Bad Cop, No Donut
Constitucion is a agricultural community in the heartland of Baja California Sur. Recently, this Mayberry like town has grown its own version of Barney Fife, stopping foreign plated cars with unsubstantiated traffic infractions.
We have had a number of reports regarding illegitimate police stops for travelers in Baja. This is unfortunate, as with the economic conditions Baja tourism doesn’t need that kind of news to deter people from visiting one of the safest states in Mexico, Baja California Sur. To be very clear the BajaInsider neither condones or excuses this practice but in this article we will explain some of it and offer some suggestions to minimize your exposure and costs.
Certainly it is a knee-jerk reaction to say “Don’t visit Baja or Mexico” For many of us Life in Baja, even with this problem is superior to the stress and rush of stateside living. Literally hundreds of foreign plated cars drive some part of Baja’s Highway 1 every day, without incident.
In addition to the letters we received, BajaNomad.com, a bulletin board style site, has several accounts of these police interactions, and in my reading all of them cost the driver between $200 and $500 pesos. Driving cautiously is a help, but some innocent drivers report being stopped even so. (This is of course, as the driver reported) This past week our own publisher drove through Constitucion with California plates on an RV and as he put it was ‘stalked’ but was not being stopped according to his Road Report.
Just as in the other countries, if a witnessing cop says you ran a stop sign – you ran a stop sign. If you have ever challenged this by taking the ticket to court in your home country you will learn the overturn rate is nearly 0%. Infractions are a major source of revenue for city governments. The fine for running a traffic light in San Diego is currently $346 and netted San Diego more than 3.2 million dollars last year. That makes $200 pesos sound cheap.
The morditas (little bites) or bribes paid for the infractions usually range from $200 to $500 pesos and do not go to city revenue but rather directly to the pockets of all the cops in the car that stopped you and in some cases to their superiors as well. City employees are usually paid on the 1st and 15th of each month. This can mean that the days prior to payday result in more “illegitimate earnings”. The cost of living has risen dramatically in Baja in the last few years and some cops appear to be making this up in curbside earning.
Foreign registered cars have been the target of many of these stops, but know you are not alone. Here in La Paz even natives have complained of the practice. Unfortunately, locals appear more resigned to the issue than would be tolerated in the US. Some remedial steps have been taken here in La Paz, but affects of the program are yet to be fully realized. The police know that folks on the road carry significant amounts of cash for fuel and road expenses, just a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.
After March 1 each year you will find broad net traffic stops checking for current registration. These inspection points increase in frequency by summer, when folks have had plenty of time to get stickers. These are mainly aimed at locally issued plates as there is a 3-4 month grace period to get your new registration. MEXICAN POLICE CAN SITE YOU FOR EXPIRED FORIEGN REGISTRATION. Just as in the states, your car must be legally registered in the local you are from.
False J-walking tickets were almost a joke when I first started visiting TJ a couple of decades ago. Over the years Tijuana, Catavina, El Rosario, La Paz and now Constitucion police have all been known to make illegitimate traffic stops. In the past Federal Highway Patrol officers have been pretty ‘clean’. In the past year or so we have received reports of these officers looking for a free lunch as well.
What you can do…
First and foremost remember you are a guest in Mexico. Becoming an indignant gringo and being aggressive or confrontational could result in an escalation you would be better to avoid. You maybe somebody at home but you are nobody here. Be respectful and perhaps even allow the officer his power trip.
Paying a bribe in Mexico is a crime as well as receiving one. This can put you in a tough spot in reporting the incident. In some way we have all contributed to this foul practice by wanting to get back on the road quickly anteing up to pay the morditas.
I have not known Mexican police to write a ticket to a foreign national and not take your license. This is standard practice to insure you pay the fine, otherwise why would you? You can/should insist on being taken to the police station and to be given a real infraction. Police stations usually do not close, however the civic authority where you PPAY the fine does and Monday through Saturday regular business hours can be expected. The fines are usually less than $1000 pesos, depending on the infraction. I had a failure to yield, resulting in collision infraction several years ago and it cost $16USD. Your travels could be delayed until the municipal authority opens.
