Saturday, January 7, 2012

A word to the wise - cops in Mazatlan

Having always been fortunate in our travels in and around Mexico, we were surprised to encounter one of the nefarious 'policia' that one has heard of, while visiting Mazatlan. Certainly we had read about the gang related shootings in town, and we did see increased police presence in the evenings, with heavily armed policemen wearing body armor on patrol. As a result we were careful to keep the boys from venturing out on their own into town at night. This was not a great inconvenience. We had been told of friends-of-friends who were car-jacked on the main highway between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta after stopping at a 'tequila factory'. We took appropriate cautions. However, we operated in the blithe belief that the touristas, being the geese that lay the golden eggs, are not harassed by the police.

Driving into the old part of town for dinner one night, we were pulled over a local police man who was standing by the side of the road in town. The road does have a posted speed limit of 40 KM but most traffic was moving faster, and we may have been doing as much as 60 KM (about 36 miles per hour) since we were moving past a lumbering bus. Dutifully pulling over (the only choice of course) I attempted to engage in a dialog with the man to see what he wanted with us. My Spanish is spotty, and he was speaking very rapidly with no desire to try to accommodate my faltering use of the language. I came to understand that a) we were speeding; b) we would have to pay a fine, and c) he would take my husband's driver's license until we had reported to a building in town the following day to pay the fine.

Not wanting to part with the license, nor having any desire to lose the following half day finding the appropriate office to get it back, I asked if we could pay the fine now. YOU WANT TO PAY ME NOW, HERE?! Oh, oh, I thought. Now we are all going to be arrested for attempted bribery. He appeared to think about the question for about 30 seconds and then quickly agreed. The fine was 500 pesos. Making a big show of counting our pesos several times in full view of the policeman, we could only come up with 440 pesos in small bills. (We also had a 500 peso bill in a different wallet but saw no need to mention that. ) We shrugged and said that unfortunately 440 was all that we had. OK, he said. Taking the cash and returning my husband's driver's license we parted ways.

Perhaps if my Spanish had been more fluent, we could have asked for his badge number, or we could have asked to call the central number to verify the whole process. Or we could have agreed to report to whichever office he would direct us to in town the following day to settle up and retrieve the driver's license. However, our goal was to get the license back and continue on our way to dinner as fast as possible. Given this, I would advise fellow travelers to Mazatlan to make sure they carry sufficient cash to pay the 'fines' if stopped, or even better - respect the speed limit - even if it is only 24 mph and you are the only car on the road driving quite that slowly.

All in all, it was not a big inconvenience, and it is certainly not the first time we have been asked by an officer or airport worker in a foreign country for what is tantamount to a bribe. Sometimes, it is worth creating a confrontation, but often times it is not.

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