Soy ‘El Extranjero’
A Story About the Police and Human Decency by a Gringo in Mexico
[This story was originally published here.]
Today, we 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.
Here is my story:
My wife and I live here in Mexico. Currently, we live in a small town in the state of Morelos. My wife is from Mexico City and her parents still live there. Today is Mother’s day. Well, technically, in Mexico, it is tomorrow.
Nevertheless, a Sunday visit with the kids — 4 dogs and a cat — was our plan for the day. We make the 1 ½ hour drive only to have the police stop beside us at a light a few minutes away from our final destination. I had the windows down and the officer tells me that I don’t have a front license plate.
I don’t panic and simply tell him that my truck is registered in Florida. The license plate obviously says that, so I explain further to him that in Florida they only give us one license plate that we put on the back of the car. I’m not sure if it was my rough Spanish or talking through a mask, but he just repeated that I needed a front license plate.
My wife then explains things a bit clearer. 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 green light and we were getting 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 get 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 look at them and talk amongst themselves for a bit.
Then they look at us again and say, ‘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 now spoke to us. They were no longer police officers informing a foreigner of local laws. They were getting ugly and threatening with how they were speaking to us.
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 of behavior. Especially when you consider how people in Mexico drive.
- Red lights mean 5 more cars can 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 is literally done by the police themselves.
- Just a general attitude of selfishness and entitlement like ‘I always have the right of way,’ carried by almost everyone…
Of all the legitimate traffic dangers in this city, were they threatening me over an alleged missing license plate? I could see if I had no license plate. (Kind of.) But just a copy of the plate for the front warranted such hostile nastiness?
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. ‘Yeah. When in Rome. Whatever. Use tradition as an excuse to be a piece of shit, dirtbag. Now, f*** off. Gracias.’
But no, this wasn’t just some backward and corrupt tradition of doing things at this point. They were a special breed of humans and they did something I have never understood very well. They showed they were devoid of human decency.
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 would always just say, ‘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 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;’
Now, I do realize this is legal in Mexico. A parking violation can result in being impounded. I’m not talking about 1000s 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 f***ing danger to society for driving with only one license plate? Where in the f*** is the connection there? Every country has f***ed up laws, and any thinking man knows that laws do not define morality, but this was next-level shit.
I started to feel like Meursault from Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Truthfully, I always have to some degree. Yet, looking at the absurdity of this law combined with the men before us enforcing it for their own personal gain, I just couldn’t overcome and simply accept the hypocrisy. The normal explanations fell far too short to provide solace to what was happening. I’ve always been one to stand on the outside of normality, but, at this moment, I was infuriated by the pinched morality of these false heroes with their narrow concerns of money, ego, and opportunity.
It was almost as if on cue our dogs started barking. I won’t lie, it felt good.
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 and the two ‘servants of society’ were calling their truck to come to impound our car. (I’m still laughing about how ridiculous this concept is, hours after the event is 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 gets through to a family lawyer who she puts on speakerphone to speak to the transit officers. The lawyer explains 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 legally had Mexican insurance and legal importation papers. Surely, if we had been illegal, we would have been told by now.
Thankfully, the transit officers didn’t have legal right to take our car and I could see they didn’t like this. Somehow, the whole situation became personal. They wanted to hurt us. I could see in their faces they were on the ropes and swinging blindly, more for pride than 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.’ [Still laughing.]
‘That’s the law.’ The leader of the two said. The other was a bit nervous at this point.
The lawyer explained to him that ‘the law for the front license plate only applies to cars registered in the city.’
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 US 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 and walked to where we were on the street. They spoke kindly to him, 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 of ‘I’m going to take advantage of this fucking 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 f***’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 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 the society.
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.
Even if your job is to find traffic violations to help make the roads a safer and more efficient transit system, you are still dealing with human lives. Shouldn’t one ask him or herself, ‘Is what I’m doing making my community a happier and more secure place?’
I realize how naïve it may seem to ask such a thing. But shouldn’t we? Ask ourselves these things? Let’s forget about asking others to do it. Just ourselves. Our own integrity demands we do the right thing, even if others don’t. Are we doing the right thing? Perhaps naivety is what we need right now. A child’s innocent ‘Why?’ to the way things are. To the way we are.
I’m probably just digging too deep into a surface-level incident, so I’m gonna stop here. But let me add a bit of practical (and hopeful) information at the end here.
As far as Mexican police — especially these meter maids — even knowing the law better than them isn’t enough. Keep the number for a local lawyer and Internal Affairs — Unidad de Contacto del Secretario SSCCDMX: 55 5208 9895 — ready 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. 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, today, I sincerely felt that I am only free enough to realize that I am still in a cage, but not free enough to always fly out of it.
(Let’s call it an epilogue.)
A Final Note:
After the event 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.
It feels whiny and juvenile 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 at the moment. But if Mexico really wants to get rid of corruption, it must get rid of the laws that allow these 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 if in extreme cases of immediate and very real danger, should they separate someone from their vehicle.
Those are my thoughts. And this was my story. Hope you had a laugh and perhaps a thoughtful moment. Good luck, Mexico. Good luck to the immigrants who love Mexico and its people and want to call this place home.