Following the law of the land, wherever you travel

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Let us now address a thought that skittered this week across the brains of a few million travelers, news junkies and transnational scofflaws: Those Blackwater USA guys are immune from prosecution for anything they do in Iraq? Where do I sign up for that on my next trip abroad?

The answer, if you’re willing to risk your life in exchange for a hefty salary, is to apply today for an Iraq posting with Blackwater ( or one of its sibling contractors. Or go to work for Blackwater’s clients at the State Department (, whose emissaries get diplomatic immunity. Otherwise, well, you may as well leave that “Get Out of Jail Free” card in your old Monopoly game.

The global rule of thumb, Iraq notwithstanding, is that American civilians abroad are supposed to learn and follow the laws of other countries, whether they match U.S. law or not. In fact, hundreds of Americans woke up in foreign jails this morning either because they overlooked that rule or, as many would contend, they were unlucky.

The State Department reports that more than 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad annually. In Mexico alone since the beginning of 2002, the State Department says, at least 21 U.S. citizens have died in captivity, including five apparent homicides.

As author Peter Laufer writes in his 1993 book, “Nightmare Abroad: Stories of Americans Imprisoned in Foreign Lands,” many countries abroad have a Napoleonic legal system (which presumes guilt rather than innocence); many are tougher than the U.S. when it comes to release on bail between arrest and trial; the State Department is rarely able to intervene effectively.

The roots of Blackwater’s unique role in Iraq go back to June 2004, when L. Paul Bremer III, then the U.S. administrator with authority over the area, gave U.S. employees and security contractors immunity from Iraqi courts. That provision drew little attention outside Iraq until Sept. 16, when a Blackwater security detail fatally shot 11 Iraqis in west Baghdad under circumstances still being investigated. Since then, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has complained of Blackwater’s role in six other shootings and demanded that the company be replaced. The U.S. Embassy, which has relied on Blackwater for security, has said it’s reviewing the situation. Blackwater remains in business in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in the world outside Iraq, drugs and guns seem to get Americans in the most trouble. Of those 2,500 Americans arrested abroad in a typical year, more than 30% of those cases are drug-related, the State Department says, and more than 70% of the drug arrests involve marijuana or cocaine. (This is not at all new. Back in 1994, State Department officials reported that 2,500 Americans had been arrested around the world on drug-possession charges alone and that 880 of them had been jailed.)

When it comes to guns, many travelers don’t realize how much more strictly they are regulated in many other countries -- including Canada, which has required registration of all handguns since 1934; and Mexico, where border entry with a firearm or ammunition is illegal and can bring a prison sentence. (More information: or

And by the way: The State Department notes, “Mexican police regularly obtain information through torture, and prosecutors use this evidence in courts.”