I was pulled over yesterday while pulling my trailer in the city of Pachuco. This is not unusual and we're expecting it to happen more as we head north. The Dodge Charger cop car was filled with several officers, which is how they do this. It's a team effort. The charge, according to the young officer, was driving a vehicle too heavy on the highway, more than 2.5 tons (my truck is less than that). Big rigs and buses zoomed by me while I sat there, engine running, in the rain.
The thing about something like this, which on its surface is complete bullshit, is that perhaps its true. Perhaps I broke some law. I started texting my buddy who suggested I get him to show me in his law book where this regulation existed. I declined that strategy because the language barrier was going to make it tedious. Meanwhile, the officer took my drivers license. This is when hostage negotiations begin.
Once they have your license, you're going to have to negotiate to get it back. I was informed there was a fine. Sure, a fine, whatever. But if I were to pay his supervisor directly, the fine would only be half. He never told me the amount of the fine, only that I had to pay one.
I told him, sure, I'll pay the fine, if you give me a receipt. This is code for make it official. He told me he couldn't give me a receipt right now, but if I wanted to come to the police station to pick up my license on Wednesday, I could pay it there and get a receipt. This was a Sunday, I was clearly a traveler, so he figured this would entice me to pay him now.
I told him, sure, I'll come Wednesday, just give me the address. He looked a little surprised I had called his bluff. But really, I would have come back Wednesday.
Well, he said, if you drive north on the tourist corridor, they will check your license periodically, you will need it. I knew this was complete nonsense. I pointed to the GPS screen on my truck and told him I've got about 23 minutes to my destination, I'll take my chances and return Wednesday.
He's not happy about this and goes back to his car to talk to his buddies, which I found out later included his supervisor. Meanwhile I started taking photos. I did this conspicuously, so that they knew I was taking photos. I was documenting mordida, the Mexican form of "commonly occurring petty corruption."
Within minutes of entering Mexico and seeing my first speed limit sign in kilometers, I was pulled over for mordida. I never even had time to do my half plus 10% on the fly calculations before they nabbed me. I was speeding, they had clocked me, I was dead to rights. I should have gone to the police station to pick up my license and pay the official fine, but I didn't. I paid the cops on the spot in cash, which certainly went into their beer budget. This was in Sonoyta Mexico, which I had to travel through several more times on our trip, eliciting the response from me each time of, "F%#k this sh#$$y little town." I was intent on not paying mordida again, if possible.
We were pulled over again months later in Tultitlan, outside of Mexico City. This time my friends bus was supposedly smoking too much. There is no visual infraction for such thing, as it's a scientifically calculated infraction that would need to be measured at some sort of smog station. This is what he gathered when he insisted they show him the broken ordinance. We spent about an hour there, while they threatened to arrest him and impound his bus. He held his ground and eventually the fine started dropping until they just let him go. We had been warned the police in this town were in cahoots with the cartels and liked to prey on tourists. We should have gone around.
Five years ago we went through the same process, pulled over on a toll road for not having the proper permit for driving in Mexico state. Foreign plated vehicles must apply for this free permit, which is on a Mexican government website, only in Spanish. Knowing you need this is some sort of magic knowledge and acquiring one in a foreign language required an alternate web browser, some serious language fluency and a copy shop. They hate electronic copies. They threatened to impound my Jeep and my buddies truck, fine us a bunch of money, and generally make us miserable. After a couple hours, their demands were reduced to "just buy us dinner," and then in frustration, the cops wandered off, supposedly to find their supervisor. We just drove off, having paid nothing.
Back to my story, I was not arguing the law, not being belligerent. I was warm and comfortable in my truck with the engine running, while this young officer was getting soaked in the rain. He mentioned this and I gave him a somewhat sincere, "Lo siento." I had all the time in the world, which is key to these negotiations. I'll wait until you produce a receipt. I'll come back Wednesday, if you so desire. I will not give you a bribe.
He asked me if I had been pulled over in Mexico before and I told him, yes, four times. Did you receive a ticket? I smiled and said no. Technically I never got a ticket in that sh#$$y little town.
The supervisor exited the patrol car and immediately covered his face with a shamaugh. He preferred not to be photographed. He walked up to his officer, they spoke a few words, and the supervisor handed me back my license. I wasn't playing. Time to cut their losses and seek out the next victim.
So amongst my very few complaints about Mexico, we have trash fires, topes (speed bumps), and I need to add mordida to the list. Also, coming in fourth place is fireworks. It's not uncommon to hear random explosions at any time. Just Mexico being Mexico. But bribery is certainly a bigger issue.
Is this all worth it? Is the trouble and fear caused by these interactions worth the trouble? Of course. Mexico is a beautiful country with friendly people and a rich, ancient culture (when they're willing to admit it). I have had no problems with crime (other than cops), no petty theft, no aggressive and often mentally ill panhandlers, and an awful lot of very helpful people who want us to succeed here. I enjoy Mexico quite a bit, but they're never going to get a handle on real crime if they can't get a handle on their cops. You can't turn the people agains the criminals, if they can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. It's a US problem as well, now that I think about it.