In the 6 months we’ve been on adventure through Mexico and Central America, we’ve been stopped plenty of times by police and federals. Here we go… prepare to do some bullshitting and strategize how not to get suckered into paying a bribe. In Honduras, on two separate occasions we were motioned to the side of the road by Federal police. For what? Nothing obvious, but assumed the obligatory permit/driver license checks followed with some lame excuse why we were going to get a ticket. Instead, much to our surprise, on both occasions we weren’t even asked to present paperwork. Instead, their hands reached out to shake ours and welcome us to their country. Wow, are you frikken kidding me? This is awesome and we were impressed. They were more interested in our journey, where we live and how much our bikes cost. How cool is that? Of course now that we’ve made friends, I take the opportunity to ask them to mount my bike for a picture or two inviting them to hold their machine guns a little higher for more dramatic effect. (By the way, we don’t have a lot of police or federal photos because they always make us turn our cameras off)
We were stopped numerous times in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Belize as well. Expecting the worse, they turned out to be nothing more than inconvenient, but legit, stops to check our paperwork. We were allowed to proceed unmolested once we were validated. Is it just luck or have cops become less corrupt? All we’ve heard about police was they were dirty and throwing a few bucks at ‘em would get us out of situation quicker. Either way, we were proud to have traveled so far without a ticket or paying a bribe. Until Mexico. Beautiful Mexico, what’s not to love about it? Our favorite country in Latin America; depending on where you’re at (like non touristy areas) still feels like the wild west and seemingly anything goes. It’s a gorgeous country, fantastic (and cheap) food, and awesome people who can fix or make just about anything. You’re in the middle of bum fuck Egypt and out of nowhere a dude miraculously wanders out of the hills with a donkey in tow. Then there’s the ice cream man pushing his cart on a lonely stretch of road with no town in site for 10 miles. Who is he selling his ice cream to and more importantly how the hell did he get out there and where is he going? Things that make you go…. Hmmmmmmmmmm.
But I digress; this story is more about the shady side of Mexico and its corrupt local cops. In round one, we made it through Mexico as we headed south without incident. Round two, northbound, we weren’t so lucky. When driving in Mexico you have to understand no one seems to pay attention to the rules or speed limits. Driving here is an adventure in itself and we jokingly comment on “safety last’ regularly.
Driving up western coast road we found ourselves in Acapulco, which has lost a significant amount of tourism due to severe drug cartel violence. I never had any desire to go there, mostly because I envisioned it as a run-down vacation has-been of the 60s and 70s. But low and behold, it’s a gorgeous city with a stunning bay and endless coastline, dotted with plenty of swank restaurants, upscale hotels and tons of things to see and do. I’m glad we stopped for a night and definitely want to go back some day. Because of its reputation for violence and cartel activity, Acapulco is diligently working on shifting its image to revive tourism and attract people to the area.
So back to the cop story. We stopped to take some photos at an overlook, and then pulled out across a double yellow line pretty quickly as there was a lot of fast moving traffic. As we situated into our lanes another motorcyclist was passing and trying to have a conversation at the top of his lungs “where are you from, where are you going” etc. Within 40 seconds, two cops that happened to be on the side of the road were waving their hands frantically and motioning us to pull over.This stop caught me off guard as we were accelerating fairly fast. With the other motorcyclist next to us trying to talk, I didn’t notice the cops at first and Tad’s brake lights were slamming on. Danger alert as I’m braking really hard to avoid crashing into Tad, the other motorcyclist whizzes past shouting “good luck!” Yeah, thanks buddy.
We pull over; the cops ask for our licenses. We are being stopped for being dangerous and reckless by crossing a double yellow line. Are you fucking kidding me?? They nearly created a pile up by making us brake so damn hard and swerve to pull over. And speaking of danger, apparently motorcyclists with their entire family, including a baby, speeding down the parkway without helmets isn’t dangerous? What the hell. The cops didn’t speak any English; I speak a little Spanish so communication wasn’t ideal. They were insistent that we had broken the law and we were getting a ticket. Tad was handling it his usual way which was trying to logically reason with them, but they weren’t backing down. We had a choice to pay the ticket there (bribe) or go to the station and pay more.
Meanwhile, I’m pulling a trick out of my hat that our friend Mark from Mexico City told us about. So I go to my tank bag, get out my iPhone (which has no phone service in Mexico) and my Mexican phone. I pretend to be looking up phone numbers and advise the cop I am going to call my friend at the Dept. of Tourism. I told him this wasn’t good for tourism in Acapulco and getting hassled by police was a reason why people don’t come here anymore. While I’m pretending to dial and get the phone to my ear, he says “let me talk to him!”. I shook my head no. That seemed to work as his attitude shifted. But first we’d have to endure a little more of him throwing his authority around. He then said Tad was being disrespectful and not abiding the laws, but I, however, was being respectful. Ok, so now I see a soft spot and began to pour on how respectful I was of him, and clearly Tad just didn’t understand the law. I advised we were just passing through and wanted no problems. He rattled a little more about the respect thing, only this time in English. All of sudden he speaks English! He then handed us both our documents and let us go. As we geared up, they pulled out, across the same double yellow line that we were stopped for crossing. And that’s the way it goes down folks! What a bunch of bullshit. The stop took about 30 minutes.
