Tuesday, June 18, 2024

When a routine traffic stop involves crooked cops, things can get ugly fast

On a Sunday the day before Mother’s Day in Mexico, my Mexican wife and I were pulled over by the Mexican transit police. If you are unfamiliar with Mexico, these guys are somewhere between meter maids and real cops. Their sole purpose is to hand out traffic citations — technically speaking.

If you’ve driven in Mexico, you know the only thing they do is ask citizens for bribes.

We live in a small town in the state of Morelos. My wife is from Mexico City, and her parents still live there.

A Sunday visit with the kids — four dogs and a cat — was our plan for the day. We made the 1 1/2-hour drive only to have the police stop beside us at a light a few minutes away from our final destination. The officer told me that I didn’t have a front license plate.

I didn’t panic and simply told him my truck was registered in Florida. The license plate obviously says that, so I explained further to him that in Florida, they only give us one license plate that we put it on the back of the car.

Mexico City transit police
Transit police in Mexican cities deal exclusively with traffic-related infractions.

I’m not sure if it was my rough Spanish or that I was talking through a mask, but he just repeated that I needed a front license plate.

My wife then explained things a bit more clearly. I believe he must have been caught off guard by the fact she was Mexican because he didn’t really respond.

So when the light turned green, we carried on.

We drove through the light and were ready to get out of the truck after our long drive. We had to pee. We were hungry. And the dogs were ready for a walk. We had made it to the street where my wife’s parents live when the same two officers come and park on both sides of us to block us in.

It was a bit shocking and extreme to be blocked in by the police as if we were criminals, but we stayed calm. They asked for my papers. I gave them everything: Mexican car insurance, importation papers, driver’s license, car title and Florida registration.

They looked at them and talked among  themselves for a bit. Then they looked at us again.

“You don’t have a front license plate.”

It felt like a bad joke.

Their joke wasn’t as dry as their humor, however, as they no longer were police officers informing a foreigner of local laws; they were getting ugly and threatening.

Being from somewhere where traffic violations usually result in a warning or, at worst, a ticket to pay online later, I didn’t understand this sudden ugliness, especially when you consider how people in Mexico drive:

Red lights mean five more cars may pass. Headlights at night? Maybe just one parking light works for half the cars. Stopping in the middle of the street to buy tacos while everybody behind is blocked? That’s done by the police themselves.

Just a general attitude of selfishness and entitlement like “I always have the right of way” is carried by almost everyone.

Mexican food
The writer’s plan was for a road trip from Morelos to Mexico City for a peaceful Mother’s Day lunch with his wife and her family.

Of all the legitimate traffic dangers going on in this city, were they threatening me over an alleged missing license plate? I could see if I had no license plate. But just a copy of the plate for the front warranted such hostile nastiness?

But we knew what they wanted; they wanted to extort us. We didn’t actually have any cash, but I probably would have just given it to them.

My wife is normally a bit nervous and anxious in these sorts of situations, more for my sake than hers, to keep me out of Mexican prison. She always just says, “Be nice, and let’s drive away from this.”

Not this time. I think she was already a bit hangry.

Whatever the case, she was ready to stand her ground; I was too. Bad guys are part of the world. I get that. But this was a level of disrespect I couldn’t comprehend.

Disrespect is never correct, and for such a minor infraction, it was far from necessary. These dirty cops didn’t deserve supper on innocent civilians. Not from us. Not tonight.

Perhaps it was our resistance to simply bowing down to their threats and attempts at callous intimidation, but they went further.

“We’re calling a truck to impound your car,” one told me.

Now, I do realize this is legal in Mexico. A parking violation can result in being impounded. I’m not talking about thousands of dollars of unpaid parking fines either. Just one. First-time offender and boom — incarceration for your vehicle.

In my mind, all I heard was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life: You only have one license plate, so we are going to take your whole damn car.

I was stunned. You’re going to take my car as if I’m a danger to society?

Almost on cue, our dogs started barking. I won’t lie, it felt good.

Women's protest in CDMX 2019
Police have an often deservedly terrible reputation among Mexicans. This demonstrator’s poster says, “They don’t protect me, they violate me.”

My wife’s panic-induced anger had her out of the car and pacing while trying to call for help. I was trying to keep the dogs calm while these two “servants of society” were calling their truck to come impound our car. I would still be laughing about how ridiculous this concept is hours after the event was over.

This, for me, is when human decency comes into play. You are a human being. You see a foreigner isn’t quite within the local regulations. Do you:

  • Try to inform this new person of the country of your local ways?
  • Try to ruin Mother’s Day and take his car from him right in front of his family?

They chose the latter.

My wife then got through to a family lawyer, whom she put on speakerphone to speak to the transit officers. The lawyer explained to them that they have no right to take the car.

I’m not going to lie. I was a bit nervous that perhaps I was in the wrong. Not on purpose, of course. I looked up all the laws as best I could before driving to this country and did my best to stay within them.

