After many, many years of visiting Mexico, I was finally scammed. And by the police, of all people.
Sure, I know about travel scams around the world. I’d heard the rumors, read the stories, seen the videos, all of that. But really, Mexico? Could they really be as corrupt as all the stories imply?
One morning, on the west coast of Mexico, while during a u-turn on a very rural street in a very rural town, my friend and I lightly skimmed a sand pile in the road. It was literally nothing. But being careful and responsible drivers, we slowed down and poked our heads out the window to make sure all was ok with car and said pile of sand. It was. And this behavior attracted some attention.
Because, as we were turning, I remember thinking, Hey why is there an entire truck full of people slowly driving by and staring at us? Did that run down, beat up old pickup truck full of people all have cell phones? Were they taking pictures? Of our license plate? Wtf?
the tip off
Yeah, they were. Because when we parked, not 5 minutes and one block later, at a local restaurant, we were greeted by not one, not two, but three giant black police SUVs full of officers all sporting some pretty large automatic weapons. Lots of guns. Huge guns.
Wait, what?! That pickup truck called the cops? And followed us? Why? We didn't do anything wrong! Or was it just because we were Americans in a nice car? Could the pickup truck get a kickback from the cops for identifying foreigners to scam? Ah.
This happened to be in a fairly underdeveloped town, where one nudge to one pile of sand, on one of the few streets that just happens to have something that somewhat resembles a "curb", well, let's just say that even if we had moved any sand around or caused any damage or left a mark or really anything at all, it would be about as noticeable as an extra pebble in the Grand Canyon.
They surround you with all the guns, harass you, and detain you while waiting for the one officer who speaks English to show up so he can proceed to use every scare tactic in the book to intimidate you.
At this point, we're pretty much freaking out because, well, large automatic weapons will do that to you if you have a central nervous system. And we really don't want to be thrown in jail or lose the car. Also, we didn't do anything wrong, or cause any damage, and therefore, the cops have no proof of anything at all. All they have is their informants' phone calls identifying us as foreigners.
Our fear quickly turns into anger when the dozen police officers all unanimously decide that we were driving recklessly. Even though we weren't at all. And let's not forget that not a single one of those cops even saw us driving!
They arrived and surrounded us after we had parked and were standing in line for breakfast. Meanwhile the people around us all acted like they see this everyday. Hmm.
The cops started off saying our car will be impounded for 10 days and we will go to jail for a week. Then it becomes 7 days impounded plus 48 hours of jail time. Then 4 days impounded and 24 hours in jail. Then we must follow them back to the station because now we have to go in front of a judge that is there 24 hours a day for situations just like this! How serendipitous.
the forced bribe
So, I'm about to enter the station, when I hear "No, don't go into the building, come over here!", yelled at me from all the way over in a side lot a block away from the station, where the officer wanted to handle the transaction himself.
He thinks the official procedure is ridiculous, would rather do it his own way, and since the judge has just left the entire case decision up to him (even though he never called anyone or went inside), he's going to let us go! All we have to do is come to an "agreement" right here on the side of the road!
The only thing we have to do to get our licenses back is to pay him the small sum of $100 dollars in cash! Preferably paid in Mexican Pesos but you can pay in American Dollars if you add in the exchange rate, which they're happy to calculate into the fee for you (at their own made-up exchange rate), and small bills are preferable (easier for him to pay off everyone else involved in the scam).
And then, since Mr. Nice Police Officer is so helpful, and such a big fan of Americans (well of course he is!), that he wants to help us on all our future trips to Mexico, should we need any kind of future guidance, and even gave out his cell phone number. As if.
It turns out, there's not a whole lot you can do once this happens to you. Sure, you could waltz yourself right into the police station against the cops' direct orders, but then what? They have lots of guns!
Do you want to piss them off even more? Actually get yourself thrown in jail? How could you even trust them when the accusations are false? Want to get your car impounded? Get stuck in the country? Irritate more cops? Or an actual judge? Pay even more money? I can't imagine any happy ending there.
Curious to see just how common this actually was, I almost laughed out loud when a quick Google search showed me that, indeed, this is a pretty frequent occurrence throughout the country, for various "infraction" reasons that they make up, and seems to strike anyone from idle vacationers to New York Times travel writers. Does this make me feel any better for being scammed? Not really.
Because what did I do? I did what you're not supposed to do, also known as: what everyone else does.
Forked over the cash. Got the licenses back. Ran away from the scary men with all the guns. Jumped in the car. And high-tailed it out of there as fast as possible.
But what about the paperwork, you ask? What paperwork. There was none. Not even a receipt for payment. Which, when I asked for it, I was told that they don't even give any paperwork or receipts to Americans because we are "always in such a hurry".
So, drive safe. Be smart. Be vigilant. And, unless you have the time and energy for an adventure in jail... (ahem)... carry some cash.