Our second police stop was in Topolabambo, where we were to catch the ferry to Baja later that night. We had some time to kill before we boarded and decided to drive to the next town to grab some dinner. Out of nowhere the 4 cops in a truck pull up behind us waving us over to the side of the road. Really? Why the hell they need 4 cops in one rig is beyond me, but what happens is one does the talking and the minion others just nod their heads in agreement. This time it was for speeding and for some reason they were dialed into me, although they asked for both our licenses. Pulling off my helmet and taking off my jacket, I had hoped maybe being a female with big boobs might work on my behalf. No such luck. We gave them AAA international driver’s licenses, never our regular licenses. This is because in some case if they hold your license ransom, we can leave it behind and not worry about it not having another. It expires next month anyway. I disagreed we were speeding; the head cop pulled out the radar gun which showed us going 74 in a 60 km zone. The others nodded in agreement. I suspect we were speeding, but why in the hell should we believe them? More importantly EVERYONE was speeding, so why pull us over?
I pulled up my GPS, and pointed to my average moving speed which was 32 mph (in kms about 50?). Although this was total bullshit because it doesn’t mark my actual speed once I’ve stopped. I hoped being an electronic satellite devise they would buy into it. They seemed a bit puzzled, but still were adamant I was speeding according to their radar gun. The ticket was 1200 pesos, which is $100 US. They then advised they were going to charge Tad $1200 as well. Insert eyes rolling here!
We now had a choice of paying it there (bribe) or pay at the station. Tad said fine, we’ll go to the station. Having both our licenses, they walked over to my bike with a screw driver and proceeded to try to take my license plate, saying they would hold the license and plate until we returned. Oh Hell no!! We both threw our arms up in in protest and said in no uncertain terms they were not going to take our license plates. Then they pulled out a handful of licenses plates to show they had taken from other motorists and could take ours as well. This is when I began to worry that we might end up in a predicament that would make us miss our ferry, which we’d already paid $300 for. (ps. We did see the same cop later that evening removing a license from a local guy’s car!)
Threatening to call the Dept. of Tourism card didn’t work on these guys, so I called our friend Adriana in Cuernavaca to ask her if she knew if it was legal for them to take the plates. She essentially said no but that local cops don’t go by the rules so we’d just have to try to talk our way out of it. She then asked to talk with them. Speaking fluent Spanish I thought she might be able to reason with them, but unfortunately, after 10 minutes talking, when I got back on the line with her she said they weren’t backing down and we’d have to pay. Otherwise, they were going to take our plates and we wouldn’t be able to get them back until the following day, or possibly two. Our other option, was we could each pay $600 pesos and be done.
Tad was adamant against paying anything roadside. I was concerned they would take our plates and we’d be stuck overnight or longer. Plus, if we did go to the station would it really cost us $1200 each ($200 total). At that point, they had written me a ticket, but not Tad, and said they were going to write him up as well. We continued to play dumb tourist, not understanding what they were saying. They scribbled on paper the numbers 1200 x 2 or 600 x 2, meaning pay the 600 each and we’ll be done here.
While they weren’t looking, I pulled all my money except $200 pesos and stashed it away. Tad was sitting on the road next to the bike at this point, ready to wait them out. We had been roadside for over an hour and I could see they were getting tired of us. I said I didn’t have any money except $200 pesos, having spent it all on ferry tolls. They kept shaking their heads that I needed to cough up $600 each. By this point they had handed Tad his license back. We stood around the bikes mulling around, they went back to the truck to sit. Finally, after a few more minutes, they summoned me to their truck waving my license out the window. They tried one last time to get $600 pesos each, I produced a $200 pesos bill ($16 US) telling them this was all I had. He took my $200 and gave me back my license. Total time 1.30 hours. They didn’t get much $$ but I’m sure it paid for a six pack of beer and a round of tacos.
Feeling deflated that in over a year of travel, we had, or I had (Tad was pretty set against it) caved and shelved out $16 bribe. It was either that or be detained for who know how long, and that just wasn’t worth it to me. Sadly, we have fallen victim and are guilty of keeping feeding the corruption. But as one of my friends commented, where else can you get out of speeding ticket for $16. Good point!
Needless to say, when you’re in the heat of the moment it’s not a pleasant experience and your first instinct is to get out of the situation asap, especially when you’re asked to sign a ticket thats written in a different language and you have no idea what it says or what your admitting to. Not such a good idea.
It’s not the money, it’s the principal. Next time, when we don’t have the risk of missing a ferry, we’ll be waiting it out.