Seeing the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror is always stress-inducing. But traffic stops in Mexico, where you don’t know what to expect and you may or may not speak the language, can be even more so.
Those RVing south of the border should be aware that traffic stops in Mexico are significantly different than in the United States.
If you are stopped for a traffic violation in Mexico, you will be asked for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and possibly proof of insurance. You will also be told what you did wrong.
Of course, in the U.S. we would then be issued a ticket that requires us to pay a fine or appear in court at a later date.
Not so in Mexico! In Mexico, motorists follow the officer to the nearest police station then and there.
Once at the station you can pay the fine or fight your case, should you feel the stop was unjustified. Unlike in the states, most road infractions are quite reasonable (usually under $20).
What I just described is how traffic stops in Mexico should work according to the book.
But there are two other scenarios that you might find yourself in.
Morditas or “bribing the police”
Corruption happens everywhere in Mexico, but I like to call it “equal opportunity corruption” in that it is priced in such a way that anyone can play.
I am not saying you SHOULD attempt to bribe the police if you get pulled over by law enforcement. Doing so is illegal for both the person offering the bribe and the police officer accepting it.
That said, the practice is deeply ingrained in the culture and is done all the time.
In fact, there are corrupt police who will stop people for no other reason than to extract a mordita or bribe. (The word in English means “bite.”)
If it makes you feel any better, it regularly happens to Mexican nationals as well as gringos. And also take into consideration that the average cop in Mexico makes under $15,000 a year.
To be sure, locals on the community social media boards HATE it when anyone pays a mordita as they say it just continues the practice.
That may be true. Yet I suspect many of the loudmouths do it when they get stopped.
In the 50 years or so that I have been traveling to Baja, absolutely nothing has changed in relation to morditas. Likewise, for all practical purposes, the practice doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
Twenty bucks (or its equivalent in pesos) seems the going rate for most minor infractions. But, of course, morditas are highly negotiable. The officer will either take the bribe or not. If not, you go to the station.
My experiences with law enforcement in Mexico
I have had two personal experiences with traffic stops in Mexico in the last six years.
The first time it was dusk. I missed a small stop sign partially hidden behind some bushes while driving my Class B motorhome. I ran the sign and nearly t-boned a cop coming the other way. Of course, I got pulled over, and rightfully so.
While I was apologizing profusely for my error to one officer, my male traveling companion was talking to another on the passenger side. Next thing I knew we were on our way.
When I inquired how, my friend informed me he asked the officer if he could “pay the fine here instead of going to the station,” and took out $20. The cop took the bill and we were on our way.
I considered it a bargain, considering my error.
The Mordita Shakedown
The second time I got stopped, it was a pure mordita shakedown and nothing more.
We were in fairly heavy traffic. I was not speeding and, in fact, could not speed. Nonetheless, I got pulled over.
The officer claimed he stopped me because I was on my phone.
I explained I was not on my phone and that the car was outfitted with a complete hands-free phone system in its dash. I had no need to ever be holding my phone.
OK, that didn’t work.
Next, he claimed he stopped me because my dogs were loose and not in cages in the car.
I was not having it. I’ve regularly seen passels of kids loose in the back of pickup trucks and the police do not bat an eye, let alone stop those vehicles. I knew a law requiring dogs to be caged in cars did not exist.
I was hungry, tired, and not in a good mood when I told him, “Enough of this. Take me to the station.”
That stopped everything.
He did not know what to do. I don’t think anyone had ever called him on it before.
He nervously told me to lead the way and he would follow me. I said I didn’t know where the station was, so I would follow him. We took off driving slowly. Very slowly. About 20 mph, until we came to a stop sign about a quarter-mile down the road.
He got out of his car, came back to mine and simply said, “Go home.”
And that was the end of it.
So if you are in the right, it can pay to politely challenge a mordita shakedown.
Remember the goal of the police officer in most mordita situations is to make a little extra cash without getting caught and with a minimum of hassle.
He is looking for frightened people willing to pay to go about their day. He does not want to explain to his commanding officer that he was trying to shake down a tourist.
The police as thieves
There is one more type of law enforcement challenge you might face in Mexico that does not happen nearly as often but is far more sinister.
I have not experienced true thuggery at the hands of Mexican police, but I know it sometimes happens. The tales usually filter onto the ex-pat community boards on Facebook.
When it happens it is almost always in remote areas, and it’s not pretty. Police have been known to steal cash, cameras, jewelry, and other valuables.
Even in these situations, however, some of those who have stood their ground have made it stop.
Taking out a cell phone to film the encounter seems to often do the trick. But if you find yourself in this type of unfortunate encounter, you will need to judge the mood and danger of the situation and your location yourself.
However, know these crimes are usually committed by lower-ranking officers and getting caught doing these things can cost them their jobs. They do not want to get caught.
There are things you can do to protect yourself from this kind of corruption and also to minimize your losses. See the tips below.
Additional tips for traffic stops in Mexico.
- Always be respectful. This is good advice for dealing with police in any country, including the U.S. Being belligerent will never get you anywhere.
- You should always carry your driver’s license, vehicle registration, proof of Mexican insurance, passport, visa/FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple, also known as Tourist Card) card, and personal emergency contact numbers with you when driving in Mexico.
- Keep the bulk of your cash somewhere other than with your driver’s license. That way if you are being shaken down, you can claim that’s all you have. If they see you have more they are likely to ask for more. The same is true if you ever get robbed.
- In some cases, drivers have reported corrupt police trying to keep their IDs. It’s not a bad idea to keep and show a laminated copy of your driver’s license. However, if the officer asks if it is a copy it is best to be honest. Lying to the police is never a good idea.
- If you do feel you have been wronged, Sindicatura is an organization run by the Mexican government that investigates corrupt police interactions. You can find details on their website. Sometimes just mentioning this organization can be enough to get you out of a shakedown as it will show you are at least aware of some of your rights.
- Many people on the ex-pat message boards report their shakedown experiences ended the minute they started filming the encounter and taking the officers’ photos.
- Avoid driving at night, especially in remote areas.
- If possible, drive in groups in remote areas.
- You may also encounter military checkpoints from time to time while driving in Mexico. These are different than police encounters. The uniformed, machine gun outfitted soldiers may look intimidating but these are usually quick checks of ID and immigration papers (so have passports and visas handy). Sometimes they may ask to look in the vehicle.
- If you are asked to get out of the car for an inspection, be sure to take your wallet or purse with you, along with pets. Keep an eye on the officers searching your vehicle or RV to the best of your ability.