When driving in Mexico and specifically Oaxaca, one really should be aware of their basic legal rights and local laws, as interactions with law enforcement officials can sometimes eave one with a bad taste in the mouth that may take a long time to go away.
The coastal highway that passes through Puerto Escondido and Huatulco is a zona federal and is patrolled by federales, who operate with different rules than local police. Getting stopped by a federale is generally considered more of a problem than getting stopped by a local policeman, although this is not always true. Federales are mostly concerned with drugs, weapons, and lack of plates or current registration, all of which can carry heavy fines or penalties. They also stop and fine people carrying wood, palm, or other tropical materials for construction, which is illegal without a permit and can be a surprisingly serious offense.
There are also military roadblocks in both federal zones (highway) and on rural roads. At roadblocks soldiers randomly search vehicles looking for drugs or weapons, but seem not to care about anything else. The searches rarely go beyond a cursory inspection of the car’s contents, and present little cause for alarm.
In Mexico one occasionally hears urban legends of drugs being planted in people’s vehicles. While probably this has happened at various times and places, the risks of this happening in Oaxaca are low. If it did happen, it would certainly be unlikely to happen at a military checkpoint where there is a constant flow of traffic and lots of young inexperienced soldiers wandering around for whom involvement in a conspiracy would probably exceed their capabilities. If this were to happen, this would be more likely to happen at the hands of a policeman who stopped you on the side of a deserted highway. When being searched in remote areas one should take care to watch the official searching the vehicle carefully and in a very obvious manner.
Outside the federal zone, local police operate in accordance to local official and unofficial rules, and behavior of the police varies from community to community. In many communities, particularly in beach areas outside Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, there is little police presence. Local police enforce laws as they see fit and may exaggerate or quote laws incorrectly, so it helps to know how the law applies to you.
If a policeman is standing on the side of the road, it is generally a good idea to avoid eye contact. If he tries to wave you over it just might be the case that you didn’t see him and quickly get lost in traffic. If you do pull over, in my experience impromptu fines are involved for something that you may or may not have done. This is especially bad in tourist areas or before Christmas, when everybody wants a little more money in their pocket.
Bribes are illegal and immoral and I do not condone them. Certainly, the culture of opportunistic abuse of power is one of the factors most responsible for Mexico’s lack of economic growth. However, alternative methods of conflict resolution with law enforcement officials who have pulled you over are sometimes unavoidable, and may even be preferable to strict application of the law. Fortunately, when pulled over, a familiar pattern frequently emerges.
First, always try to pull over in a place where there are other people around. If a cop motions you over and suddenly a deserted pullover spot perfect for a shakedown appears on the side of the road, probably it was no coincidence and you might as well loosen your belt and start humming the theme to Deliverance. If it looks like you could make it to a more populated area to pull over in the next minute or two, go for it. If a police car is following you and indicating that you should pull over, try to keep driving until you find a spot advantageous to you rather than him. The ideal spot is somewhere just close enough to a busy intersection to be in the way, but not actually disturbing traffic. Always park in a spot where you can leave the car if you have to. Making a cop follow you until you find a spot probably won’t make your situation any worse and in any real legal conflict no judge would question your concern. Pretending that you can’t see or hear a cop behind you is a perfectly good tactic if you think you haven’t broken any law and you are about to be shaken down.
Before being pulled over, roll your windows down or up so that there is about 3 or 4 inches gap at the top. At the same time, if you were stupid enough to carry a lot of cash in your wallet quickly remove most of it and put it in another pocket, but make sure you have at least 200-300 pesos. If you are foolish enough to be carrying something you don’t want found, remember that your vehicle can be legally searched but not your person, although you may be asked to empty out your pockets.
When pulled over, don’t get out of the car. The policeman will typically come to your window and ask for your drivers license or papers. When he does this, hold your license up and press it to the window so he can see it clearly. Do not give him your license: in Mexico policeman have no right to take your IDs and you have the right to keep them. They will tell you to give them over, but simply say, no I’m sorry my lawyer told me to never give my license to anyone. Speak to him through the window gap. If he insists or gets mad, stay calm and stick to your guns as much as possible. If he gets really irate, go ahead and give him the license, because in the street he can do whatever he wants. It is ok to defer and let him know that he is in control. The point is to let him know that you know the rules. Always be extremely polite.
He will then go back to his car and leave you in hopes that you will be stewing in sheer terror. Do not stew in sheer terror. While he may be intimidating, he actually has limited options and you are going to be just fine. Remember, if things get uncomfortable you can always request that he escort you to the police station and handle things with his superior, which he has no desire to do either. However that outcome is best avoided as well.
When he returns he will tell you what you have done wrong. It doesn’t really matter what it was, or whether you did it or not. You can play along and argue if you like; most Mexicans would. If you did break the law and the cop is being fair, he will write you a ticket or let you off, assuming you don’t have any drugs or weapons or anything serious. The other option is that he will tell you that you are big trouble. This is when you know you are being shaken down.
