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Traffic stops in Mexico: What to expect if stopped by the police

Seeing the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror is always stress-inducing. But traffic stops in Mexico, where you don’t know what to expect and you may or may not speak the language, can be even more so.

Those RVing south of the border should be aware that traffic stops in Mexico are significantly different than in the United States.

If you are stopped for a traffic violation in Mexico, you will be asked for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and possibly proof of insurance. You will also be told what you did wrong.

Of course, in the U.S. we would then be issued a ticket that requires us to pay a fine or appear in court at a later date.

Not so in Mexico! In Mexico, motorists follow the officer to the nearest police station then and there.

Once at the station you can pay the fine or fight your case, should you feel the stop was unjustified. Unlike in the states, most road infractions are quite reasonable (usually under $20).

What I just described is how traffic stops in Mexico should work according to the book.

But there are two other scenarios that you might find yourself in.

Morditas or “bribing the police”

Corruption happens everywhere in Mexico, but I like to call it “equal opportunity corruption” in that it is priced in such a way that anyone can play.

I am not saying you SHOULD attempt to bribe the police if you get pulled over by law enforcement. Doing so is illegal for both the person offering the bribe and the police officer accepting it.

That said, the practice is deeply ingrained in the culture and is done all the time.

In fact, there are corrupt police who will stop people for no other reason than to extract a mordita or bribe. (The word in English means “bite.”)

If it makes you feel any better, it regularly happens to Mexican nationals as well as gringos. And also take into consideration that the average cop in Mexico makes under $15,000 a year.

To be sure, locals on the community social media boards HATE it when anyone pays a mordita as they say it just continues the practice.

That may be true. Yet I suspect many of the loudmouths do it when they get stopped.

In the 50 years or so that I have been traveling to Baja, absolutely nothing has changed in relation to morditas. Likewise, for all practical purposes, the practice doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Twenty bucks (or its equivalent in pesos) seems the going rate for most minor infractions.  But, of course, morditas are highly negotiable. The officer will either take the bribe or not.  If not, you go to the station.

My experiences with law enforcement in Mexico

I have had two personal experiences with traffic stops in Mexico in the last six years.

The first time it was dusk. I missed a small stop sign partially hidden behind some bushes while driving my Class B motorhome. I ran the sign and nearly t-boned a cop coming the other way. Of course, I got pulled over, and rightfully so.

While I was apologizing profusely for my error to one officer, my male traveling companion was talking to another on the passenger side. Next thing I knew we were on our way.

When I inquired how, my friend informed me he asked the officer if he could “pay the fine here instead of going to the station,” and took out $20. The cop took the bill and we were on our way.

I considered it a bargain, considering my error.

The Mordita Shakedown

The second time I got stopped, it was a pure mordita shakedown and nothing more.

We were in fairly heavy traffic. I was not speeding and, in fact, could not speed. Nonetheless, I got pulled over.

The officer claimed he stopped me because I was on my phone.

I explained I was not on my phone and that the car was outfitted with a complete hands-free phone system in its dash. I had no need to ever be holding my phone.

OK, that didn’t work.

Next, he claimed he stopped me because my dogs were loose and not in cages in the car.

I was not having it. I’ve regularly seen passels of kids loose in the back of pickup trucks and the police do not bat an eye, let alone stop those vehicles. I knew a law requiring dogs to be caged in cars did not exist.

I was hungry, tired, and not in a good mood when I told him, “Enough of this. Take me to the station.”

That stopped everything.

He did not know what to do. I don’t think anyone had ever called him on it before.

He nervously told me to lead the way and he would follow me. I said I didn’t know where the station was, so I would follow him. We took off driving slowly. Very slowly. About 20 mph, until we came to a stop sign about a quarter-mile down the road.

He got out of his car, came back to mine and simply said, “Go home.”

And that was the end of it.

So if you are in the right, it can pay to politely challenge a mordita shakedown.

Remember the goal of the police officer in most mordita situations is to make a little extra cash without getting caught and with a minimum of hassle.

He is looking for frightened people willing to pay to go about their day. He does not want to explain to his commanding officer that he was trying to shake down a tourist.

The police as thieves

There is one more type of law enforcement challenge you might face in Mexico that does not happen nearly as often but is far more sinister.

