One of the most common stereotypes is that all the police in Mexico are corrupt and will expect a bribe. In two years of traveling and driving and sometimes getting pulled over here we’ve never had a problem…until last week. Then it became a very expensive problem.
We moved to a new part of Mexico, traveling from San Miguel de Allende to Oaxaca with everything we own loaded in the Suburban, which still has its’ original license plates from the state of Quintana Roo (that’s an important detail later on.)
A family that we had been friends with in Cozumel had returned to their home in Mexico City so we decided to stop in for a visit, which meant a detour into the city instead of driving around. This idea to see our friends and have a free place to stay would turn out to be very expensive due to a few mistakes on our part.
The Longest Day
A note on traffic: Friday is not a good day to start a road trip. Our three-hour drive from San Miguel stretched into 5+ as we spent hours stuck at crowded toll booths and sitting in stopped traffic. You know it’s a bad spot when there are vendors set up to sell because they know you’ll be stuck there. One toll booth was surrounded by guys who were pulling adorable puppies out of the duffel bags they were wearing (Jason locked the windows so we didn’t get any.) It was supposed to be our easy day of the trip and instead it was one of the worst days on the road that we’ve had.
We were getting close to the end of our long journey when Jason noticed a police car waving at us on a curved highway ramp. He thought they wanted us to move to the outside lane so they could get to a stopped semi-truck, but instead they motioned for us to pull over too. A little annoyed at the delay, we did. We’ve been pulled over in Mexico before and it’s never been a big deal so neither of us were worried.
Jason said hello and tried to answer questions using his limited Spanish for the stern officer. They asked for our “circulacion” so he started digging in the large zip lock bag that we keep all the car paperwork in trying to figure out what they meant. Usually they ask for the registration card, the “tarjeta de circulacion” so he offered that but that wasn’t what they wanted.
After a few confused minutes we realized that they were asking if we had papers to drive in Mexico City on that day. We had forgotten that to offset traffic and pollution problems there is an elaborate system that limits which cars can drive during certain days and times. It’s based on what number your license plate ends in, but that only applies to Mexico City license plates. You can find a full explanation of the system in English here.
Police in Mexico City look for license plates from outside the city because there are different rules for them. With our Quintana Roo plates we were supposed to have a tourist permit that would allow us to drive for 2 weeks without being in violation of the system, and when we visited Mexico City in May I had sorted through the Spanish language government site and printed off the permit, but we hadn’t been stopped at all. Now that we really needed it I was kicking myself for forgetting as multiple police officers glared in from both sides of the truck.
(Side note: we found out later we couldn’t have gotten one anyway as you can only do it every 6 months.)
What We Did Wrong
Jason kept trying to speak to them in Spanish, our usual practice as we are trying to learn the language and be respectful, but he was having trouble. They found a 3rd officer who spoke enough English to tell us that we were in trouble and needed to pay a fine. Alarm bells were going off in my head at this point and I lost the urge to cooperate, but Jason kept trying.
First they wanted $200 usd. We haven’t used dollars since we first arrived in Mexico and Jason told them we don’t have dollars, only pesos. So the amount changed to 3000 pesos (which is more like $170 usd but still a lot of money.)
I spend a lot of time reading through forums and Facebook groups, learning from stories that other travelers tell and I knew at this point that we were going about this all wrong but I couldn’t get that message to Jason. He was stuck in friendly cooperation mode, not seeming to know what else to do or how to resist.
I shook my head, said in English that we didn’t have that much, made a show of looking through Jason’s wallet (while ignoring my own that was out of sight.) The officers ignored me and kept telling Jason “3000 pesos.” I glared at him and repeated that we didn’t have that much, hoping he would pick up on the refrain, but he looked confused and said, “Well, they said 3000 pesos.”
Finally, I gave up, got out my wallet counted out all our cash, 2920 pesos, and handed it to Jason. The officer took it without even looking at it, unconcerned that it wasn’t quite the whole amount. They handed us a little slip of paper with a bunch of stuff written on it and said if anyone else pulled us over to show them that we had already paid the “fine.” I figured 50/50 chance that it was actually code for “these gringos will pay you!”
What We Should Have Done
I was pissed, and once we were back on the road I let Jason know it. Didn’t he remember all the stories I had told him? Didn’t he read all the accounts on Facebook of people who had been stopped and what to do?He seemed genuinely confused, and in case you are too here’s a look at what we should have done:
- Tell them you do not speak Spanish. Speaking only English makes you more difficult to deal with unless they have someone who can translate, and many times they do not. The more difficult you make it for them (without being aggressive in any way) the more likely they are to give up and let you go.
- Do not be overly cooperative, such as getting out papers and digging for what they need. We keep our car papers in a large ziplock bag in part because if they ask for something I have smiled like I’m confused, just handed them the whole bag to search through (which is copies, not originals) and they gave it right back and waved me on. Too much trouble for them.
- Many people will say don’t hand them your I.D. because they may refuse to give it back unless you pay. We didn’t have this problem, but it was on my mind as Jason gave them both his driver’s license and his temporary residency card. Some people go so far as to make a color copy and laminate it so they have one they can leave behind if necessary, but we haven’t gone that far.
Police in Mexico have to write you a ticket, just like police in the U.S. They don’t charge fines without paperwork on the side of the road, that’s one way we know this was a “mordida,” a bribe (although I always considered a bribe to be more voluntary than this was.) Our friends in Mexico City told us they also have a card reader you can pay with, but bribes are only done in cash, of course.
Do You Really Have to Pay?
The short answer is no, but in my opinion it’s easy to say and harder to do.
