Traficantes | Mexico | Living in Mexico


The first time we drove to San Miguel de Allende from California, I chose to enter Mexcio at the El Paso-Ciudad Juaréz crossing. Our route down Mex. 45 took us through the thoroughly corrupt and miserable town of Gomez Palacio. The first time one of their traficantes (traffic cops) stopped us (although we had committed no infraction) I was able to talk our way out of it. The second time, a fat tamarindo and his mustachioed, skinny little partner, riding tandem on a smoking, grossly overloaded Honda 90, waved me over.

(Tamarindo is a derisive term Mexicans apply to traffic cops who wear tan uniforms; the color of tamarind pods.)

While the skinny guy stood on the street as lookout (in case some real cops came along), the fat one reached his hands into the passenger side window, four fingers raised on each hand and said, "Ochociento pesos." 800 pesos. About $80 U. S. at that time. Nothing about any violation. Nothing about how we'd have to go to court. Just "Ochocientos pesos."

Being new to driving in Mexico, and wanting nothing more than to get the hell out of Gomez Palacio, I negotiated a "fine" of "doscientos pesos:" about $20.

Today I don't pay bribes. Extortionist policemen usually give up if you're firm in refusing. Just demand your ticket. They hate that because they can't be on the road extorting others if they have to testify, so they let you go with a "warning."

According to one study, Mexico has about 350,000 police officers divided into a bewildering array of about 3,000 different forces, characterized by "their corruption, growing militarization, poor preparation and ineffectiveness in the face of increasingly severe crime."

During the time I have lived in this country, I've seen signs that the situation is improving. I have seen little evidence that San Miguel's traffic police are corrupt, even though they are paid poorly.

Our police received spiffy new uniforms a couple of years ago. Here's a couple of patrolmen modeling theirs.


Kind of looks like they're posing for GQ.

Every morning at 7:00 AM, our force of traficantes forms up to receive their daily briefing and instructions.


The ratio of three jefes (chiefs) to twelve cops seems about right...

The briefing takes about a half hour. Sometimes it is a little wearing.


Note that the officer to the woman's left is wearing a "diamond" earring. Have dress codes of U. S. police forces become similarly relaxed?

After getting their marching orders, they... uh... march.

The marching ends with a little playfulness. Then it's time for... a coffee break.


It's a little disconcerting at first; police officers walking the streets carrying coffee or cokes, smoking cigarettes. You'll see the same in Paris except that there, they drink and smoke in threes, reducing police coverage by 67%. It's a union thing.

You may not have noticed, but in none of these pictures do you see any of the traficantes carrying firearms. That's because they're not armed. We have a different police force for crime deterrence. They get to carry guns. And there's yet another force for crime investigation. All three departments' jurisdictions overlap with various state and federal police forces. You can be assured that if you bring an issue to a policeman, he'll tell you it belongs to a different department.

Lack of firearms shows you how far down the pecking order traficantes are. But all is not lost. The traffic cops do wear holsters...


... containing pliers and screwdrivers. Phillips and flat. Here's why:

If a Mexican driver got a written ticket for illegal parking, he'd never pay the fine, nor would any jurisdiction in Mexico have the capability to collect. There's no computers, no linking of municipalities with the DMV. Even if someone in law enforcement actually managed to catch up with a scofflaw and collect, he'd probably just pocket the fines, anyway.

(Nobody in the Mexican government would ever authorize a policeman to handle money. When you get your dirver's license, you have to take the appropriate forms to a bank, get a receipt, and take it back to the DMV to get your license. Any other way, license fees would never reach the government.)

So how San Miguel, and every other city and county in Mexico forces car owners to pay their fines is to remove their license plates. That's why cops have tools on their belts. (I have fantasies of screwdriver quick-draw contests.)


Here a traficante removes the license plates of this double-parked truck while the owner looks on. The owner arrived just as the policeman finished writing out the ticket. Fishing out his wallet, he offered the cop $50 pesos to forget about the violation. Being one of our honest San Miguel cops, he refused the bribe. (Or maybe he refused it because I was standing there with a camera. Whatever.)

A friend of mine told me he tried to talk (or bribe) his way out of a parking ticket. The cop took his plates in the end, and my friend told him he'd move his illegally parked car right away. The cop told him he could stay there because he had already received a ticket, so he was good for the whole day. Think about it. My friend only had one set of license plates.

You have to redeem your plates within a couple of days or the fine goes up. But until you do, you can park anywhere you want, because they can't give you another ticket. If you're stopped while driving without your plates, your car may be impounded, so people are pretty good about paying up. Eventually.

The system for identifying frequent violators is simple. When your plates arrive at the Presidencia, a clerk writes the date on the back with an indelible laundry marker. If your plates arrive with one or more dates written on them, the fine is higher. Of course, everyone knows to remove the dates with fingernail polish remover. There's a workaround for everything in Mexico.

On the highways, traffic laws are enforced by state or federal police. I found this picture of some federales on the internet.


Federales are notoriously corrupt, so letting them sleep on the job actually reduces the crime rate, probably.

We expats complain about the police. Hell, Mexicans complain about the police. Many are extortionists. But most are good guys, just trying to support their families. We all need to be thankful that we don't have Russian police.


I'll take our traficantes over these guys any time.