Our first police shakedown

Luckily for us, Werner from Restaurante Tropicana gave us very good advice concerning getting stopped by the police. We have been on the road for a month now, and we have not had a single incident with the police so far. Our luck changed as we drove out of a Pemex gas station and onto the main highway out of Acapulco heading for Taxco. A police car pulled us over, and Kristin handed him her license (big mistake), as she was told to do. The officer said we drove through a red light when we pulled out of the gas station. He pulled out his pad and pen, and told us we could get the license back when we paid the fine at the police station after 4 pm. He showed us the fine amount, printed on the back of the ticket: $160. And in broken English explained repeatedly that the ticket, the license, and the photographs from the traffic camera proving our red light infringement would all be available after 4 pm at the police station. I thought we were screwed. I was looking through our guide as we drove, so I thought we did accidentally drive through a red light, and now we were going to have to pay for another expensive hotel room in Acapulco along with this huge fine.

Werner and our guide books pointed out that most police officers that pull you over will try to get you to pay them money directly on the spot, which of course goes directly into their pocket. Werner also told us that every police car in Acapulco will have “Tourists pay no fines” written in Spanish on the trunk. However, this officer was slowly writing out a ticket, and telling us we would have to pay the ticket at the police station. However, Kristin knew she did nothing wrong and proceeded to follow Werner’s advice. Werner told us that the only way to avoid paying bribes to the police was to stand your ground. Kristin strongly insisted that she did not run a red light, and demanded her license back. The officer insisted she did, and kept saying the pictures will show this proof when she went to the station. After this went on for a minute or so, the officer came to a solution to our problem – we could pay him on the spot! At this point, Kristin knew he was trying to bribe us, and firmly (if not a little loudly) stated, “We are not paying you, give me my license back NOW. We are leaving.” I thought for a moment that we may have to drive off without Kristin’s license. Kristin’s demand ended up working just like Werner told us it would. After telling us to pay him directly a few more times and seeing us not change our stance, he apologized for his poor English, handed back her license, shook both of our hands with a big grin on his face.

We realized later that we had fallen into the perfect trap – an out of country vehicle driving out of town! No more than 5 minutes later, we had another cop pull us over, and tell Kristin she ran two red lights. This time we were prepared, and handed him a photocopy of Kristin’s passport. He started saying something to us in Spanish, we think he was telling us we must hand over our passports. Every time he said something, Kristin would just say no entiendo (I don’t understand) over and over. He pulled out his cell, and said he was calling the chief of police. I think Kristin’s sarcasm may have been lost on him when she snarled ‘you do that.’ We shrugged our shoulders, and looked around bored. After a few minutes he came back to the car, handed back the passport photocopy, and told us to slow down.

We now really understand how this works. If you are at a border crossing or military checkpoint, you will be asked for your passport, and you can hand it over. Even though the military checkpoints are very intimidating with their automatic weapons and sandbag bunkers, we found every one of them to be very professional if not friendly, apologizing for searching the car. We do keep money or small valuables with us during the search just in case. The local police seems a different story; they will act tough, try to tell you about a traffic violation, and attempt to extract a bribe. Do not give them any documents, only photocopies. If they keep insisting on seeing originals, tell them you will drive your car (don’t go in their car) to the police station and pull them out there. Don’t show any fear and stand your ground. Kristin pointed out that she “would never speak that way to a police officer in the U.S”.

Thanks again Werner, you really saved us on that one. Since you said you hate computers and never use them, we are going to send you a thank you postcard. It will have to be addressed to Werner, Restaurante Tropicana, Plazoleta La Quebrada, Acapulco; who knows if it will find you there.