Bribe culture in action

Corruption within Mexico’s law enforcement agencies is reputedly rife, and recent figures show that people here spent more on bribes last year than they did during 2005. But it’s always interesting to see hearsay happen, and yesterday I had the pleasure of witnessing the power of the bribe first hand.


A friend of mine, Pedro, was driving me home after taking me for breakfast. We were on Avenida Insurgentes, one of Mexico’s City’s main traffic thoroughfares which, once you get onto, is hard to turn back on. U-turns are usually the form used by Distrito Federal’s confident drivers to get back to where they came from.

Pedro decided to pull a classic DF maneuver. In order to turn round, when the traffic light in front of us turned green, he pulled into the lane of waiting cross-traffic to our right, moving over in front of the waiting cars to wait for the light to change. But before it did, both of us spotted a traffic policeman on the other side of the road. He signaled to Pedro to move on, not to make the turn and to carry on driving down Insurgentes.
To my puzzlement, Pedro ignored him, later explaining that he was planning to ignore the warden and whiz by. But, as we pulled out into the road and swung round to the left back onto Insurgentes, we came face to face with the traffic warden’s colleague, standing in the middle of the road. He pulled us over.

I tensed up. I didn’t know what to expect. My companion started trying to explain that he’d made the move because we were in a hurry and turning round on Insurgentes was hard. Neither of those explanations were very true, and our man here knew it. He asked to see Pedro’s license.

There was a silence.

Pedro threw me a nervous glance.

He ran his hand through his hair and down his face, looking shocked.

“No traigo licencio, official,” he murmured.

“I don’t have a license.”

The policeman’s face lit up. His partner – who Pedro had blankly ignored – appeared in order to reap his revenge, jotting down the number of the license plate and the car details.

We didn’t need the policeman who had stopped us to pull out his little book of rules and read us the penalties for the traffic infraction Pedro had just committed, as well as the cost of driving without a license. But he did it anyway.

“Offer him some money,” I murmured, surprising myself.

But it looked bleak. The thousands of pesos my friend was going to have to pay in fines mounted. Later, friends told me that the jotting down of details and the threat of fines is all part of the elaborate theatre of the bribe culture.

Pedro got out of the car and stood speaking conspiratorially to the policeman who was jotting down the car details, paying him the attention he should have paid him three minutes ago when he told him not to make the turn. The policeman appeared to be focused on his work and was clearly enjoying himself.

Pedro reached into his back pocket and pulled out 500 pesos. The policeman took it discreetly, tucked it under his clipboard and walked away.

Game Over.

As frequently is the case, I was astounded and made no secret of that as we drove away. $US50 to get yourself out of driving without a license, a serious traffic infraction and disregarding an officer. What a bargain.

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3 Responses

  1. This is one of the reasons I like MX better than the US.
    In the US this incident would follow you for years.
    In MX, it is over.

  2. I agree with Jerry. Also, the bad, or worst, actor here is Pedro. He didn’t have to break the law and he didn’t have to bribe the police officer. I’ve lived in Mexico for over 10 years and I make it a point to never pay bribes — when i have not done anything wrong. I refuse to be ‘shaken down’ and so far I have prevailed. But, when I cheated on my CFE (electrical) hook-up and finally got caught, I bribed my way out for less than the legal fine — just like Pedro did here.

    I should probably also point out that in Anderson, Indiana back in the late 70’s/ early 80’s, I paid a court clerk on 2 separate occasions to remove traffic violations from the court and ‘lose’ them.

    I don’t think Mexico has a monopoly on the culture of bribery.

  3. It sounds like Pedro did a pretty stupid and unnecessary thing. You simply can’t show up a cop anywhere without expecting some kind of response.

    In the D.F., I’ve been stopped three times as a motorist. The first for making an illegal turn down a one-way street in Roma. Unfortunately the infraction occurred a few days before Christmas so I was to pay dearly, making a donation for the cops’ kids presents and forking over MX$200.

    The second time I was waiting for the green arrow at Baja California (Eje 3) and Tepic I believe very close to the Chilpancingo metro and where Tepic merges onto Baja California. (It’s a weird intersection.) Invariably a cop was there to stop me (a gringo) as myself and another gringo drove a windowless white Econoline. The tamarindo, as they are known because of their brown uniforms, maintained I had run a red light and said something about “infraccion equis parrafo cuatro equis equis quien sabe que” while shoving the big black traffic-infraction book in my face. In reality I hadn’t run any light but it was still too late. When he asked me for my driver’s license I had to admit I didn’t have it on me, so another MX$200 “fee” after an obligatory visit to the ATM. What shame! The irony of the story is that the friend and I were on our way to return the van after helping another gringo friend move back to the States. We had driven from Mexico City to the border and back without a problem until being unfairly stopped and I might say “profiled” by an abusive cop.

    The third time, a friend and I were driving a U.S.-plate truck and were pulled over for no reason whatsoever by a patrulla. The weird thing about this stop was that the cops were almost waiting in ambush. As I approached the four-way stop, I saw that the patrulla was also at the stop. Since they obviously had arrived at the intersection first, I waited for them to go through it. Finally after maybe 30 seconds in which they didn’t make a move or approach me, I ventured out making a right-hand turn. Suddenly I saw the “flashing blue lights” and the cop car behind me, so I pulled over. The two cops then forced their way into the car, splitting myself and the passenger up (he went in the backseat) and then directing me (the driver) to drive as commanded. One cop “interrogated” my friend while I was told to drive deeper into an unknown neighborhood. I assumed that it was all part of an act to extract a bribe, but then got scared that we were being kidnapped. So I suddenly stopped the car and told the bossy cop I wouldn’t follow his orders. This flustered them and they got out of the car and after a few more motions got fed up and left. Felt really good that we didn’t offer a bribe.

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