Overcoming Colombia’s Reputation As A Drug Capital

That’s Spanish For Cocaine, Right?

Coca… That’s Spanish for cocaine, right?” the TSA agent asked me as he read the package and eyed the dozen individually wrapped bags he had removed from my carry-on.

“I don’t know, maybe,” I lied. Of course I knew. Everyone knows that the original Coca-Cola recipe contained cocaine, thus the “coca” part of the famous brand name.

Play dumb. That’s always been my go-to for dealing with border agents during the “random” extra screenings I am subjected to when crossing American and Canadian borders. I’ve come to suspect that there is nothing random about these screenings. Airport screenings may be the only instance when a young, well-presented white male is subjected to racial profiling. In other words, I guess I look like a typical drug smuggler.

Usually playing dumb works. Even if I have one too many bottles of rum or an extra pack of cigarettes in my bag, Canadian border agents usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Welcome home,” leaving me free to move on with my contraband. But not this time. This time I was traveling from Colombia, land of Pablo Escobar, flying through the United States on my way to Canada, and the TSA agents had their antennae up.

“I’m going to have to go test these. You wait here,” the agent instructed me as he walked away with my packages.

While I waited, the second agent continued pilfering through my belongings: underwear, toothbrush, a copy of Foreign Affairs, some Colombian candies I had purchased for my kid sister. Nothing interesting. Nothing to support his suspicion that I was a drug mule.

“Unlock your smartphone,” he ordered.

I complied. What choice did I have? Then the agent huddled over his desk inspecting my call and chat histories and personal photos.

“Anything interesting, officer?” I asked.

“No. Nice-looking girls you met down there,” the officer offered in a slightly creepy tone.

The first TSA agent returned with my packages. One of the bags was torn open, the contents having been tested. Oh, no, I thought. This is it. I’ve been busted for bringing cocaine into the United States, and I’m going to jail for a long, long time. What will my mother think when she finds out… I’ll never be able to find employment as an ex-con… My mind raced. My heart stopped.

“Well, it turns out there is nothing illegal about this coca tea you have here,” the TSA agent finally said. “You’re free to go. Welcome to America.”

My heart resumed beating. My mind cleared. How silly for me to get so worked up over some harmless coca tea I’d bought from some kind little old ladies outside a church in Bogota. Little old ladies wouldn’t sell me actual cocaine. And they hadn’t.

Coca tea is made from coca leaves, a completely different product from processed cocaine, harmless and, yes, legal. Doctors even recommend it for treating the symptoms of altitude sickness.

In fact, my entire time visiting Bogota, nowhere did I encounter cocaine. The little old ladies looked nothing at all like cocaine cartel members, and their tea resembled nothing close to cocaine.

The only time I heard about drugs during my visit was when two obnoxious Western tourists were busted smoking a marijuana cigarette on the public street in front of my hostel. Luckily for them, Colombia has relaxed penalties against personal possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the cops who busted them let them off with a warning.

Still, Cheech and Chong were oblivious. “C’mon man, I thought this was Colombia. You know, Escobar and all that. What’s the big deal?” they asked, unaware of how fortunate they were to have gotten off with only a warning.

Apparently, no one told them Escobar’s dead and Colombia has moved on, leaving behind its stereotype of cocaine cartels and the violence that went along with them.

Apparently, no one has told those U.S. TSA agents either.

Matt Chilliak

Continue Reading: Exemption From State Taxes For U.S. Citizens Overseas