Throughout our research we had read that there would be some police checkpoints, particularly around large cities, where we may run into corruption. We got to experience this first-hand today as we were on our way from Bernal to Amecameca, the town just outside of Iztaccihuatl.
We had just paid the toll for the highway running along the outskirts of Mexico City, when we were flagged down to pull over by a group of five policemen. They were crowded around one car with one person out in the street to flag suspicious cars… rather more likely, out of town plates. I pulled Savannah over with my hazards on, put it in park, and rolled down the windows. A cop flanked on either side of the van. The policewoman on my side greeted me and then asked to see our tourist permits. Relieved that this was only for our FMM’s and happy we made sure to get that taken care of in Tecate, we pulled them out of the folder and presented them to her. She shook her head and handed them back. Next we presented the TIP for importing Savannah, incorrect as well.
Through multiple back and forth, we finally figured our they were asking for a tourist permit that would allow us to drive our vehicle within the metropolitan area of Mexico City. She said we would need to pay 2000 pesos ($100) here on the spot, or the car would be impounded until tomorrow when the banks would open up. It was only about 3:30 PM, so surely there were actually banks still open. We were suspicious that this may not be real and that we were expected to pay the 2000 pesos as a bribe to continue. We didn’t even have 2000 pesos in cash, only about 1500. She continued to make this seem like we were in big trouble as she said we would have to pay for the infraction. We asked for a ticket then to show this infraction. She said if she gave us one it would mean that we weren’t paying here and that the van would be impounded. We told her we only had 500 pesos in cash and could pay them that, but she responded that it wasn’t our money that they wanted but the fee for breaking the law, which meant the full 2000.
Luckily, Andre’s dad had given us a few people to contact in and around Guadalajara if we got into trouble – whether it were questions about the police, if we had car trouble, etc. Andre and I were able to quietly converse throughout our conversations with the police on either side of the car to make a plan. We both really felt like this wasn’t right and that we were being scammed. We decided we should call Enrique, one of our contacts in Mexico, since he had warned us of this when Andre had called for general advice on the road earlier on our trip. The policeman on Andre’s side tried to dissuade him from calling by trying to ask where this friend lived, which we lied and said here in Mexico City. The policewoman on my said that we were running out of time to decide what we were going to do – pay or get impounded. Eventually Andre hit call and had a ~10 minute phone call where our beliefs were confirmed, it was bullshit. Basically, you only need this permit if you are driving on Mexico City city streets, not the highway. He told Andre they would make it hard on us and maybe keep us there for hours. He said they would not (could not) impound the car, and that if we offered a cheaper bribe they may let us leave after long enough. Enrique also offered to fill out this tourist permit form online for us so we could present it if they continued to give us a hard time.
We got more confident with our resistance to paying them off. We persisted on asking for a ticket proving our infraction. We also told them we could have the permit complete online, whereupon she responded it would need to be printed so that wouldn’t work. The policewoman asked for my license, which after I handed over, tucked into her pocket. They walked around the van and peeked into the windows. It was very clearly a waiting game of who had more time and who would cave in. We explained again that we were only driving on the highways and that our friend confirmed that we did not need this permit – she replied that our friend was not the police… On Andre’s side, he was told that “taking care of this now will make it easier on us later.” Multiple times we had to pass a phone around for google translation on key words that we either didn’t understand or felt like we needed to convey better. We were stalled longer as the woman repeated the same questions she had for me in the beginning: where we came from, where we were going, how long we’ve been in Mexico, etc., which I answered all the same as before. At one point, her hat blew off since she was standing on the traffic (driver’s side) of the highway. I tried to explain that I knew this wasn’t real because we read up on all of the permits we would need for Mexico and we never saw anything about this. Given the stress of the situation, I’m sure my Spanish was really bad and I had every version of tenses when I would use verbs like drive/read/travel/have.
Andre thought to ask to see the website where it would describe that this permit was required for the highways. The policeman responded to him that we wouldn’t be able to do that here, even though we had internet. We were getting tired of the bullshit as much as they probably realized we were just wasting their time and that perhaps their threats would be better used on someone else who would pay. Meanwhile, another car had been flagged to pull over and was being interrogated. Eventually, the policeman offered his hand out to shake Andre’s after speaking something very quickly that we didn’t catch. Unsure what he was agreeing to, Andre didn’t shake his hand and we continued to have our quiet conversation about what to do next. Finally, they gave in, and the policeman told us we could just go (I did get my license returned). We were stopped for a total of about 45 minutes before we were let go.
So far, we have not felt like we have been targeted by local police with our NY plates. We did always get searched at military check points on the Baja peninsula, but that feels different since they were all at military establishments along the road. We’ve read a lot about how helpful local police can be with advising where would not be a safe place to camp. However, it does seem apparent that around bigger cities, such as Mexico City, we’ll have to be extra careful and make sure we know what’s real and what’s not. If we didn’t have a local contact, I think it would have been much harder for us to stand our ground. We felt pretty happy with ourselves after driving away without paying the bribe, but also found ourselves confused and wondering what causes police corruption around large cities compared to the kindness we’ve experienced around small towns. We’re happy to have left Mexico City in the dust and hope not to have to talk our way out of many more issues in the future.
For basically the same story, check out Andre’s post here!