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Dealing with the Police

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25 January, 2009

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.

La Mordida

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:

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.

Consular Contacts

Foreign visitors are strongly encouraged to contact their country’s consular representative before doing anything else.

Useful Telephone Numbers

Real Acapulco Newsletter


Anonymous's picture

corrections required

CAnadian Consulate moved.
Tourist Police moved

Anonymous's picture

motorcyle shakedown

A post from (Oct 28,2011)

Anyone heard if there is a rule saying you need a motorcycle operators license issued by the city of Acapulco to ride a scooter in this town?

You now I'm a retired truck long haul driver with 2 .5 million safe driving miles and have always followed the letter of the law exactly as it should be. Before travelling to Mexico I researched and made calls to the Mexican embassy and confirmed at km 21 Nogales permit oficina, whether I need a moto lic. for my 50cc scooter in ANY city in Mexico and was told no, I was good to go!
Well today I decide to travel a short distance to shop at the Bodega and get pulled over in a policia check and guess what I apparently need a moto licence in the city of Acapulco even though I have a class 1 and a motorcycle lic. from Canada!! 400 pesos senoir and you can go, so I say ``Write the ticket and I will pay at the oficina! `` No senor you pay here! So here`s 200, no senor 400, watever, I pay it and leave!!
I was so pissed I didn`t care if they took me and my cane to jail. They can not expect to recover from all the bad press if this sort of thing happens all the time! I know some will say ces`t la vive, but I needed to vent and the senora at the trailer park here says she will take me to her friend (Capitaino) Polica and discuss it with him. I`ll let you know what happens, by the way this is second time in a month this has happened! JG

admin's picture

Considering the fact that

Considering the fact that about 15% of the cars go around without any license plates, I believe this cop targeted you because you're a foreigner and he thought he can get money out of you... which he did. $200 pesos is about 4x what an Acapulqueño pays... for an actual violation. Before Acapulco had a pretty good system. You'd get pulled over only for an actual violation. Now they just pull people over based on their expected value, regardless if there was a violation. The police have really crossed the line and we're all looking forward to the day the federal government comes in and gets rid of the lot of them.

El diablo sabe más por viejo que por diablo.

Anonymous's picture

robbed by municipal police

while driving just outside acapulco,we were motioned over by a municipal police officer in a marked car. He demanded all of our money, but only took our pesos,not interested in American or Canadian currency. WE WILL NEVER TRAVEL TO MEXICO AGAIN AFTER 25 YEARS OF TRAVELLING THERE!!!!! COSTA RICO LOOKS BETTER.

admin's picture

Costa Rica sucks... among the

Costa Rica sucks... among the lamest nations in Latin America. Anyhow, you can generally tell the police to piss off and they almost always will if the situation looks like its going to be a big hassle. You need to practice a bit of Spanish, a few keywords will get your point across, try something like "abogado", "levantar", and "acta".

The whole game changes when they know you know how things really work and the big open secret - that police in places like Acapulco rank with train conductors as far as authority figures go and can (and should) be treated as such.

El diablo sabe más por viejo que por diablo.

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