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How to Handle Legal Situations in Spanish-Speaking Countries

5 of 6 in Series: The Essentials of Dealing with Emergencies in Spanish-Speaking Countries

When traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, you may find yourself accidentally breaking a law you knew nothing about. That’s why it helps to know how to handle legal situations when you’re in a Spanish-speaking nation. Your first step is to remember that the legal system of the country you’re in is likely to be completely different from the one you’re familiar with. Also, keep in mind that the laws of the country you’re in override the laws of the country where you hold citizenship.

Be aware, too, that the philosophy behind the legal system applies to many of the institutions you may encounter. Probably the most important difference is that, in the United States and Canada, you’re innocent until proven guilty, whereas in all Latin American countries, you’re guilty until proven innocent.

In an emergency of any kind, but particularly in a situation involving legal officials, try to be patient and, above all, firm. Keep in mind that, just as you are unfamiliar with the practices and procedures of a foreign system, the officers and administrators of that system are unaware of your legal expectations.

If you get involved in a Spanish-speaking country’s legal system, try to get someone from your country’s consulate to help you handle the situation — he or she will take your interests much more to heart than a local lawyer or police officer. In fact, after you set the dates for a visit to a Spanish-speaking area, find out where your country’s closest consulate is — and when you arrive, register there in case you need emergency assistance.

You may also ask when you arrive:

  • ¿Hay aquí un Consulado de Estados Unidos? (ahy ah-kee oon kohn-soo-lah-doh deh ehs-tah-dohs oo-nee-dohs) (Is there an American consulate here?)

  • ¿Hay un abogado que hable inglés? (ahy oon ah-bvoh-gah-doh keh ah-bvleh een-glehs) (Is there a lawyer who speaks English?)

Ask for a lawyer who speaks English and make sure the lawyer’s English is better than your Spanish before you get involved with him or her. Don’t accept just anyone. If you have trouble making yourself understood, get another lawyer. To ask for a lawyer in Spanish, say Quiero hablar con un abogado (keeeh-roh ah-bvlahr kohn oon ah-bvoh-gah-doh; I want to talk to a lawyer).

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