Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Speeding Ticket

The speed limit was 70 KM/H - about 45 MPH
Yesterday, I was driving to Cancun to get Mexican passports for my family.  Just entering the city, we passed a police check, slowing down to go over the massive speed bump like everyone else.  About five minutes later, a police car approached, and told me to pull over (they use a speaker or megaphone; their lights are always flashing.)

Once pulled over and out of the car, with my Canadian driver's license in the hands of the police, the officer informed me that I was driving 90 km/h in a 70 zone.  He was right. But I was actually the slowest car on the road.  I politely told him so.  He answered that he had been pursuing me since the police check, but I had been going so fast, that he couldn't catch me; I flew through the police check so fast that they weren't able to stop me there either.  (Really - a cop car that can't go 90? That's about 55 miles per hour.) He told me he would have to fine me 1020 pesos (about $90), which I could pay at the police station.

Knowing that arguing isn't a good idea, and tat I really was speeding, I said OK.  (The whole time I pretended I didn't speak Spanish and my wife was translating for me.)

I asked for the ticket.  The officer started writing the ticket, slowly, hesitating, and reminding, with special emphasis several times that it would be over 1000 pesos.  I said, "That's fine.  I'll pay it at the station."  Politely and patiently.

He put down the pen (before finishing the first line) and asked to see the registration. Suddenly a whole new set of "problems" appeared.  First of all, the registration was "invalid" since it was from Mexico City, and not this state (a typical, but entirely false, complaint for out-of-state registrations.)  Also, since the car wasn't registered in my name, they would have to seize the car and charge me with theft.  We told them, again politely, they could contact the owners to confirm that they had lent us the car (which they had, especially for this little trip.)

So, at this point, he went back to the speeding issue.  Driving that fast was really reckless driving, not just speeding.  It would have to be a much heftier fine, and combined with vehicle theft, that was good cause to take me into custody.  And I was an American, which meant the fine would be bigger yet. (He hadn't looked at my license closely enough, I guess.)  He would also have to keep my license as collateral.

We patiently reminded him that he could contact the owners, and for any other infraction, he was free to write up the tickets, which we would pay that day at the police station.  My wife showed him my Mexican electoral card to prove I was a Mexican citizen.

I added that I would have to see their police I.D. to copy their names, I.D. numbers for reference at the station, and ask about the specifics about these problems.  I got out a pen and paper to copy.

He put away his pad, and went to chat with his partner and came back.

"We're going to take it easy on you guys since you have the two kids with you.  No ticket this time.  But if we catch you on the way back, we'll take the car.  We're giving your info to the other police."  He got in his car in a hurry and sped away.

Of course, they were looking for a bribe.  Every point they made was entirely ridiculous, except for the speeding part - but even that was ridiculously exaggerated, especially since other cars were flying by me.

I can't say I'm an expert on dealing with corrupt police in Mexico, since most of the police I've dealt with have been very reasonable, and never asked me for a bribe (this is the second exception.)  In one case, when we were visiting Valladolid with my parents, and we were in a little accident that was clearly our fault, the police were actually helpful, polite and very fair.  People have told me that in Cancun, the police were never corrupt, until a large number of officers from other parts of the country started arriving (people always specifically accuse Mexico City, but the problem is just as bad in many other places.)  I don't know if this is true, or just one of those local pride things.

If what I understand is correct though, the best approach to take is:
  • stay calm, NEVER GET ANGRY
  • don't argue; you can give a contrary opinion, but politely, and carefully so that it's not taken as aggression; on the other hand, sometimes it may best to stay neutral
  • don't offer a bribe

For me the last point is a very important matter.  Members of the police force continue to practice corruption because the majority of Mexicans will offer the bribe almost immediately to save the time and the money.  I know a handful of middle-class Mexicans who will spend half their day sitting at the road side instead of paying the bribe. At the end they are almost always let go without a ticket as I was.  (If you really do get a ticket, just go and pay it!)  But these guys aren't trying to save the cash; they feel strongly about corruption, and are willing to loose time and money to fight it.  I admire them.  The last thing these people need is foreigners showing up in Mexico who feed the corruption.  Being able to cash in on a Gringo is like a double bonus for that kind of officer.  So many foreigners think, "Well this is how they do it here, so ..."

If you are a foreigner driving in Mexico, and you get pulled over, just remember the three points above.  If they are just looking for a bribe, it's very unlikely that anything would happen to you, as long as you stay calm.  It's not worth their time; they can just pull over the next car.

