Border-Town Scam Attempt

January 24, Chetumal, Capital of Quintana Roo.

            When someone you've never met calls you "my friend" in Mexico, and other Latin American countries I've visited, the translation is always either "I want to sell you something" or "I am simply going to ask you to give me money".  Two nights ago, here in Chetumal, I got a very detailed version of the latter.

            It was about 8:00 pm and I was walking in the down-town center of Chetumal after dinner when I heard someone behind me say "my friend?!".  Usually those words come from a local who only knows about 20 words of English but this guy sounded more like USA.  I turned around and met an average looking middle class American black guy, dressed in a pink and white striped shirt, dark slacks and dark dress shoes, about my age (22, or whatever).  He asked if I spoke English - I said "yeah but not very well" and he sort of paused then laughed and said he appreciated my sense of humor even during his very difficult times.  He said he didn't speak a word of Spanish and said he was a minister from Chicago traveling with his wife and two little girls and was having a hard time finding help.  He wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

            He immediately asked if I was a minister, I said no.  Then he started telling me about his difficult times.  He had flown from Chicago to Mexico City the other day and got on a bus to Cancun.  The trip to Cancun required a couple of bus changes and he didn't know that he was supposed to switch his luggage himself so his luggage was somewhere with the first bus and he didn't know where that bus was.  The worst part about this was that his bible, credit cards and money, and everything else and his bible, were all in his bags [I know I said bible twice, so did he].  His wife is a diabetic and her insulin was in the bags as well.  He used the phrases "praise god" and "praise Jesus" randomly about a dozen times during his story and seemed to be imitating the 'Baptist Revival' tone of voice you hear on TV.

            He was talking fast and wanted to give me all the details quickly.  He was very happy to meet someone as open and understanding as I was and said other folks around here didn't even want to shake his hand and he thought it was because of the color of his skin.  He told me a story about the other day at a hotel when a Mexican woman told her kids to get out of the pool and wash their hands because his little black kids were in the pool making it dirty [but he didn't speak Spanish; maybe his wife did and translated for him, but they were hanging out by the pool with no money; okay maybe he prepaid the room or something.  And the racist Mexican mother part of the story could be true; racism in Mexico is substantial, but class trumps color in Mexico and he clearly appeared middle class American and Mexicans would typically accept that.  But why was he here in Chetumal!?].  I wasn't going to try to prove him wrong by pointing out the inconsistencies in his story; I was just curious to see where he would go with this because the entertainment value was a little better than just returning to my room after dinner.  And there was still a chance of legitimacy...  and a chance that I'll be drafted by the Green Bay Packers...

            His wife and kids were staying with 'a nice Christian family' in a village about 180km North of here but he couldn't recall the exact name of the village.  He had found someone that would give him a ride to that village tonight for free, praise Jesus, but he needed to get to the gas station to meet him soon.  FINALLY he fulfilled the appropriate definition of "my friend" and asked me for money to pay for him and his family to get on a bus back to Mexico City where their bags were hopefully waiting, praise god, and he would gladly pay me back somehow.  I politely said that I couldn't help him [I did some quick fuzzy math and the bus ride for him and his family to Mexico City would be well over $100] and that I was on a trip from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego on a motorcycle and gave him one of my cards.  He didn't want to hear the details of my trip because he needed to catch his ride soon so he could be with his wife and kids.

            I reflected on this little encounter a couple of times over the last two days.  I figured there was about a 99.9% chance that this was a scam, the story just didn't add up and he was trying too hard to sound like other ministers on TV.  But the .1% chance made me wonder, even if only for about 2 seconds - maybe it was true but he was just so frazzled from his difficult times that he was simply wrong on some details, but it only bothered me for about two seconds.  I remembered a slight 'Creole' accent in the way he spoke, which is common in Belize, 1 mile from here, and I reflected on the merits of his request for $$. 

            It really was a good scam idea; most white Americans are scared to death of anyone perceiving them as racist and in the modern spirit of political correctness many will go through great measures to prove that they are not racist.  Paying $100 or so would be no problem to show just how accepting and open they are by helping a black guy having difficulty with racist individuals.  A vast majority of white Americans are not racist but every white person knows someone who is.  Whether it's a family member, friend or associate of some kind, they (we) all know someone who speaks and believes at least some degree of racism, and I'd bet my left arm that it's the same for black folks, or anybody for that matter.  But that's a whole different discussion - right now I'm talking about "my friend" and his above average, detailed plan to scam $$.  All he needs to do is screen for other ministers, who would stump him with some minister questions, then mention his difficult times and throw in some racist incidents, then wait and see just how PC the recipient is.  I'm sure this scam has worked many times for this guy and will work many more times, especially on a border town like this where most tourists are only here for a night or two while passing to or from Belize. 

            Tonight I had dinner down the street from my hotel.  I left the restaurant and saw the same guy on the corner talking to a young couple, obviously American.  I passed them and heard the young couple apologizing that they couldn't help him at the exact moment I was walking by.  "My friend" saw me and just said 'hi' and continued on.  His guilty glance assured me that the .1% was now 0% and this guy was simply one of the many scam artists that will entertain me on my trip to Tierra del Fuego.