There is a lot of great information online but nothing about this particular law. Even more so, our car had Mexican insurance and legal importation papers. Surely, if we had done anything illegal, we would have been told by now.

Thankfully, the transit officers didn’t have the legal right to take our car, and I could see that they didn’t like this. Somehow, the whole situation became personal. They wanted to hurt us.

I could see in their faces that they were on the ropes and swinging blindly, more for pride than for a bribe at this point. They started to shake their heads, and their bad joke became a broken record.

“You don’t have a front license plate.”

“That’s the law,” the leader between the two of them said. The other was a bit nervous at this point.

The lawyer explained it to him: “The law for the front license plate only applies to cars registered in the city.”

Mexican money
What the cops had almost certainly wanted in the first place. deposit photos

The officer puffed up his chest and pretended to have international ticket-giving authority, so the lawyer asked him to show us the law that gives him the right to determine how many license plates an imported car registered in the U.S. state of Florida should have.

He pulled out his handbook and pointed to a law that basically said what the lawyer had already said: cars of Mexico City should have a front license plate. The man knew he was wrong, but rather than being a man and admitting his fault, he went back to broken-record mode.

At this point, my wife’s parents came down to the street. They spoke kindly to the officer, but he wasn’t budging.

Then the lawyer told them he was going to call internal affairs.


The next thing we know, the transit officers were saying that we were good to go but only because my wife’s father was a nice guy.

My question is this: was all of this necessary?

Mexico is famous for having corrupt police. It’s part of life here. But one thing I have never understood is a lack of human decency. The way he spoke to us was as if we were the worst people alive for not having a front license plate.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a touch of racism involved. Perhaps not as bad as a black man being pulled over in Mississippi in the ‘50s, but still racism along the lines of I’m going to take advantage of this gringo.

It almost makes one sick to have to be involved in such events. It is an ugly world. I get it. I’ve been to war, for fuck’s sake.

Yet, you don’t expect such ugliness at home when all you want to do is drive safely to your wife’s parents’ house for comida and quality family time on a Sunday.

I see, feel and understand now the outrageous distaste the Mexican people have towards their police. When the people that are supposed to protect you are the ones you fear, there is something seriously wrong with a society.

police brutality Mexico
The writer now feels he understands much better the fear and anger Mexicans have toward police.

We never give an injustice notice unless it happens to us. This event wasn’t that scarring or traumatic, but it still points to a very important problem that underlies most problems we face in the world today — not just in Mexico or America or with police or whatever but everywhere.

Human decency. Where is it? What is wrong with us that we can’t just be decent to each other? We are all going to die in the end. Isn’t that reason enough to just be kind to each other until then?

Put more simply: when dealing with another human, be human. It really should be that plain, that obvious.

As far as Mexican police — especially these meter maids — even knowing the law better than them isn’t enough. Keep ready the number for a local lawyer and internal affairs, the Unidad de Contacto del Secretario SSCCDMX, 55 5208 9895, in case something like this happens to you. It may not save you, but it is an extra layer of protection in a system that needs as much protection as possible for its citizens and residents.

It doesn’t hurt to have a camera as well.

The police are meant to serve the people. It is up to us to remind them of that. Voting for the least corrupt politician isn’t going to change this country, as is evident.

I love this country for its freedom. Yet, after this incident, I sincerely felt that I am only free enough to realize that I am still in a cage, not free enough to always fly out of it.

After all this was said and done, my wife’s parents tried to tell us how to handle these types of situations — flatter them and bribe them.

My wife, still in fury, responded, “That’s the reason we still have to deal with it today!”

She was right. But I understood why her parents had always done things that way.

Yet, the world is changing. The Mexican police may be trying to hang on to their old ways, but thanks to smartphones and the internet they are being forced from outside of their internal structure to become more transparent.

They would never have taken a bribe because we were recording them whenever they started getting ugly. That technique always calmed them. We also took their badge numbers just in case things got too dicey.

Mexico City Transit Cop
Transit police, asserts the writer, should not have the kind of power that they do that allows them to harass civilians. deposit photos

It feels whiny and juvenile to me to record the police abusing their power, but today I believe that, in combination with a lawyer, it is what saved us from lots of unnecessary paperwork and fees and trouble — or, who knows, maybe worse.

This is one thing to do in the moment. But if Mexico really wants to get rid of corruption, it must get rid of the laws that allow politicians to sell favors and for these police officers to threaten civilians.

A traffic cop especially should not have this much leverage and power. They should hand out tickets for violations, and only in extreme cases of immediate and very real danger should they separate someone from their vehicle.

Good luck, Mexico. Good luck to the immigrants who love Mexico and its people and want to call this place home.

S.W. Stribling describes himself as “a literary pianist who writes fiction with teeth.” An Iraq War veteran and former French Foreign Legion parachutist, he is also the author of the books Sin and Zen and Anger and Hope. Follow him on his website, on Facebook and on Instagram for giveaways, clever quotes and photos of his four dogs and cat.

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