When they ask for money they ask for a lot, but you can refuse to pay or at least talk them down. That was why I kept saying we didn’t have 3000 because if we had to pay I wanted to pay as little as possible. We keep money separated so it’s not obvious how much we have at stops like this, but we did have quite a bit on us for gas and tolls. The officer didn’t check how much we gave him and we could have gotten away for a lot less, as we learned when we were stopped again the next day (oh yeah, keep reading.)
If you don’t want to pay anything tell them you want to see the ticket for your infraction and offer to follow them to the station to pay it, essentially calling their bluff. To flat-out refuse to pay on the side of the road takes guts in my opinion, but some people do it.
I learned all of this from the stories of others, but in the heat of the moment it was scary to consider arguing and refusing to pay as others casually recommend from the safety of their keyboards. We are from the U.S., taught to cooperate with the police, and it’s difficult to go against that instinct even when you understand what’s going on is a scam. So while I was mad at Jason for a day (or two) understand that it’s easy to know these things and harder to actually do them. For all the people who have given in and paid, don’t feel too bad.
On The Road Again…
After they let us go we drove the last 20 minutes to our friend’s house feeling defeated. It helped to spend a nice afternoon catching up and watching our kids play together after a year away, a much better break than we would have had on our own in a hotel. We tried to forget the grueling drive and its expensive climax.
But this was only the first day of our journey to Oaxaca, and the second one was going to be longer.
We poured over routes with our friends, trying to choose the way out of the city that would be least likely to put us in the path of more police that would jump on our outsider license plates and stop us again. Five hours, six hours, plus we always stop a lot so add on 2 extra hours to any route. We’d be in the car all day even if traffic was good (spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)
Without a permit to drive we were allowed to be in the city from 10pm to 5am, so we considered a very early start to get out of town before anyone could stop us again, but it didn’t seem worth it. Surely we wouldn’t get stopped again, it couldn’t happen twice in less than 24 hours, right?
…And Stopped Again
We packed up and left at 9am on Saturday, a little later than we wanted to, and Google map took us into the heavy traffic of the city so we were already on edge an hour later when we were stopped again at a checkpoint.
As soon as we saw them standing in the intersection checking all the cars we knew. The officer waved us over and started asking questions in Spanish. This time we were ready.
Except for “hola” Jason and I both stuck to English only, which was kind of hard as we’re used to using as much Spanish as we’re able to. We claimed we didn’t understand, told him we were moving to Oaxaca, is this the way to Oaxaca? I call it playing Stupid Gringo, and sadly there are enough real ones out there that it works.
They moved us over to a side road and another officer came over to try to talk to us, but neither spoke any English. While they were away from the window I discretely looked up a word they had been using that I didn’t recognize: “multa” translates to “fee.”
It was the same game with new and more ambitious players.
They asked for dollars again, $300 this time. We told them we didn’t have any dollars, so it changed to pesos. 4000 pesos. Greedy.
We stuck to our English, acting like we were trying to cooperate but confused by all this, we just wanted to get to Oaxaca, we don’t understand. In reality I could understand at least half of what they were saying. They were trying to threaten to keep us until Monday, to take us to the station, but when the person you are threatening doesn’t understand your language it’s not very effective.
I pulled some 50’s out of my pocket, 250 pesos in total and we told them that’s all the cash we had, money for the toll road. When Jason held it up in the window the cop pushed his hand down inside the car, telling him to keep it down, there are cameras here. Could they be any more ridiculously obvious that they were trying to scam us? Still, we played along and kept resisting.
Jason said we had credit cards, which might have been a risky move. He was counting on them not to run a bribe on the company machine, but I would stick to cash myself.
After about 20 minutes of going round and round like this with them the officer gave up. He put his hand inside the window and indicated that Jason should hand him the 250 pesos out of sight of the cameras.
They stopped traffic so we could leave and we hauled ass north to get the hell of out the city.
That second stop was nerve racking. Playing the game worked and we got away with just buying lunch instead of paying their rent, but it felt risky and we were stressed. Jason and I agreed we won’t be driving in Mexico City again, we’ll park the car and take buses or Uber.
In case you’re wondering about the girls, Rory didn’t even realize the second stop happened, she thought it was a long red light. They have headphones on and listen to audiobooks or music most of the time during long drives, so they weren’t nearly as upset as Jason and I were. Plus we had prepped them a long time ago that when we get pulled over they are not to talk (because kids volunteer information like where the safe is at and that there’s plenty of money in there.) They also know the Stupid Gringo game, although part of me hated having to teach them that.
Back on the highway we detoured north to Ecatepec before stopping for bathrooms, determined to stay far away from the city even if it made our drive longer. While I waited in the car with the dogs Jason took the girls inside for snacks. I was still on edge and my stomach was churning when a police truck pulled in behind us.
There was a pickup that a couple of guys were loading with furniture, and they had it stacked at least ten feet higher than the cab. The officers went to talk to the driver, waving at their giant load. Obviously they weren’t there for me, but who knew what he might do if he noticed our plates that marked us as not-from-around-here or saw a gringa sitting in the driver’s seat.
I haven’t been so nervous around police since I was a teenager (I liked to drive really fast when I was young.) Feeling like a criminal, I texted Jason “Plz hurry up there are cops out here.” It seemed like my family was inside forever as I watched the officers walking around behind me and itched to get out of there.
When Jason and the kids came out I frantically motioned for them to get in and we left without incident, but I was too wound up to eat the tacos they had brought back.
Most days here in Mexico are fun, even when they are strange and unfamiliar. Being pulled over shouldn’t be a big deal, but I hope that sharing our experience here will help you to remember what to do if you find yourself being asked for a “fine” on the side of the road here.
I’m all for cultural immersion, but sometimes it’s good to be seen as a Stupid Gringo.