We’ve all heard the stories about the corrupt cops south of the border. With stories ranging from extortion to money laundering, to kidnapping, the Mexican authorities and the rest of Latin American law enforcement officials do not have the best reputation when it comes to police corruption. In recent years and throughout the past decade, there has been a lot of focus on trying to get Mexican police officers under control, but the majority of these efforts by the Mexican government have failed.
While a good cop would be focused on stopping drug cartels and serious crime to improve public safety, the sad reality is that many local police forces have other priorities. In this post, we’re going to tell you our own horror story of an encounter with a corrupt police officer, and then we’ll give you some tips for dealing with corrupt police in Mexico in case this unfortunate scenario ever happens to you.
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here is our story of how we got robbed by the corrupt Mexican police.
Our story begins at the crack of dawn in Puebla. We got up bright and early to make the drive to Mexico City, as we needed to catch a flight to El Paso, Texas to figure out a student visa issue. This was very early in our time living in Mexico, and only about three days after buying our first car there. The drive from Puebla to Mexico City takes about two hours, and we planned on getting to the airport a full four hours in advance of our flight, just in case we hit any hiccups along the way.
Once we arrived within the limits of Mexico City, traffic started to get much denser and there were police officers everywhere. Just a short distance from the airport – maybe 5 miles – we were flagged by a police officer on a motorcycle and instructed to pull off the highway. We followed him down the ramp and rolled down the window to hear what he had to say.
In Spanish he told us, “You’re driving out of accordance with the Hoy no Circula policy. You can’t drive until 11am today. You’re going to have to pay me 4,800 pesos or else I will have to tow your car.”
Wow. We were so close! Two hours down and only ten minutes away from the airport. Being new in Mexico, we had no idea what he was talking about. What is Hoy no Circula, anyway? We had never heard of a law controlling who can drive on what day, and this sounded like a total joke.
We looked it up and realized that we were, in fact, driving out of accordance with the policy, had committed a traffic violation, and did deserve a ticket. But 4,800 pesos? At the time, that was about $225USD.
That couldn’t be right. In the United States, the steepest fine I had heard of for a speeding ticket was less than that, and we were driving below the speed limit! We pled with him, told him we didn’t carry that kind of money, offered him everything in our wallet, begged…you get the idea.
He could smell our fear and displeasure, and he wanted to wring every penny possible out of us. He asked me if I had a debit card or credit card with me. When I said I did, he ordered me to get out of the car and follow him to an ATM where I could withdraw cash to pay my fine.
Fishy? Yes. But it’s Mexico! Things work differently south of the border. I did not realize at the time that he was soliciting a cash bribe from me, as I was entirely unaware that this was a common scandal perpetrated by local authorities.
We offered the officer everything in our wallet, but he could smell our fear and got greedy. He walked me forcefully to an ATM with his hand on his hip, conveniently close to his gun.
We withdrew the necessary cash and paid the corrupt officer our hefty fine. He gave us a scribbled receipt and we went on our way. He told us that since we had paid our fine, we were free to finish our drive to the airport and we wouldn’t have any more problems.
If pulled over, we were to show our receipt to the officer, and he would understand and let us go.
Five minutes later, we found out that wasn’t the case. We got pulled over AGAIN for the same thing, and the municipal police officer laughed when we showed him our receipt of payment.
“That’s not a receipt, that’s just some scribbles. How do we know you didn’t just write that?” he said. Most American debit cards have a daily cash withdrawal limit of around $300, and we made this clear to him.
A bit firmer this time, we told him he could take whatever we had on us but that we couldn’t withdraw any more from the bank. That satisfied this second not-so-kind police official, and he took all our pesos – and a $20 bill that was in the side pocket of my backpack. I didn’t know that they accepted dollars in Mexico City as official currency!
Our receipt was invalid, and the police tried to scam us again for the same violation. The first cop might not have even been a police officer!
The point is, we were caught extremely off guard and unprepared. Every time we tell this story to our Mexican friends, they are torn between cracking up at our stupidity or pitying our naïveté. Regardless, we learned our lesson and did our research on how to handle this situation if it were to ever happen again. The tactics we mention today are a blend of advice from Mexicans and expats living in Mexico, and we think after reading this post you’ll be ready to handle any twisted cop that comes your way in Mexico or the rest of Latin America. While this post is tailored to Mexico, it is just as applicable in Panama City and in Rio de Janeiro.
The Structure of the Police System in Mexico
Before diving into tactics for dealing with corrupt police, it is important that you understand how the Mexican police system is structured. There are three different levels of police forces: local police forces, state police forces, and national police forces. The corruption tends to decrease the higher up the chain you go, and the tactics vary entirely.
Local Police Forces in Mexico
In Mexico, the local police forces are tasked with maintaining law and order in a certain city, town, or area. These are the offers you would find at a regular police station, and they are also the most likely to engage in corrupt activities and solicit cash bribes. A lot of the time, this is because they are vastly underpaid or pressured by their superiors into committing these crimes against drivers.
Generally speaking, the local police officers are focused on enforcing local laws, scanning license plate tags to make sure cars are not flagged, and stopping petty crime and drunk driving.
State Police Forces in Mexico
State police forces are slightly higher up the food chain than local police forces, and they are also slightly less corrupt, on average. At the state level, police officers are tasked with protecting the interests of the entire state, and their focuses tend to be on much larger priorities, like illegal drugs, violent crime, and following up on high-profile arrest warrants.
National Police Forces in Mexico
The national police force, more commonly referred to as the National Guard, are the highest level of police that exists in the country. Their job is to protect the interests of the whole country, like stopping narcotics traffickers and organized crime. If you have a run-in with a Mexican federal police officer, you are either in real trouble or committed a serious crime. As part of a federal agency, these officers tend to be the least corrupt.
