Thursday, June 9, 2011

Driving in Mexico. Pay Mordida or Not?

Someone asked on a Yahoo group list if Mexican cops ever stopped cars with U.S. license plates to collect a illegal fine, called "mordida" (little bite). This is how I responded.

To Pay Mordida or Not? That is the question!

Yes, there are Mexican police, especially the city Transito and state cops (not Federales) that will stop cars with U.S. plates just because it portends a big pay day. The police in the state of Mexico, for example, are notorious for this way of raising money for their kid's private-school tuition or retirement fund.

In my fourteen years of driving long-distances across Mexico, as a tourist and in a rally car, I have been stopped by the police five times. In four of these cases I did something wrong, or "arguably" wrong, like a U-turn. I was soon faced with a decision: pay the "fine" (mordida) on the spot, or surrender my driver's licence, stand on principle, and spend half a day paying a much smaller fine at the police station.

Here's what I have learned from these experiences:

1. First and foremost: do not give the cops a reason to stop you. Slow down and watch your turns. In most cases in Mexico, mordida is usually collected from a driver, Mexican or gringo, who violates (again, arguably) some traffic law or whose cars are not properly registered.

Here are some preventive measures: make sure your car has a front license tag of some sort, as a few U.S. states do not issue front tags, and they are required in Mexico. Just about any tag works. Also, do not drive a vehicle with temporary U.S, tags, if you can help it. And keep your temporary tourist vehicle permit in your car when traveling. Oh, yes, one, crisp fifty-dollar U.S. bill tucked away in your billfold might come in handy, too.

2. If stopped by a local cop, be slow to hand over your driver's license initially, especially if you think the stop is bogus. When cop has your license, he has you by the short hair. Some people carry more than once license, like an expired license or international license, just for occasions like this. A little drama is OK, too. Just fumble through your purse and say with feigned shock and chagrin, "I must have left it at home." (Speaking Spanish too fluently may actually be a handicap at this point in the transaction.)

3. The amount of mordida is highly negotiable, but do not act like you are in a hurry. If a typical traffic violation costs 200 pesos at the station, why pay the cop $200 USD, when he will probably accept your crisp $50? Be patient. Make him work for it.

The basic question is, how much is your time worth under the circumstances? For example, if you are trying to get across the bridge in Laredo before sundown, you might not want to hang around Saltillo half the afternoon.

4. Believe it or not, cops worry these days that you will report them for demanding or accepting mordida, especially the state police. If you are really in a hurry and want to end the transaction by paying on the spot, do not threaten to report him (or her) as part of the negotiations, just handle it as a business transaction. Just flash the crisp fifty, down in your lap. If the deal goes down, just slip it to him. Of course, you'll get no receipt. :)

I know, some people will see this as capitulation to a corrupt system. If you want to make a stand, especially over a totally bogus charge, demand firmly and politely to see the cop's superior officer, or just hand over your driver's license and head down to the police station. It will be a vivid experience. And, it is always possible that the cop will back off, especially if your Spanish improves. Name dropping helps, too.

5. And yes, an obscure little car like a dusty Tsuru with heavily tinted glass and Mexican tags is less likely to be stopped than a cherry red Ford F-150 pickup or pearl-white Lexus SUV with California plate. But remember, the best defense is not to given the cops ANY excuse to pull you over. (Actually, the cops might be reluctant to stop a shiny black Suburban with 22" chrome wheels, fearing it might contain narco button men. On the other hand, a rival gang may "light up" your vehicle just because.)

Most of the cops in Mexico are helpful and polite to American visitors, but all societies have a few bad apples. Mexico has done a lot to reduce the amount of illegal pay-offs to public officials, but the mordida system, especially for traffic fines, is more deeply entrenched. In too many Mexican cities, it's just a way of handling traffice violations out of court.

Safe driving and suerte!

Gerie Bledsoe