I have not experienced true thuggery at the hands of Mexican police, but I know it sometimes happens. The tales usually filter onto the ex-pat community boards on Facebook.

When it happens it is almost always in remote areas, and it’s not pretty. Police have been known to steal cash, cameras, jewelry, and other valuables.

Even in these situations, however, some of those who have stood their ground have made it stop.

Taking out a cell phone to film the encounter seems to often do the trick. But if you find yourself in this type of unfortunate encounter, you will need to judge the mood and danger of the situation and your location yourself.

However, know these crimes are usually committed by lower-ranking officers and getting caught doing these things can cost them their jobs. They do not want to get caught.

There are things you can do to protect yourself from this kind of corruption and also to minimize your losses. See the tips below.

Additional tips for traffic stops in Mexico.

  • Always be respectful. This is good advice for dealing with police in any country, including the U.S. Being belligerent will never get you anywhere.
  • You should always carry your driver’s license, vehicle registration, proof of Mexican insurance, passport, visa/FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple, also known as Tourist Card) card, and personal emergency contact numbers with you when driving in Mexico.
  • Keep the bulk of your cash somewhere other than with your driver’s license. That way if you are being shaken down, you can claim that’s all you have. If they see you have more they are likely to ask for more. The same is true if you ever get robbed.
  • In some cases, drivers have reported corrupt police trying to keep their IDs. It’s not a bad idea to keep and show a laminated copy of your driver’s license. However, if the officer asks if it is a copy it is best to be honest. Lying to the police is never a good idea.
  • If you do feel you have been wronged, Sindicatura is an organization run by the Mexican government that investigates corrupt police interactions. You can find details on their website. Sometimes just mentioning this organization can be enough to get you out of a shakedown as it will show you are at least aware of some of your rights.
  • Many people on the ex-pat message boards report their shakedown experiences ended the minute they started filming the encounter and taking the officers’ photos.
  • Avoid driving at night, especially in remote areas.
  • If possible, drive in groups in remote areas.
  • You may also encounter military checkpoints from time to time while driving in Mexico. These are different than police encounters. The uniformed, machine gun outfitted soldiers may look intimidating but these are usually quick checks of ID and immigration papers (so have passports and visas handy). Sometimes they may ask to look in the vehicle.
  • If you are asked to get out of the car for an inspection, be sure to take your wallet or purse with you, along with pets. Keep an eye on the officers searching your vehicle or RV to the best of your ability.

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Uncle Swags
6 months ago

It’s Mexico, no need to read further. Enjoy it if you go, I won’t be in your way. But see if some folks need a ride back before you leave.

Brian Burry
6 months ago

Being a retired police officer, with personal knowledge of at least four separate police families being robbed BY Mexican Police, never will I subject my family or friends to ever go again to Mexico! As another reader said there’s just too much great things to see in America, to subject ourselves to that!

Richard
6 months ago

We spent 12 winters on the Baja. VERY nice people. Still have lots of Mexican friends there. Always carried an International Driver’s License(Available from AAA-$45?), so my actual license stayed in my pocket. One friend got shook down on the highway. Cop asked for $1000, settled for $50. I was rear-ended at a stop sign. Cops very nice. Sent me on my way(Very little damage. I agreed). Lost a flashlight to a military stop. Another military stop wanted a knife I had forgotten to conceal. I was able to dissuade him. My Mex. friends in Baja won’t go to the mainland, or Tijuana, too dangerous.
RVed in South Africa in 2015. Same cautions there as listed in this article.
Recently saw an article about a small town in a southern state that was shaking people down.
Humans suck.

Bill
6 months ago

Most of the stuff mentioned in the article happened to me in one traffic stop in Greybull, Wyoming in the early 1970s.
I’ve travelled in Mexico also and don’t doubt they are probably a little more corrupt than officials here, a little.

Bill
6 months ago

We have RVed the Baja end to end. Driven Mex 200 from Bahia Kino to Puerto Angel with many side trips away from the coast (Tequila, Patzcuaro, Guadalajara, etc.) Currently driving around the Gulf coast to Chetumal and along the Guatemala border to central Chiapas, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and back home to Delaware. We have been stopped many times by local cops, state police, and military. They have all been very friendly, curious, and happy to see people from the US. One guy did ask if we would buy him a cup of coffee. We gave him 20 pesos ($1).
We have never met an unfriendly Mexican.
We avoid gringo tourist areas, but we have been to all of them.
If you hang out in tourist bars, bad things happen. Have ever been out late boozing in a big US city? Same deal – stupid, except in the US, the criminals have guns.
Stay away from the border or move through it quickly. We wouldn’t go near Tijuana.
Leave your guns at home.

