Checkpoints and roadblocks set up by security forces are a common facet in countries in the developing world, particularly in conflict and post-conflict environments. In addition to checkpoints run by relatively legitimate governmental authorities in some places there are also checkpoints and roadblocks set up by guerilla and paramilitary groups as well as common criminals.
There is an element of danger even at “legitimate” checkpoints. In many countries security forces are poorly trained, may be nervous or maybe under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When approaching a checkpoint you are very vulnerable for all these reasons and it is important to maintain calm and composure and avoid antagonizing the personnel manning the checkpoint. Checkpoints also provide these personnel the opportunity to carry out extortion and even worse criminal activities. As mentioned in previous posts, in some locations police are heavily involved in criminal activity.
When approaching a checkpoint it is important to remain calm and be polite. Drive slowly up to the checkpoint. Provide any identity papers request but do not make sudden moves or furtive moves that might lead the security forces to believe you are reaching for a weapon. A large dose of patience and politeness are perhaps your best tool in these situations where you are very vulnerable.
You should ensure your car is clean of any contraband or suspicious material. Much as we discussed in the post about sanitizing yourself for travel you should ensure there is nothing in your vehicle that may put you in a difficult position. This is particularly true if you are using shared vehicles from a motor pool or otherwise are in vehicle that you don’t have total control over. If you are a doctor working for an aid agency or a journalist it may be difficult to explain why you have ammunition or military gear in your car. Likewise if you are a salesperson or accountant you may have a hard time explaining high powered camera gear.
An even greater threat is the illegal checkpoint or roadblock. These may be erected by kidnappers or other criminals to conduct robberies or mass kidnappings as we discussed in the post on “miracle fishing”. In some cases a roadblock may be specifically put in place to kidnap or assassinate a targeted person.
When approaching a checkpoint you should assess it to determine whether its legitimate or not. When looking at the personnel manning the checkpoint look at their uniforms and vehicles. Do they look official or are they wearing a hodge-podge mix of uniforms and civilian clothes? Do the vehicles appear to be official vehicles? This will require some level of local knowledge of the security forces to assess correctly. How about the placement of the checkpoint? Generally legitimate checkpoints will be located where they have a good field of observation of vehicles approaching and generally a readily visible. Illegal check points are more likely to be located around a blind curve or just over the crest of a hill to capitalize on the element of surprise – although these guidelines are not absolute. View how people and vehicles are being treated. If you see people being pulled from their vehicles or mistreated you may be facing a very dangerous situation.
Attempting to avoid a roadblock or attempting to run through it are both very dangerous things to do. At both legal and illegal roadblocks it is reasonable to assume that those operating it have anticipated that some drivers will attempt to avoid it. There may be additional security elements you can’t see positioned to intercept people trying to avoid the checkpoint. Attempting to drive through the roadblock without stopping is even more dangerous. Even legitimate checkpoints may have authorization to fire on vehicles attempting to run them.
While there are never clear solutions for every possible situation, here are some considerations:
- Try to be aware of locations where checkpoints are typically situated and avoid those locations when possible.
- Avoid or reduce travel at night when going through checkpoints is more dangerous (and checkpoints may be more prevalent in some countries at night).
- Recognize the inherent danger and your vulnerability even at legitimate checkpoints and com port yourself accordingly.
- Know what legitimate security forces look like in the country where you are operating and use this knowledge to help determine as early as possible whether a checkpoint appears legitimate or not.
- If you believe the checkpoint you are approaching is illegitimate then recognize the very real threat of robbery, kidnapping or other crimes that may exist and make the decision quickly whether or not to attempt to evade the checkpoint or risk entering it. There are significant risks involved with either option and only you can make the decision based on the information you have at the time.