Of course it's really important to remember that it's a different country, the police work in a different way, and laws are applied very differently, but participating in corruption is aggravating a problem that causes many problems for this country.  It's possible to respect the differences without participating in the problem.


  1. I have never been pull over in Mexico. I only crashed once but it was so clearly the other "car" fault - was a big truck that invade 4 rows in the highway... and I just couldn't avoid it so I crashed with its front wheel and the driver tried to run away with the truck so the truck send my car flying around. Really nice people stopped him and went to help me out of the car I was just worried of finding a digital camera someone lend me that day and I was going on my way to give back... and as My window was open everything fly out that way so I was looking for it when the police arrive and they just went to ask me if I was ok and helped me to look for the camera and then told me I had blood in my face and I should be sitting waiting for the ambulance.. :).. that is my only experience with police in Mexico.

    In the other hand. I was pull over in US. I was on my way to a Halloween festivity. Took me hours to dress both kids and then undress one to change his diaper so I was driving above the speed limit. - was a 20 mph zone and I was 40..- the officer was going to write a ticket and ready to do so and then my girl said: " Hi I'm a Witch!!!!" and showed him her magic wand.

    He laughed and closed the ticket book saying : "Ok, but next time drive slowly" and wish us a great day.


  2. Wow, I never heard that story. I'm assuming it was because the car you were using was mine. Either way, I can't help but think of the amusing phone conversation I would have had with the police: Me trying to explain that the car belonged to my wife (completely in English of course) and that we loaned it to you for the day. I wonder if that would have worked.

    As far as my dealings with the police, they have all been similar situations. I have been stopped at a number of alcohol check points here in Playa. Because I usually drive the car, I am the one the police talk to. they soon get the point that I don't understand them (I always speak in English and pretend I don't know what they are saying) and that my wife in the passenger's seat, has to translate. They ALWAYS ask if we live here. When we tell them we do, the ALWAYS let us go with no other hassle.

  3. I found your website because I am vacationing in Playa del Carmen, don't speak Spanish, and was just pulled over on the highway just outside of town in my rental car... and although the policeman said he didn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish, he made it clear that the fine for my "speeding" would be 1,000 pesos, and that he was going to take my license away and meet me at the police station in Playa. Very upsetting. We did give him a bribe of 510 pesos... leaving the country tomorrow. It was very very upsetting. He shook hands with us when he came to the car and after we gave him the money. I was going well below the limit the whole time except when passing an even slower car... then someone came up behind me probably going 90 mph (not kilometers, miles) so I quickly pulled ahead of the other car to prevent an accident. We were two older women traveling together... no one went after the real speeder.

    Sorry to contribute to this bad situation in Mexico, but sorrier that no one can control the situation with people who are supposed to be protecting the public.

  4. About this last comment: I hope you come back to read my response. In my post, I criticize foreigners who contribute to the corruption, but I should adjust the post and point out that it's most important for expats or very regular visitors who know the culture, know what they're dealing with and have the know-how to avoid being part of it (many of whom continue to contribute to the bribery, thinking it's sort of cute or something like that.) If you are someone not familiar with the culture and don't know the language (i.e. first time or infrequent visitor), I understand that it's very upsetting and it's much harder to measure the situation well.

    In your circumstance, I would say you did what was best for you, and therefore what was right. The "take your license away" line is one they use to deliver the message "we want a bribe." I suspect it's completely illegal to take someone's license away, but I can't confirm. Someday I'll investigate. In any case, to counter-act that tactic, you have to be familiar with the culture; you can NEVER get angry, aggressive or frustrated. In any situation where you're uncertain about what's going on, it's best to get out of it as calmly and quickly as possible. No need to be a hero when you unsure of how serious they are, or how hard it will be to get your license back when you're leaving the next day.

    Unfortunately, the fact that there was a real speeder next to you has nothing to do with anything. They have these "bribe traps" (as opposed to "speed traps") set up and I'm beginning to think they just pull over anyone that looks like they have enough money for a bribe and doesn't know what's acceptable and what's not (i.e. foreigners.) You could have been driving 89 in a 90 zone along with everyone else, and they still would've pulled you over. You saw the absurdity of stories they tried to make up when I was driving.

    It's a sad situation, and unfortunately it's not the worst of Mexico's corruption issues. I just hope it didn't make you too upset or ruin your vacation or anything.

  5. same thing happened to me in Mexico City on the way back to the airport. pulled over for a red light, crossing 4 lanes, and not using my blinker allegedly. we only had 30 pesos so they directed us to a walmart that was conveniently next door with an ATM. we paid $320USD and received no receipt of course. i'm sure they ate good that night