Jan 152012

In an effort to combat some pretty severe air pollution, Mexico City implemented “Hoy No Circula” in the late 1980s.  The law translates literally as, “Today, it does not circulate” and is meant to prevent at least 20% of cars from driving on or around the city each day of the week.  The last digit of your license plate determines your day of no driving.  Luckily, we had heard of these rules in advance and planned our time in the area accordingly.

On our last day in the city, we decided to move from one sprawling suburb to another 40 km away so that we could view the enormous ruins of Teotihaucan.  As wonderful as we found Mexico City to be, driving anywhere near it is truly awful.  We had learned this during our last attempt, so we left around 8:30 to give ourselves plenty of time.  By 10:15 we were lost and still many kilometers from our destination.  As we were sitting at a traffic light waiting to make yet another U-turn, a police officer walked up to our window and asked Zach to pull over.

Here we go, we were both undoubtedly thinking.  We’ve read countless stories of the bribery attempts made by police officers in Latin America and ever since crossing the border we’ve just been waiting for it to happen to us.  It was only a matter of time.

Here’s how it goes: They target foreigners, using a lame but no doubt false excuse to pull you over and threaten to impound the vehicle or take you to the station unless some exorbitant fee is paid.  If you go to the station, they warn you, the fee will be higher.  It is, of course, much cheaper to just pay them in cash.  That’s when you’re supposed to bargain them down to something a little more reasonable, pay the bribe and be on your way, happy to have gotten yourself out of such a potentially costly situation.  There have been many travelers  before us who have made it through Latin America without paying a single bribe and we wanted to be one of them.  The secret?  Play dumb.   Pretend to speak very little Spanish and stick to your guns.  If you refuse to acknowledge the bribe attempt and steadfastly wait it out as long as it takes, eventually the officers will give up and send you on your way.  We’ve been told time and time again that this is a tactic that works.

As the officer began to explain to us that we had broken the “Hoy no circula” law, I felt certain that we were getting a shakedown.  It was Friday and we knew for certain that our day to not drive was Thursday.  He was obviously hoping we had never heard of the law and would accept his word for it.  But then I heard him explain that it was only 10:15 and we were not to be on the road until 11 am.  Shoot.  I had forgotten that any car without a Mexico state license plate is also restricted from driving between the hours of 5 am and 11 am, Monday through Friday.

It soon became clear that we actually were in the wrong and that the officers had a perfectly legitimate reason to pull us over and give us a ticket.  We quickly discussed a plan while we waited for the light to turn green and decided to stick to our “play dumb” strategy and see what happens.  If the officer wanted to give us a legitimate ticket, well then there was nothing we could do about that.  But if they were trying to extract a bribe, they would be out of luck.

It took very little time for us to realize that a bribe was exactly what they were after.  Though we did not make it known, we understood perfectly that the officers were asking for $3,000 pesos (or $300 USD – they would kindly accept either), in cash or they would impound our vehicle.  To say we played dumb would be an understatement, though we were never disrespectful or forceful, nor were the officers to us.

He tried to explain the situation to us countless times, noticeably more frustrated with each attempt.  But the one thing he did not do is produce a legitimate ticket.  He simply wanted us to hand him the cash.  He finally asked for Zach’s license.

Before the trip we had fake licenses made up for each of us for exactly this scenario.  We had read that one tactic is to take your license and refuse to give it back until you pay a bribe.  The officers took Zach’s fake license but at no point did they go back to their vehicle to record his information or write up a ticket.  They simply held it as collateral, just as we’d heard.  We told them we had no cash, so they offered to drive with us to a bank.  At this suggestion, we repeated our fall back phrase, “no entiendo” (I don’t understand), though we understood perfectly well.

During the 20 minute back and forth we intentionally increased their frustration by picking a single word, usually a useless one from a statement of theirs and tried to translate it using our pocket dictionary, almost always moving the conversation backwards.  It just so happens that the spanish word for impound also translates to farmyard.  When Zach discovered this, he resorted to naming farm animals with a confused look on his face.

“Are you saying you’re going to take the car to a farmyard?  As in moo?  … o pollos?”

If we found the conversation moving too far forward, Zach always brought the chickens back into the equation.  I think one of the officers found this funny, the other one not so much.  Eventually they got an English speaking “officer” (he sounded more like their buddy at home on the couch) on their cell phone and handed it to me.  He calmly explained that we would have to pay them $3,000 pesos.  Since we were no longer able to play dumb, I responded that we were happy to pay the fine but that they needed to produce a legitimate ticket.  We were very clear and adamant that we were never going to simply hand the officers cash.  After multiple attempts to persuade me otherwise and many back and forths with the phone, I was handed the phone for a third and final time.  

 “You’re free to go, just know that although you’re a foreigner you’re obligated to abide by the laws of Mexico.  Be safe.”

And as quickly as it had begun, the officers handed back Zach’s license and drove off.  Apparently writing a legitimate ticket and dealing with whatever goes along with that was not worth their time.  Watching them drive away, we just looked at each other in disbelief.  As many anecdotes as we had read, and as many times as we had repeated our intentions to deal with this situation, we could not believe that it had actually worked.