Running Road Blocks

How to negotiate checkpoints and roadblocks while travelling in higher-risk locations, and why attempting to run a road block is probably not a good idea.

5 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 28 Aug 2023

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If you’re travelling in higher-risk locations, you’ll frequently come across checkpoints and roadblocks. Checkpoints may be manned by police, military, paramilitary, or militia groups. Sometimes an unholy mix of two or more of these groups!

Checkpoints may or may not pose a threat to you and your team; however, the treatment you get at checkpoints can depend on a range of factors outside your control. You’ll need to assess the risks posed by checkpoints and determine whether it’s necessary to actively mitigate those risks.

Getting the lay of the land

Once you’re on the ground, one of your first priorities should be to assess any potential restrictions on your movement. Checkpoints and roadblocks could be one of the more significant restrictions on your movements and could impact your activities.

As you familiarise yourself with your operating environment, record checkpoint and roadblock locations and dispositions. When doing so, include the following details:

  • The group operating the checkpoint (e.g., police, military, paramilitary or militia).
  • The number of people manning the checkpoint by day and night.
  • The types of weapons carried by people at the checkpoint.
  • The types of vehicles at the checkpoint.
  • The types of barriers at the checkpoint.
  • The operating hours of the checkpoint.
  • Details of procedures at the checkpoint (what identification is required, whether vehicle searches are conducted, whether bribes are required, etc.).
  • Whether you’ve experienced difficulties at this checkpoint before.

While it’s the barriers at checkpoints that will impact your movement, it’s the people manning the checkpoints that will impact your safety. As you assess each checkpoint, carefully evaluate the personalities at the checkpoint. What’s the level of discipline? Are they correctly dressed and appropriately equipped? Are they courteous and professional? Do they drink on the job? Are they high on khat by 4pm? Do they demand bribes? These assessments will guide your approach to mitigating risk.

Preparing for checkpoints

As you plan your activities, you’ll need to make sure you prepare appropriately so you’re able to get through checkpoints with minimal issues.

As with most aspects of personal security in higher-risk environments, the key to your safety and security is to move about without being noticed. At checkpoints, the aim is to move through the checkpoint with minimal fuss. Certainly, you don’t want anyone at the checkpoint having any issues with you that could cause problems in the future (you may need to move through some checkpoints on a daily basis).

As a start point, spend time with your driver (and guide, if you have one) discussing what’s likely to occur at the checkpoint. Typically it will be your driver or guide that does the talking, so you’ll need to be aligned on your approach.

Determine the most appropriate seat in the vehicle to occupy. In some cases you may be best sitting in the front seat. In other cases, the rear seats may be preferable. You’re not trying to hide with the vehicle. Rather, you’re trying to manage your exposure.

Ensure you carry appropriate identification and papers with you. If necessary, carry a copy of your passport. If permits are required, be sure to carry copies.

If your electronic devices are likely to be inspected at checkpoints, ensure that you carry devices with no sensitive information or applications.

If you’re carrying satellite phones or messengers, it may be best to keep these out of sight. However, avoid trying to conceal these devices unless you are very confident they won’t be found in a comprehensive search. If the vehicle is searched and the devices are discovered, you may have problems.

Other than that, minimise what you carry in the vehicle when out and about. Any item you carry will be subject to scrutiny as the people manning the checkpoint try to determine if you are who you claim to be.

Avoid hostile checkpoints

If checkpoints are known to be hostile some or all of the time, you will obviously need to avoid them. Doing so may prevent you from accessing certain areas or could result in lengthy drives as you bypass the checkpoint.

Don’t mark checkpoints on your maps

Avoid marking checkpoint and roadblock locations on hard-copy maps that you carry with you. If you’re stopped and searched, and are found with marked maps, you could be accused of being a spy. The consequences could be dire.

Be cautious with photography

Checkpoints and roadblocks are often sensitive locations and photography is normally not permitted.

If you are caught photographing a checkpoint, be prepared for the consequences. typically, the best approach is to feign stupidity, delete the photos immediately, and promise not to take such photos again. Again, there’s a risk of being accused of espionage.

Notify when approaching checkpoints

If you’re working with a team, get in the practice of notifying your teammates when you’re approaching a checkpoint and after you’re clear of the checkpoint. By updating your team, you’re warning of the potential for a problem. If you don’t give an all clear within a reasonable amount of time, your teammates can presume you’ve had problems at the checkpoint and may require support.

Actions when stopped at a checkpoint

If stopped at a checkpoint, remain calm and follow instructions. Be polite and amicable. If you cause trouble, you’ll be remembered, which may cause problems for you at this checkpoint (and possibly others) in the future.

If you’re with a local driver or guide, let them do the talking and don’t get involved in the discussions.

If you’re going to be operating in the same area for some time and will be using the same route frequently, your objective should be to build relationships with the people at the checkpoints to reduce the risk of hassles in the future.

Thou shalt not pass

If you’re informed that you cannot pass through the checkpoint, you’ll need to make an assessment regarding how critical it is that you get through. If it’s not critical, backtrack to a bypass route or return to your accommodation.

If it’s critical that you get through the checkpoint, consider negotiating a bribe. If you’re not able to pay a bribe (either you don’t have the necessary cash or a bribe won’t be accepted), your last option is to ram through the checkpoint.

Running checkpoints

Driving through a checkpoint in a higher-risk location is rarely a good idea. In fact, in almost all cases it’s a terrible idea.

You should only consider running a checkpoint when ALL of the following conditions are true:

  • You have no other options under the circumstance.
  • You won’t have to return through the same checkpoint later.
  • There are no vehicles in front of you blocking your path through the checkpoint.
  • There are no substantial barriers preventing you from driving through the checkpoint. In addition to any obvious barriers, look for barriers that could be raised from the road, such as hydraulic bollards or wedges.
  • There are no checkpoints farther down the road. If there are, expect that the checkpoint you are at will warn these checkpoints, and you may be fired on as you approach them.
  • You are confident in the capabilities of your driver and your vehicle to outrun and out manoeuvre any vehicle the checkpoint sends after you.
  • The people manning the checkpoint are only armed with pistols, shotguns or small calibre sub-machine guns (i.e., weapons with limited range and penetration).

If the people manning the checkpoint are armed with assault rifles (e.g., AK-47 or H&K G3 rifles), do not take the risk of driving through unless it’s literally a life or death situation AND you are in an appropriately armoured vehicle. The odds of driving through unscathed will be somewhat better at night, but it’s still a high-risk option.

Considering the criteria above, ramming through a checkpoint in the majority of higher-risk locations simply won’t be an option.

Wrap up

Checkpoints and roadblocks are commonplace in many higher-risk locations. Take time to evaluate the risks posed by these checkpoints and take deliberate action to mitigate these risks. Be careful about recording details of checkpoints or taking photos.

Finally, think very (very) carefully before telling your driver to drive through a checkpoint. It probably won’t end well.

If you’re interested in learning more about transport security, consider reading The Field Guide to Transport Security.

Thanks for reading.

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