On a recent crossing from Mexico back to the U.S., I was stopped for an alleged traffic infraction in Tijuana. The police ended up taking me to an ATM, where I withdrew $500 in cash. Then they let me go. What could I have done?
This situation is maddening at best and frightening at worst, and it is one of the dirty little secrets of travel. Extortion of visitors happens more often than is reported. It's not confined to Mexico, of course, but because so many U.S. residents cross the Mexican border so often, whether to enjoy Baja's beaches or to shop, we might get our turn on the horns of this dilemma.
And some people worry that new Mexican traffic laws, which went into effect this summer and allow drivers to be cited for, among other things, not wearing seat belts, for talking on cell phones or for having windows tinted too darkly, will increase their chances of a fraudulent ticket. The new laws, they think, are just another vehicle for officers to supplement their incomes.
The problem is so prevalent in Mexico that the U.S. State Department's consular information sheet acknowledges it: "In some instances, Americans have become victims of harassment and extortion by Mexican law enforcement and other officials. ... In some cases, assailants have been wearing full or partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating some elements of the police might be involved. ... Tourists should be wary of persons representing themselves as police officers or other officials. When in doubt, ask for identification."
So how do you protect yourself if you get stopped for an "infraction"?
"Try to get the name and badge number and specifics" about the officer, said Michele Bond, deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizen Services. (This also might be a use for the camera on your cell phone.) The traveler also should ask for a copy of the citation, she said.
You also can offer to accompany the officer to the police station to settle the matter. This is said to discourage a phony citation.
If you're in a hurry, you might be tempted to offer a "donation" to the "Policemen's Fund."
Before you do, remember that trying to bribe an officer is a crime, so reconsider trying to buy your way out of trouble. That's one purchase it might not pay to make south of the border.