Dateline: Somewhere along the long and whining road
Driving in Mexico is neither for the faint of heart, nor the faint of wallet. I’ve long thought about writing a post about the insanely high prices one pays for tolls in this country. At this point, they’re neck-in-neck with gasoline, though the latter is gaining fast. On this trip, from Mexico City to Laredo, TX, I had planned to tot up all the tolls and report them in an appropriately aghast tone here on my blog. But given other events, I’m in no mood to tot up little, paper receipts.
I left CDMX about noon on Sunday. After a couple of hours driving, I was finally getting into open-ish road in the State of Mexico near Huehuetoca, when I came upon a Policia Estatal tailgating a big rig. At that point I noticed that I was running a little briskly so I slowed down well before I approached the cop. The truck and the cop were going almost exactly 80 KPH, about 50 MPH, right at the speed limit. So I tailed the cop at a respectful distance on this four-lane, divided highway.
In the USA, it is my policy to NEVER pass a cop, no matter how ridiculously slowly he might be going. Here? Passing cops seems to be commonplace, and I’ve started to do it myself. But I was wary. So I just stayed behind the cop. After about 10 minutes, many other cars passed this cop, fairly briskly, like at 90-100 KPH. After about a half-dozen or so had passed him, I figured I had the green light, so to speak. So I slowly passed him, maybe going 85 KPH as I did so. Then, once around the truck, I settled back to 80 KPH.
Well, no dice. The cop caught up to me and indicated that I should pull over. When he got to the window, he said I was speeding and showed me a radar gun which read 96 KPH. He said this was a very serious offense and carried a 6,000 peso fine. I said there was no way I was going that fast (I suspect the reading was from one of the other cars), and that besides, many other people had passed him going much faster. “Why me?” I asked. I noticed that his car, occupied by 2 other cops, was parked FAR behind me.
He didn’t answer my question. I continued to argue for a while, and finally said, “Fine, write me a ticket.” But at this point I was getting nervous because the entire purpose of my trip was to renew the temporary import permit of the car, and I wondered, nay, almost assumed they wouldn’t do it until I had the ticket paid off. So I asked if I could pay the ticket today, (Sunday) thinking I’d go to a magistrate or courthouse and just pay it. Then the cop said I could pay in cash there by the side of the road, but that it was a $7,000 peso fine. “Seven thousand? You just said six,” I said. “Uh, well, $6,800,” he said. It was pretty clear at this point that I was just being shaken down. So I started talking slower and dragging things out. But I was also thinking that because of the import permit issue, that he had the upper hand and that I just needed to settle this. So I said, “Well, I don’t think I even have that much. I usually use credit cards.” So I took out my wallet, and started to look through it. As it turned out, I only had about $2,000 in 500s, and he didn’t seem to be interested in small bills. We settled on the $2,000 and he said this would be entirely off the record. “Well, duh,” I thought.
So I just paid my first “mordida.” Not only was this upsetting for the obvious reasons, but you can’t drive on the autopista without cash, and I only had a few hundred pesos left. The next toll booth confirmed they don’t accept credit cards. So I ended up stopping at a half-dozen gas station plazas before finally finding an ATM so I could reload.
Jeeze, what’s a guy to do? I swear that cop ignored a good half-dozen cars whizzing by at much higher speed. Certainly I was the least of the offenders. But I’m a friggin’ foreigner, driving the wrong kind of car. On prior road trips, I had covered the rear Mercedes emblem with black electrical tape, and folded down the hood ornament. This time I had forgotten my stealth mode. I think it cost me.
Moral of this the story? I’m now only keeping a few thousand in the wallet, and any other funds in the center console or my pocket. The cop assumed (not incorrectly) that I didn’t have money in places besides my wallet, and he didn’t want to go so far as to follow me to an ATM. Anyone who has driven in Mexico knows that it’s almost impossible to obey all the various signs and directions. You can be on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly appears a stop sign for no reason. Stop, and you’re obeying the law. But you’re also likely to be rear-ended into the afterlife by a big rig. Same thing with speed limits. Suddenly a 40 KPH sign will appear as if out of nowhere, with no evident reason. Obey at your own risk. So I’ll just have to chalk it up to experience. Ni modo. I didn’t pay anywhere near $7,000 and it’s over.
Now I’m wondering what to do. As much as I want to report the mordida, to do so, I’d essentially be admitting to bribing a public official. Seems like a no-win situation, especially for a foreigner. What would you do?