This last weekend, I had the pleasure of making a run to the border. I’ve had my car with me in Guadalajara, Mexico, since August of 2010, and as a tourist, I can only keep my car in the country for 180 days before I have to take it out of the country again. So I found four missionary friends who also needed to renew their tourist visas, and we crammed into my tiny 1986 VW Jetta, to drive north to Laredo, Texas–about a 12-hour drive.
As we were approaching the end of our journey to Texas on Saturday, we came to the town of Monterrey; about 2 hours south of the Mexican border. We missed a turn, and ended up driving into town, rather than going around the northwestern edge of the city as we had intended to. My friend, James, was driving, when we saw flashing lights behind us, and were forced to pull over.
We were informed that we were going 90 in a 50 zone (that’s kph, not mph, mind you), and James was asked for his driver’s license. He was then asked to open the trunk, presumably to make sure we weren’t carrying anything illegal.
There were three officers, one who spoke some English, the other two spoke only Spanish. The shorter of the Spanish-speaking officers came to the car, and asked us for our papers. I presented my passport and visa, which he handed back to me, then asked for my car registration. As I pulled it from the glove compartment, it tore in half. The officer looked at the paper, then threw it back at me in disgust. “It’s torn! This is not valid!” (In Spanish)
So they asked me to get out of the car, too, and they informed us that they would be towing the vehicle, since it was not legally registered (since the paper was torn–even though it was still easily readable).
Meanwhile, they were opening all of our bags in the trunk, and asking if we had any weapons or drugs on us. James admitted he had a small pocket knife in his pocket, which they immediate confiscated, saying that it far exceeded the 2.5-inch legal limit for a blade. The blade was well under the 2.5-inch limit, but they refused to hear it.
Eventually they told us we would have to retrieve our vehicle from the police station. It’s hard to remember the details of what they told us, because the details changed every time they relayed them. At one time we were told we could follow them to the police station, to pay the fines, then we were told they’d tow the car, and we’d have to get a taxi to the police station. Then they told us that we couldn’t get the vehicle out of the impound until tomorrow; later not until Monday. And finally they told us we probably couldn’t get it it out of impound until Tuesday. They even summoned James and me to their squad car, “to take us to jail.”
I called them on their fickle story, and asked why we had to go to jail. “Because your papers are torn.”
“But the penalty for an illegal vehicle is a fine and impounding of the vehicle. Not jail time.” I read the back of my registration paperwork to confirm this. The officers weren’t happy with me, so they pulled out their rule book, and showed us a few places where it insisted that our paper work had to be “in order,” but they were unable to show that jail time was the consequence, so they backed off on trying to send me to jail. But they told James he would have to go to jail for having an illegal knife.
Now, when they told us they would be towing the car, I noticed they never went over to their squad car to radio for a tow truck. However, a tow truck just happened to be driving by, so they flagged him down. However, when he started to back up to my car to tow it, they hollered at the tow truck driver (in Spanish) “No, not so fast!” So the tow truck driver just sat around for 15 minutes, looking very obviously bored and annoyed that he was wasting his time doing nothing.
By this time, it was starting to get late, and we really wanted to be across the border before dark, to avoid any chance of a run-in with illegitimate road blocks put in place by the drug cartels, etc. So I was ready to try to negotiate a bribe with the officers. They spent a lot of time just standing around, not even saying things–obviously stalling, hoping we’d offer them money. But I refuse to offer a bribe. However, I like what one person said about bribing Mexican police officers:
If I did something wrong, and an officer of the law offers me the option to pay now, or pay later, it’s not really my job to enforce that they are ethical, so if I pay now, even knowing the officer will pocket the money, I’m still operating within ethical parameters, of obeying an officer of the law.
And if I didn’t do something wrong, and an officer of the law demands money from me, he’s essentially robbing me. And at that point, I’m not bribing him at all–I’m simply a victim of an “armed robbery.”
So… with those things in mind… I was not willing to offer these officers any money to let me go… but if they were to offer to let me “pay now,” I was prepared to meet their demands, if it meant I could leave in time to get across the border before dark.
So I asked them to clarify our options. “We can go to the police station to get our vehicle, or what else? What other options do we have?”
The English-speaking officer told me the only options were to go to the station, or pay the fine on the spot–for MXN $10,800 (roughly US $885). After a few minutes, of looking like he was consulting with his co-conspirators, he said “We will make you a deal. You can pay us just half now–only 5000 pesos.”
I had about MXN $900 in my wallet, and James had about MXN $1200. We knew that some of the others in the car had more money, but didn’t want to let the officers know, so we counted our bills, and said that all we had was about MXN $2000 between the two of us. We told him we only had MXN $2000.
It was about this time that one of the officers noticed James blinking his eye, due to a twitch he has. “Do you use cocaine?”
“What!? No! I’m a missionary!”
“Oh great,” I thought, “Now they’re going to hassle you guys for not having religious visas.” James explained the situation–that we were going back to the border to get new visas, b/c they didn’t have their religious visas yet, etc.
They lowered their price from $5000 to $4000, and that was their final offer, or we’d have to go to jail. I decided to stall them a bit more, by asking to talk to my friends in the car.
I walked back to the car, to find that the shorter Spanish-speaking officer–the one who had thrown my paper work at me earlier, and had been an all-around jerk to us, was sitting in the passenger seat, leaning back and talking to my three friends in the backseat. After a few minutes, he finally got out, so I sat down, and told them what price the officers were asking for.
One of them had called a friend in Guadalajara, who suggested we take down their badge numbers and names, so I grabbed a pen and paper and got out of the car to take down their info when the English-speaking officer lowered the price to MXN$2000. I was still eager to get out of there, so I said “Lets do it” and began to pull the money out of my wallet, when the officer shouted “No! Not out here! In the car!”
James replied, loudly, “Oh…. Is this illegal?”
So I went back to the car, to wait for the officer to come over and take the money, but instead the short Spanish-speaking officer came over, and asked for my pen and paper.
I gave them to him, and he wrote down his name, and cell phone number, then handed the paper to one of the guys in the back, and said “God bless you all. And if you ever get stopped by the police in Monterrey, or have other problems here, call me and I will help,” and sent us on our way. Without paying a penny. And he returned James’ knife.
What I didn’t know, was that when he had heard James say they were missionaries, he ran over to the car, and asked everyone in the car if that was true. When they confirmed, they spent several minutes discussing church, and he told them that he’s a member of a small church in Monterrey, and asked for prayer, etc.
Apparently the “bad cop” of the good-cop/bad-cop duo developed a conscience as soon as he realized we were Christians. I only hope he’ll have a change of heart that will affect his other traffic stops, and not just those that involve other Christians.
But at any rate, we were quite grateful to get out of that situation without a fine, or being “robbed.”