Mexican police are much different from their counterparts to the North. In truth, they are generally more laid back and friendly. They take themselves -- and you -- less seriously, and, in the main, they are less meddlesome and authoritarian than the average patrolman or state trooper in the States or Canada.
Naturally, there are exceptions, and a lot depends on who YOU are and HOW you are conducting yourself. In the past, police shake downs were reported from time to time, usually a routine stop in which the subject was threatened with arrest unless he or she paid a “fine” on the spot. The amount of the fine was coincidentally the same amount as the currency the subject was carrying. Part of the problem was drug use by individual police. Though the officers are subject to drug testing, the police unions and the bureaucracy made it difficult to clean out the drug users, who needed to supplement their salaries with extra contributions from the public. For example, on January 26, 2005, the newspaper Novedades de Acapulco announced "Police Rob Foreign Tourist" in an article by Jose Luis Rodriguez Alcaraz. In this case three policeman were reported as having stopped a tourist walking alone on Acapulco's main drag and relieved him of $300 dollars.
Americans who live in Acapulco can report that they have been stopped by the police, but were not robbed. Since 2008, with a new administration in the city, complaints like this have subsided considerably. Either life is now much safer, or the city has better "damage control" than before. The story above contains two bright spots: The first is that it made the front page of the paper, meaning it was a news event, not a common occurrence. The other is that the tourist made a complaint, and disciplinary procedures were triggered, as appropriate. Tourism is big business in Acapulco, and the last thing the city fathers want is that sort of press.
Most of the bad police stories reported back in the States take place along the northern border and in Mexico City. They are worlds apart from Acapulco. Even today, however, common criminals may don police uniforms to prey on the public. For this reason, tourists are often advised to avoid the police, especially at night, and particularly in areas where tourists may be carrying lots of cash. If a policeman arrives in a private vehicle or in a police patrol vehicle that has its vehicle number covered over, take this is a sure sign of trouble. If you ever encounter such a problem, try to discover the vehicle number or license plate for purposes of a complaint. The Tourism Director of Acapulco (Director General de Turismo) has the responsibility to receive all such complaints from visitors. The telephone number is 440-7010, extensions 4740, 4950. The office is on Calle Hornitos s/n, (Zona Militar) Centro, 39300 Acapulco, Gro., México.
In Acapulco, as in the rest of Mexico, police don't always command respect, and their word is not taken as gospel, the way it is in the US. The reason is that some policemen in Mexico are known to become more flexible if a little money enters the conversation. One can't begin to talk about the police without first mentioning the term most widely associated with them - "la mordida" (lah mohr DEE dah), literally “the bite.”
A mordida is a small bribe you pay the police to let you off the hook for some minor infraction. Basically you offer to buy them "a refresco" (soft drink) for maybe $50 pesos. By most US standards this is corruption, but the system works very well and greatly uncomplicates the life of the person stopped and the officer who would otherwise have to issue a ticket. If you are unfamiliar with the routine, however, it can be distressing.
What to Do if Stopped by the Police
By and large, Mexican cops are as interested as you are in avoiding a hassle. They are happy with a small bribe to make everything go away, unless you have done something really serious. The officer might even threaten you with a major hassle, like impounding your car, or taking your driver's license to some location you’ve never heard of. All this can be intimidating. But: Always remember to be friendly and agreeable. This is the phase where you are being softened up. The wrong thing is to get pissy, and the really wrong thing is to become indignant and accuse him of corruption. The mega-wrong thing is to tell him -- in case he did not already know it -- that you are an American and come from the most powerful country on earth, blah, blah, blah ...
It is always best to go with the flow. Be "all sweetness and light." Do not act terrified. Fear makes the "mordida" go up in price. If you have a little cash in your pocket, just pay the mordida. Don't get upset. Add the experience to your collection of colorful stories. If you speak Spanish, you can try to bargain a little. If you are not dealing with the federal police and the accusation (true or not) is minor, the mordida should be somewhere between 50 and 200 pesos.
The key to entering the negotiation phase are three words "échame la mano" (EH-cha-meh lah MAH-noh), which literally means "give me a hand," but is more akin to "help me out" or "give me a break." This code phrase is universally understood to convey that you know the score.
If You Need Police Help
The police are not around to help you handle the minor crises of life. Don't call the cops for some small problem. If you need a police report for your insurance company in the event something is stolen, you can go down to the station and get one with no hassle. There is also a special cadre of "tourist police" whose function it is to help you out as well.
If you need the police for something serious, they are perfectly willing to help you. The first step is to go to the police station and file a complaint, a process known as "levantar una demanda." Don't expect lightning fast response times. The paperwork can take days, even weeks before anything happens. A bit of money for "refrescos" will always help shuffle your case to the top of the pile.
Types of Police in Acapulco
You might encounter several different types of police, and their jurisdictions often overlap. At all levels of government, police forces are classified in one of two categories:
“Judicial” police are subject to the federal or state Attorney General and, like sheriffs in the United States, are executors of the judicial authority of the court system. Their job is usually law enforcement after an offense has been committed.
"Preventive" police are engaged in crime prevention and public safety, and thus are more likely to be seen in patrols or in public places.
This distinction, once very clear, has become cloudier in recent years. Acapulco, like all local governments in the Mexican Republic, enjoys a public security system with a confusing number of layers and variations, both of the “judicial” and “preventive” varieties.
