An Incident While Traveling to Mérida | Mexico | Living in Mexico

An Incident While Traveling to Mérida

These state police officers are standing beside their cruisers at a toll gate on the highway to Mexico City. What are they doing there? Are they watching for speeders? Are they protecting the toll takers? Are they guarding against terrorists?


No, they are not. What they are doing is lying in wait. They are waiting for a nice fat fish to swim by.

Mexican drivers call these cops tiburones (sharks). They are criminals.

We encountered them on our way to the airport in Mexico CIty. Our friend, Elena, a bilingual woman born and raised in Mexico City is chauffeuring us in her van. She knows how cops work in Mexico. Good thing, too.

A few miles past the toll gate, two cops pull us over. It seems we have committed a violation. Our minivan's license plate number ends in a seven (or maybe it's an eight). It is illegal to drive in Mexico CIty on a Tuesday if your license plate ends in a seven or an eight. Really.

[Well, it's not entirely crazy. Mexico City does have a major congestion problem, and world-class air pollution. In an attempt at mitigation, driving is prohibited one day a week. Your no-drive day is determined by the final digit of your license plate. A seven or eight means never on Tuesday. I'll leave the practicality and effectiveness of this system to your imagination.]

The policeman tells Elena she has broken the law. She may not drive her vehicle any farther. We must all get out on the narrow shoulder of the Interstate Highway, where speeders are screaming by unmolested. The car will be impounded. Elena must return to Mexico CIty tomorrow, pay her fine and the tow charges, and then she can recover her car. On Wednesday. When it's legal to drive it.

Elena and the policeman engage in a lengthy discussion. It becomes evident this stop isn't about license plates. Nobody impounds cars for driving on a no-driving day. People aren't left standing on an interstate highway to find their way home.

The cop asks Elena to step out of the car. (He doesn't want Jean and me to witness the conversation.) Elena instinctively responds that her mother told her never to get out of the car if stopped—a brilliant riposte. In Mexico, Mom's law trumps State law every time.

Now going on the offensive, she asks the cop for his name. He replies with a grin, "Augustín Lada." Augustín Lada is the name of an enormously famous singer. The cop, whose badge and name tag are not visible, isn't going to identify himself. Game over man, game over.

Since no bribe is forthcoming, the cop tells Elena that, seeing as she's willing to drive back to San Miguel, he's gonna let her off with a warning. What a nice guy. So we're not going to be fined, and the car's not going to be impounded. But how are we going to get to the airport?

We turn around and return to the toll gate where I took the picture of the tiburones. Elena finds a policeman who is not a state cop (he's wearing a different color uniform) and asks him about the no-drive rule.

What a surprise: Yes, she cannot drive in Mexico City today, but no, the road we are on is not controlled. It's OK to drive on it any day. The State Police had no right to stop her. She describes them. He says he knows who they are and will report them. Sure he will.

Elena drives through the toll gate in the homeward direction. Just for the hell of it, she asks the toll taker what numbers are prohibited today. He tells her three and four. Hmmm. Who should we believe?

She decides to turn back toward Mexico City, taking a different highway, one she's taken many times without ever being stopped. After a few miles, we come to another toll gate. Some Federales are parked there. She asks one about the no-drive rule.

He asks, "What day is it?" (A crack interrogator, he is).

She tells him, "Tuesday."

He says, "Wait a minute." Then he gets on his radio. He doesn't know the rule and he has to ask his jefe. Finally he announces, "Seven and eight. You can't drive if your plate is seven or eight." All right then.


Just past the toll gate, on the Mexico City side, there's a taxi stand. For $300 pesos ($27 US), the taxista will take us the rest of the way to the airport. His license plate doesn't end in seven or eight. So we thank Elena and get in the cab. At this point, the limited-access highway ends. The road becomes a wide surface street; six center lanes for through traffic, and six outer lanes for local drivers. Immediately we see a sign:


Yep. You can drive any day of the week if you stay in the center lanes. Because, how in the hell would you get to the airport if you couldn't? I look at the cars around me. Sure enough, about 20% have plates ending in seven or eight.

Nearer to the airport, traffic grinds to a halt. Our driver pulls off onto side streets and winds through small commercial districts, trying to get around the jam. In the twenty minutes it takes to reach our destination, I see lots of sevens and eights: drivers ignoring the "no driving today" rule, driving anywhere they damn well please, whenever they please. Of course.