Forms are available here in La Paz from the City Tourist Bureau to report police abuse of tourists and we hope to have that form available here shortly. This will not be of assistance in the case of Constitucion’s problems. A similar program was adopted in Cabo San Lucas over a year ago. Unfortunately, (a word used often in this article) there is no organization that appears to have any teeth in correcting this situation, unless the police department chooses to do so.
There is no by-pass for getting around Constitucion. Some have suggested taking back streets to avoid the main drag. This works well of you don’t see a cop. If a cop stops you on a back road you could be in even more difficulty without witnesses. Some cops try to direct you to a side street. Turn on your turn signal, indicating you acknowledge his intentions and try to stop in a very public area.
Some readers have suggested taking photos, video taping or recording audio of the incident. Do so in a clandestine manner. You will find that police in most countries will tell you to cease such activity at once when they become aware of it. (In the US the claim is for their personal security under the Homeland Security Act) Whom to provide the recording to afterwards is still unresolved, particularly if the police chief doesn’t care. Last July I witnessed a local taking phone video of a motocop stopping a gringo. The cop dropped the gringo to pursue the Mexican photographer. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TAKE PHOTOS AT MILITARY CHECKPOINTS. Because of the nature of their dangerous work against drug cartels this can result in your incarceration.
You MUST provide proof of registration and driver’s license. An officer WILL confiscate your foreign license on a written infraction. In years gone by some drivers carried duplicate license or just resigned themselves to getting a new one at home. In California now you must get a new license in person at DMV and the cost of time and money is usually greater than your mordita.
If you live in Baja get local plates. Importing your car does cost more than many years worth of morditas, but it is the right thing to do incase you have an accident too. If you live here you should be paying your fair share of taxes and fees. Getting local plates will reduce your illegitimate traffic stops.
I carry a limited but believable amount of cash in my wallet when traveling. Saying “Hey, that’s all I have.” may limit the cost of your mordita. Keep a secondary backup of equal amount so you can ‘go to the well’ if need be. However going back to the well could make the cop suspicious you have even more available.
Don’t appear to be in a hurry. “Rush charges may apply” is a common English term for this. Be firm, but don’t be aggressive.
Other suggestions range from drooling like a fool or throwing up on your money as the comedian Steve Martin suggested for preventing muggings in the 70’s. I doubt this would be effective and would probably result in your being examined for drunk driving. Pretending to not understand probably won’t be effective either. Speaking fluent Spanish will be helpful, as the cop may fear you know of a recourse.
The sad fact of it is, because of the attitudes generated by increased immigration pressures in the US, Americans may find themselves less welcome amongst some of the working class here in Mexico. Americans are a fat cash cow for those on the legitimate and illegitimate end of the travel dollar. It is a new experience for many white male Americans to find themselves subjects of discrimination, but you are a minority here. The shoe on the other foot feels strange, doesn’t it?
I think one of the most frustrating things about this relatively small but annoying problem for gringos is the lack of recourse. In the states we report this to the appropriate authority and we feel something is done about it. Yet I suffered a very similar incident in a southern state, while driving with Massachusetts plates as recently as 1986, when the cop broke my taillight with his baton and wrote me a ticket. When the US Vice President of Hyundai Corporation heard that the LA cops chased Rodney King down the 101 freeway in a Sonata at 110mph he replied “No Sh**? Was that downhill?” (just some humor there folks)
If this should happen to you take the time to write a letter or two, emails are nice but hard copy still has more impact. If you are staying at a resort, hotel or own property in a development send a letter to the management. Their economic impact and voices will have even more impact than perhaps your own. The Secretary of Tourism for Baja Sur has recently changed and we will post the new office holder’s information here soon. (see below)
By intending to expediting our trip and paying into the mordita concept we actually train a bad dog with the same bad trick. We invite your suggestions on this subject as well, please visit our contact form (click here) with your comments and personal experiences.