Jeb
6 months ago

Too much to see in the U.S. A. To put up with this kind of nonsense.

Spike
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

+1

Been to Mexico a number of times. Zero desire to go back.

. The hot hot sun. The gorgeous sea. Sorry you’re
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

I guess from your point of you that might be correct. I’ve traveled back-and-forth between Baja and the US for several years and Cheri is right about all of these things but don’t let it dissuade you from experiencing the great weather, the still unspoiled beaches, the fantastically friendly people. The hot hot sun. The gorgeous sea. Sorry you’re going to miss our gym

Dana D.
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

I agree. Why would I spend money in a country that allows illegal immigrants to pass through their country and into the USA unchecked!

Stephen d whited
3 months ago
Reply to  Dana D.

If your country didn’t let them in they won’t come. If your country can’t control the drug addicts there would be no reason to send drugs to your country. Get your country in order before you put down mine! I became a Mexican citizen because the United States walks too proudly on the earth I prefer a land far less racist and far more accepting.

Chollyb
6 months ago

We go to Mexico on a regular basis. Mostly to Puerto Peñasco. We have never had an issue with the Police. We are careful about stop signs and speed limits. This article is accurate and reflects reality. Many of the “urban legends” you will hear are just not accurate and instill fear. One comment about having clips in the RV is a real bozo no no. DO not take arms or ammo to either Mexico or Canada.

Ed K
6 months ago

And the reason I won’t ever dream of going to Mexico. I saw to many Sailors and Soldiers getting fined in Tijuana for the exact amount of cash they had minus the bus fare to get back to the base. No wonder the people south of the border want to come here. I just hope they don’t bring the Bribery culture here.

Bill
6 months ago
Reply to  Ed K

News Flash ! It’s already here. I wonder what some of us always open-minded RVers would think if Mexico turned all the RVs away at the border in an effort to stop the North Americanization of Mexico. (Los Angeles Bay instead of Bahia de Los Angeles? Sheesh!)

Bud
6 months ago

One of the reasons I’ll never go to Mexico. Went to TJ as a kid and had a good time. No way will I ever venture there again.

John
6 months ago

One other problem in Mexico…..criminals who impersonate the police….this can be extremely dangerous. Tijuana is often rated as the most dangerous city in the world (that is not in a war zone). Multiple murders, assaults, robberies. You might think that’s a real cop pulling you over….but it might not be!

Dan Kalm
6 months ago

Made the terrible mistake of leaving a clip of bullets in the Jeep and got pulled over. That one was costly and involved ak’s pointed at me for an hour.

Dana E
6 months ago

Nothing that I’ve read in this article is a surprise, but it is good to read real experience and how it was handled. What surprises me, is that anyone is willing to risk an RV trip into Mexico. A cruise stop, or a flight destination town (Acapulco, Cancun, etc) is one thing. But, driving from Point A to Point B in a foreign land, where corruption runs rampant amongst those that are sworn (actually not sure about that) to protect, is not worth the risk to me & my family. After 4 years of RVing, we are only about 1/3rd of our way thru our bucket list. We fortunately have plenty to see in the U.S.

. The hot hot sun. The gorgeous sea. Sorry you’re
6 months ago
Reply to  Dana E

Corruption is there but in no way does it run rampant. Also the poverty here does run rampant so when the occasional coins disappear from the car or some items I made like disappear from the yard, I think about the people who are taking that and how hard it must be for them. Somehow we can recover.

Dave
6 months ago

Gosh its nice to live in the USA. We should stop complaining about every little thing

Spike
6 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Dave…so right you are!

I have been fortunate to have traveled to many countries on five continents. While I have mostly enjoyed the travel, I have always been very happy when my feet were firmly planted back on U.S. soil! That said, if I couldn’t live in the US I would probably pick Australia or Canada.

Between the US and Canada, I’ll never run out of great places to go.