Strategies You Should Use to Deal with Corrupt Mexican Police
We want to highlight 3 approaches that work very well in handling the police. Some approaches work better than others for certain people, so you need to judge based on your personality what will work best for you.
1. Play Dumb
Whether you are a native Spanish speaker, or you’ve been practicing for the whole last year, or you only learned the word “taco” last month, don’t even try to speak a word of Spanish. Local police officers (that is, not the state or federal police) are highly unlikely to speak English.
If you are in a popular tourist destination, like Playa del Carmen, there is a better chance that the officer will speak English. However, if you are in a less touristy place, like Puebla, the odds are very low. If you can, try to use a thick accent of some sort! My go-to would be a deep southern accent, as it is one of the hardest American accents for foreigners to understand.
Whether you choose to thicken your accent or not, just stick to your guns. In most circumstances, the officer will just give up and drive away. If he does that, get the heck out of there. You’re free to go! This should be the default approach because it doesn’t even involve you changing your excuse. In the worst case scenario, the officer is able to speak English or calls a buddy who can, and you get to provide a whole new excuse once they translate your offense into English.
2. Pity Yourself
The corrupt cops get off on power, and if you stroke their ego they’re more likely to be nice to you. We learned this one from a good friend in Cholula. Our best tip is to empty your wallet before you drive anywhere (including credit and debit cards) except for 100 or 200 pesos and your driver’s license and hide the rest of your cash somewhere he will never find it – like down your pants, in your socks, or in your bra or other underwear. Show him that 200 pesos are all you have and ask if there is anything he can do to help you.
We must note, bribery is a federal offense, and you should not offer him the 200 pesos – but make it very clear that the 200 pesos are all that you have and that you’d really like to find a way to make it work. If the cop is corrupt, he will take your money and leave. If he is not, you never offered a bribe and therefore never committed a crime. By admitting you did commit the violation (even if you didn’t) and accepting whatever “kind help” the officer offers, you’re probably going to get out of the situation just fine.
Again, just remember that speaking English or another language should be your first line of defense. Again, we do not advise bribing the police officer, but if he or she solicits it from you (though technically still a bribe), you might decide to pay the kind officer what he or she wants.
3. Kindly insist that you would like to go to the station
Counterintuitive? Absolutely! But it makes sense.
If the officer is looking to exploit you for cash, the last place he can do that is in the station. Even though he may offer to help you out and only charge a spot fine, you should kindly insist on going to the station to receive your official citation. Most of the time, the officer will not want to go, as he or she will have to spend hours with you in the station and get nothing out of it while he or she could be out and about exploiting other drivers.
There is no legal way to pay a spot fine, by the way, and any receipt that the officer gives you will be fake. Fines can only be paid at the station, and if you insist to the officer that you know the law and that you’d like to handle it officially in the office, nine times out of ten a corrupt cop will just give you a warning and drive away.
If you do wind up going to the station and paying your fine, it will probably be somewhere between the fine he mentions and the bribe that he asks for, but at least the money will be going honestly to the station and the municipality and not just the pockets of an exploiting officer.
Strategies You Should NOT Use to Deal with Corrupt Mexican Police
Now, we want to break down two approaches that we absolutely do not recommend trying. For different reasons, these approaches are more likely to get you locked into paying a price, and probably a higher one than he initially asks for, too.
1. Don’t Be a Tough Guy or Tough Gal
This is literally the worst thing that you can do. Remember how we mentioned that you want to stroke the officer’s ego and make them feel big and mighty? Rivaling his or her authority is the complete opposite of that, and it is your first step toward a bigger problem.
If you act tough, get angry and make threats, the officer will simply arrest you for being disorderly or assaulting him or her. This is a very big no-no. Towing your car is technically something that the officer can’t do, even though they will threaten it, but if you give them enough of a desire to cause you harm, they will absolutely find a way to make it happen. While police brutality isn’t a huge concern for tourists, having a long day at the police station and paying fees to get your car back are within the realm of possibilities.
While most officers will not do anything illegal beyond soliciting bribes for traffic violations, they most certainly can act above the law when they really want to. Don’t give them a reason to want to, because you will not win. Having your car towed (and potentially never seeing it again) is a lot more expensive than paying him one hundred bucks (but if you listen to our tips above you shouldn’t ever really pay more than 10).
2. Don’t Mention that You’re in a Hurry or that You Have Somewhere to Be
Remember in the story of our encounter how we mentioned that I begged and pled and tried everything I could? One part of that was begging to let us go because we had a flight to catch. To us, it was just another reason why he should let us go. To him, it was fluorescent neon green dollar signs jumping up and down.
When we mentioned we had a flight to catch, we became hostages. He knew that we would pay more of a price because we were in a hurry and missing the flight would be more expensive than paying him a wad of cash.
Looking back, we now see that this is the reason why we were forced to pay so much. This is why he felt so confident in escorting me to an ATM and demanding cash. We showed our hand (which was as bad as an off-suit 2 and 7, if you play poker) and he took advantage.
Lesson learned. However, this doesn’t just apply to flights! Whether you have a tour, a meeting, a flight, a dinner, or whatever, don’t mention it! It’s customary to be 15 minutes late in Mexico, anyway, and odds are you won’t lose your spot on most things (but flights are a different story).
That wraps up our advice for how to deal with the corrupt cops in Mexico. We hope you heed our advice and have good luck if you ever have to deal with the cops, but more so we hope you never have to worry about dealing with them at all!
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section below or email us at [email protected] Also, if you’re planning on driving in Mexico make sure to read our post with tips for driving in Mexico. If you enjoyed the story about our run-in with the Mexico City police, be sure to check out the video that we linked at the top of this post and subscribe to our Youtube channel.