Federal. At the top are the Federal Police, known popularly as “federales.” They usually wear black uniforms and, in their “judicial” function, are responsible to the nation’s Attorney General (Procurador General de la República). Another federal agency in law enforcement is the AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigaciones), very similar to the FBI in the United States, and also part of the Mexican equivalent of the Department of Justice. These cadres are highly-trained and professional, with jurisdiction throughout the whole country. A subdivision of the "federales" – of the “preventive” variety – acts as the transport police within the national highway system. They are found mainly on the federal highway that connects Acapulco with Chilpancingo, Cuernavaca and Mexico City to the north and up and down the coast. Occasionally they can be seen along the Costera Miguel Alemán, as it qualifies as part of the federal highway system, but mainly they operate outside the area of Acapulco proper.
Military. Mexico has an active military, and the military police are in evidence in Acapulco, especially because it is a port of entry and also because it hosts a naval base. The naval base also supports a detachment of marines. The military police are most often seen in olive green uniforms or camouflage fatigues. Their local jurisdiction is basically the port itself, that is, the dock area, customs and immigration. This area is technically described as a federal “military zone” downtown. The same concept applies to the international airport, insofar as customs and immigration is concerned. Because Mexico's army and navy have responsibility for the security of the whole coastline, military troops are sometimes seen on the Costera Miguel Alemán, but their functions are not routine law enforcement and public safety except as regards military personnel and the military zones. You may see them when they raise and lower the flag at the city’s main flag pole by Parque Papagayo. Sometimes the military police may be employed, together with other elements of the army and navy in the war against drug trafficking. They also perform escort and guard functions for visiting dignitaries, and on those occasions, bring out their spiffy white uniforms.
State. The State of Guerrero has a corps of state police, who, in their “judicial” function, work for the state’s Department of Justice (the state attorney general). In their “preventive” function, they serve at the command of the governor to ensure the public safety, much the same way that state and provincial police function in the United States and Canada. The state police usually wear brown uniforms and have concurrent jurisdiction with the municipal authorities in Acapulco. As “preventive” police, they confine their activities mainly to crowd control (riot police), routine patrols, and occasional roadblocks in search of stolen cars, arms or contraband.
Municipal. The mayor (technically, the City Counsel President), through a local City Attorney’s Office (Síndico Procurador), operates three or four different police groups. The largest group are the “Policia Preventiva Municipal,” responsible for local public safety. They generally wear blue uniforms and are armed, often with automatic rifles. They can be seen from time to time around banks, large stores, and in the hotel districts. A subgroup, called "Policia Peventiva Auxiliar," also wears blue uniforms with a "PPA" patch on the sleeve. They serve mainly as security guards, and often are part-time employees. They do not have the same degree of training as the main police force. A second group are the transit police (Policia Preventiva de la Vialdad). They generally wear white shirts with blue trousers, and often use motorcycles for transport. Their main function is traffic control and enforcement of traffic laws. Finally, there is a group called "Policia de Turismo" or "Tourist Police." Often they are seen with white shirts and shorts, with blue caps. Mainly they patrol the Costera Miguel Alemán and the beach areas, with the function of helping out tourists and enforcing the (few) rules about street commerce. Recently they have received side arms for protection.
Overlapping Authority. Sometimes more than one law enforcement agency will be present at an event or incident, with competing missions. For example, in November of 2008, the Governor sent the State Police to set up road blocks on one of Acapulco's main arteries (Avenida Cuahutémoc) to check for stolen vehicles and arms. They stopped cars and city buses and ordered the passengers to get out. Then they frisked all the people and searched the vehicles. This created a terrible traffic mess and caused a public objection from the Mayor, who described their activities as “unconstitutional.” On the Carretera Escénica, which connects the bay side of Acapulco to the so-called “Diamond Zone,” federal, state and municipal police all have concurrent jurisdiction. Late at night, when the bars and clubs close, a visitor may find a swarm of police on patrol, in a variety of vehicles and different colors of uniforms.
Foreign visitors are strongly encouraged to contact their country’s consular representative before doing anything else.
For the United States, the consular agent in Acapulco is in the Hotel Emporio near the Diana traffic circle on the Costera Alemán. (Costera Miguel. Alemán, 121, Office 14, 39670 Acapulco, Gro., Mexico; +52 744 469-0556; fax +52 744 484-0300, [email protected]). Hours: M-F, 10a-2p.
The Canadian Consulate is in the same area, in the Plaza Marbella, Office 23, at the Diana traffic circle as well. (Centro Comercial Marbella, Local 23, Corner of Prolongación Farallón and Miguel Alemán, 39670 Acapulco, Gro., México; +52 744 484-1305, 481-1349; fax: 744-484-1306. Hours: M-F: 9a-12:30p & 2p-4p.
Contacts for other countries: Austria (R. Escudero 1, 1st Floor; +52 744 483-2979 & 484-0171); United Kingdom (Costera Alemán, 4455 (Convention Center); +52 744 484-1735); France (Costera Alemán No. 4455 (Convention Center), +52 744 481-2533); Germany (Antón de Alaminos 26, (Costa Azul)¸ +52 744 484-1860, 481-0178); Italy (Av. Gran Tropical 615 (Las Playas); +52 744 481-2533); Norway (Agencia de Viajes Acuario, Costera Miguel Alemán 123; +52 744 485-6100); Russia (Mexico City; +52 555 273-1305); Spain (Hotel Elcano, Costera Alemán 75 (Club Deportivo); +52 744 435-1500); Sweden (Hotel Tropicano, Costera Alemán No. 20; +52 744 481-2300).
Useful Telephone Numbers
City Police -- Policia Preventiva Municipal: 485-0650, 485-0862
Transit Police -- Policia Preventiva de Vialdad: 441-3438, 441-3436
Tourism Police – Policia de Turismo: 485-0490
Federal Investigations-- AFI: 485-2671
Missing Persons: 481-1100, 481-2268