the edge of the hill and his escape. Dad and the men were primed to go after him.

“Please, Juan. I have your photo. I read your carnet and know your name and ID number [I didn’t]. It will be much better for your life if you just wait here.”

Again, laughter. “Better for his life! hahaha!”

He rubbed his head and went to go lean against the car to think.

Waiting for the Police

Eventually he climbed in.

Thomas, my brother, had gone to get soft drinks for everyone present. I passed them out to everyone, and convinced Juan to have a coke to relax, too. We were about a half hour into the process, and the police still hadn’t arrived.

Open Shirt Fellow explained, “It’s a Sunday. You have to insist.”

Mom kept calling the police, and some of the people had left to go call from their houses or to go to the courthouse down the street to try to convince the police to actually come out.

We spent the next half hour sitting around and waiting. The men circled the car to ooo and aah over the excessive damage, which also effectively kept Juan contained. I eventually went down to the house to let one of the people call Transito (I think the equivalent of the American Department of Moving Vehicles”) and report it as a stolen vehicle (which the people had decided amongst themselves that it must be). While he called and I brushed my teeth (finally! half an hour of talking in my pyjamas and unbrushed breath. Horrid!), we got the call from Dad saying that the police had finally arrived.

I got back up the hill and talked briefly with the police. The group had dispersed quickly, and were waiting on the other side of the street in front of our house. We took the police to show them our gate. They nodded and decided to bring their jeep and Juan’s car down to the street. The police went up the hill. Juan followed them from about 40 feet behind. I was baffled by why he was left alone, so I just stayed right behind him. We’d gone halfway up the hill when the lead officer saw us and yelled at his assistants, “Why is he walking? Why did you leave him? Put him in the car!” So Juan, bless the pitiful little guy, shuffled up hill to the jeep and got in the back of his own accord.

Back at the house, we explained the sequence of events. Dad had gone inside to print of my photos. A second police jeep arrived. A third jeep. Then a red Transito jeep. Apparently departments had not been tracking that the calls were all for the same event, or at least the sheer number of calls pressed them to show up in a group. I think we had ten or fifteen officers there at the end. They had Juan pick up the pieces to the car and wait.

My father then came out with the printouts of all of the photos. One officer just looked at them and was amazed. He took them over to the group of officers who were standing in a circle around Juan, and I’ve never seen an officer happier.

“Look at these! [flip page] Look at that! [flip] That’s his face! His face! [turned it over to show Juan] Your face! [flip] The license plates! Your plates! They have everything!” They were laughing uproariously, and as he said that last bit he clapped Juan on the back, “Pobrecito!” {poor little thing!}

Pobrecito, indeed. The officers were amazingly thrilled, because we’d essentially done most of the work for them – kept him there and taken and printed pictures of him, the other taxista, and the damage. Probably the first time in a long time that they’d walked into a situation and actually had witnesses and evidence. They just stood there laughing at the situation and at poor Juan. Juan was definitely guilty, but he just happened to be guilty in the worst possible spot in the city.

Well. I suppose he could have crashed directly into a police station or the DEA building. But, y’know.

Still, it was just so… Andy Griffith. The neighborhood rallied in the only possible justice available to them, and we kept it on a strictly peaceful level. Ordinarily a petty crime is frowned upon but earns merely a glare and a shrug. I frequently hear folks shrug in semi-apology, semi-indignation, “Eh. This is Bolivia. It happens.” This time, however, the neighborhood saw that Juan was a risk and he had carelessly and illegally endangered their families, their property, and their peace. They solved the problem. By the time the police showed up an hour after the neighborhood beginning the process, the officers were so busy being amused by the ridiculous efficiency of the entire affair that all they could do was laugh and pat the crook on the back with a jovial but sympathetic, “You’re fried, man. You’re fried.”

I adore Cochabamba. Andy Griffith Southern Justice in the morning, and at noon we left to go to the Feria de las Flores {Flower Feria}.

That’s Bolivia.

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