Typically they will tell you either that the car is to be confiscated or that you have to go to the station and deal with some procedure that sounds frightening and time consuming. Usually they will start to give you instructions to follow them to the police station and will look at you in a way that suggests you are really going to regret what is about to happen. At this point you should simply say, “Oh come on I don’t have the time for that; isn’t there some way we can take care of this right now?”
Expect them to say no, and to explain what the penalty is going to be, in official and unofficial terms. For example, they may say, no, because you have to be processed and sign documents which will take several hours, and the fine for this is going to be very high, or whatever. You should specifically ask what the fine is, and keep asking until they tell you. Once they give you a figure, you can start arguing with confidence because what is going on is now clear to everyone. The bottom line is that these guys are going to be really nice and let you “pay the fine” up front, which will likely end up being a moderate sum of several hundred pesos, even if the “fine” is quoted as being much higher.
Now, as an aside, Mexican culture is full of characters, like the film star Cantinflas, who are ostensibly powerless and yet are somehow able to twist circumstances around to confuse people and achieve what they want from them. The ability to do this is one of the most revered qualities among Mexicans, and understanding this will take you a long way towards understanding how Mexico works. It will also help you negotiate more effectively with Mexicans.
Culturally speaking, Mexicans are very attuned to power relationships and frequently play with them in ways that North Americans don’t really understand. In other words, Mexicans will often attempt to establish power over others in ways that can be either bold or subtle, straightforward or convoluted, just to see if they can, and to see what happens as result. It is a way of establishing pecking order, or determining the limits of authority. For example, a receptionist at a business might make you wait for no reason, or a manager might deny an employee time off, simply to establish who is in control and to test how you respond. Similarly, an employee might deliberately neglect to carry out a certain task, and claim forgetfulness, simply to remind a demanding boss that they have the power to jeopardize the business if not treated well, or to demonstrate to their friends that they can’t easily be pushed around. Sometimes, as in the example of the manager, you can gain respect by simply accepting someone’s power over you, after which point they are perfectly willing to attend to your needs. In other cases, such as with the receptionist, you might be able to establish control over the situation by suggesting that you are willing to walk away and that your departure might deny her business a great opportunity, for which she might be punished. In either case, if you are ultimately able to get what you want, you will have earned the respect of anybody paying attention. Conversely, simply trying to argue with people out of frustration will lead to loss of respect and inability to get what you want. It’s a game, and if you live here you should learn how to play it.
I mention this simply to point out that your ability to resolve situations with police, as with other Mexicans, will depend upon your ability to remain calm while creatively and persuasively trying different negotiation tactics. So respected is one’s ability to talk their way out of trouble in Mexico, that even antagonists will often leave a door open in negotiation, just to see if you are smart enough to exploit it.
In the specific case of paying fines in the street, it is wise to first consider your options and advantages in this situation.
1.First, judges tend to be sympathetic towards foreigners in legal cases and legitimately concerned about the reputation of police in tourist areas, and the police know that. It is not in their benefit to actually charge you with a crime.
2.It is in the interest of the police that such situations be resolved quickly. You can mention your own need for quick resolution to make negotiations go faster, but you can also establish some control over the discussion if you indicate that you are perfectly willing to waste several hours at the police station, which is an outcome they seek to avoid as much as you do.
3.If they ask you to follow them to a lot where your car will be impounded, you don’t have to oblige them. You can always simply say you are very sorry but you don’t believe that you broke the law, and that you would prefer to get out, lock the vehicle, and leave it where it is while you talk to the authorities and/or a lawyer. Tell them they are more than welcome to have your car towed if you have broken the law, and that you will be happy to meet them at the station later to discuss the issue further. They can’t force you to come to the station with them unless they arrest you, which isn’t what they want to do. And don’t worry, they won’t tow your car unless its blocking traffic, as they would have to pay for it and would never get reimbursed. (Again, remember that in all negotiation the suggestion that you are going to do something is usually more powerful than actually doing it.)
4. If they take your license or identification, they will try to refuse to give it back until you pay them. This is why you should avoid giving them your ID. But it doesn’t really matter if they have it or not because in the end, you are going to end up giving them something and they are going to end up returning your ID. The only variable is how much you are going to have to pay. So try to look unconcerned about it if they are holding it hostage. (I believe that actually taking your passport is a crime, although I have not confirmed this.)
5.If you honestly feel afraid for your safety, you can always simply refuse to move or get out of the car; you can call the police yourself on your cell phone, or you can ask the officer to call the police and send another car. But keep in mind that it is extremely rare that a policeman here would sincerely wish you harm, unless you somehow provoke them.
5.As long as you follow cultural rules you will be respected for arguing and attempting to pay as little as possible, but also for inevitably accepting defeat. Be careful about arguing too angrily or too long, though, because if you put them in a risk of losing face you are liable to regret it.
6.Don’t get mad, either with them or with yourself, and have faith in the process. It’s time tested and is something you just can’t change.
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