I got robbed by the Mexican police a few days ago. It´s an unpleasant experience. Mexican traffic police have a horrible reputation that is largely deserved. Unfortunately, foreign plates are like flashing lights on your car that say: "Easy money here".
It happens mostly in big cities. You are driving along in the dense, chaotic traffic and then you pass a police car. As soon as he sees your plates he turns on the siren and pulls you over. You panic. What did I do? Above all remain calm. Most likely you didn´t do anything and are simply going to be hit up for a bribe. We are used to thinking of police encounters as serious trouble. However, for many people in the third world the police have little to do with fighting crime. Their main job is simply to be a nuisance.
The police officer will come over and ask to see all of your documenation. He is probably hoping that you have misplaced some of it. If you haven´t he may find some technical problem with it that doesn´t make any sense. In my case they said I was guilty of tax evasion because I didn´t have a detailed list of all of the items I had brought into the country. According to them under Mexican law all tourists need to declare every item they take into Mexico with them. It´s nonsense, but it´s just plausible enough to be true.
If you are being hit up for a bribe the police will generally not be in much of a hurry to do anything to you. Instead they will probably go to great lengths to explain how much trouble you are in. They told me that my car would be impounded, the goods confiscated, I would be fined $2500 dollars and then deported from the country for one year. Wow. Heavy stuff. Fortunately, I knew that I hadn´t really done anything wrong, and I also knew that they were explaining all of this to me to try and increase the bribe amount.
While Mexico has much corruption there have been various efforts to clean it up and it is bad news for police to be caught harrassing tourists. For this reason the first rule of bribes in Mexico is to ask to get more people involved. A ploy that many of my friends have used quite successfully is to insist to be taken to the police station immediately. Corrupt police won´t want to do this because even if the charge sticks they won´t get their bribe. My friends won´t hand over their keys or cooperate in any way and will simply insist over and over again on going to the police station and dealing the with the problem there. This works almost every time. Of course if you have genuinely done something wrong this is the absolute worst strategy. Make sure you are in the right.
I unfortunately made a mistake at this point. The officers asked me to step out of the car and hand over my keys. At this point one of the two policemen took my keys and drove off in my truck. The other officer said it was going to the impound lot. I had no choice but to get into the police car and follow. Now I was worried that the officer in my car would take my camera and iPod which were loose in the front. I hadn´t had time to secure my valuables and I no longer had control of my car. I should have insisted on going to the police station before handing over my keys. In one moment of innattention I had lost my best bargaining chip. My job now was to minimize my losses. If I was too insistent on not paying anything they might just help themselves to my stuff.
Of course the officers had not yet mentioned a bribe or asked for money. I likewise needed to avoid being to direct. Here is roughly how the conversation went.
Me: "Clearly this was just an accident in my paperwork. Is there anything we can do to avoid all of this trouble?¨"
Officer: "Well. I don´t really know. What do you suggest?"
Me: "Maybe I could simply pay a fine to you right now."
Officer: "That might work, but it´s going to be very expensive. The alternative is a US$2500.00 ticket and confiscation of all the stuff in your vehicle. I think the fine would have to be at least US$2500.00."
At this stage I was much happier. The amount was ridiculous, but I now had confirmation that the whole thing was bogus and they just wanted a bribe. Unfortunately the other officer still had my car which was out of my sight and I was still worried about him looting the vehicle.
Me: "Well, I don´t have that kind of money and I´m sure once I explain it all tomorrow it will all be OK. I´m just trying to save myself a night´s delay. If it´s US$2500.00 then take me to the impound lot."
Officer: "Do you have a video camera. I´d take $1000.00 and a video camera."
Me: "Just take me to the lot. I´ll give you $50.00 to avoid all this trouble but any more then that and I´d rather explain it tomorrow."
We pulled up on a deserted side street. There was no sign of an impound lot or official looking compound and there were few other people. Not a good place to be.
Officer: "This is where we are going to impound your car. I´ll take you to the station and you can call the embassy and get a lawyer."
The officer the grabbed his radio and spoke into it. "Hi. I have an arrest for tax evasion and will be bringing him in shortly." I didn´t hear a reply.
Me: "Listen officer. I´m really sorry that I don´t have the paperwork, but I can´t pay you more then $50.00. I have a low limit on my bank card so that I don´t get robbed at an instant teller (true) and I already spent most of it on gas."
Officer: "Ok. Let´s go."
They drove me to the highway, I paid them $50.00, and they gave me back my keys. As I had hoped nothing was missing from my car. I suppose that by the complex logic of corruption, stealing from my car would have been wrong. I turned around to write down the license plate number so I could report them, but they were gone.