This article is from the May 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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La Mordida, It's Only Money

by David Simmonds

Probably nothing illustrates the cultural difference between the United States and Mexico better than la mordida (the bite, or squeeze). We norteamericanos see it, plain and simple, as a bribe, ranking somewhere near coveting your neighbor’s spouse as a sure-fire slide into purgatory. Sure, we expect it from our politicians (Abe's bedroom) and as a means to keep our kids in line..."Johnny, here's five bucks...don't tell your mom I stopped off at O'Doul’s for a beer." But slipping a cop 100 pesos because you may, or may not, have run a red light while trying to negotiate a football-field sized intersection is somehow seen as the epitome of extortion. "I'm not going to pay this crooked moron a dime. Americans don't do things that way."

Well, I happen to think it’s all right to pay your way out of a situation. Actually, I think it’s better than all right: I kind of like the idea. It is an expedient manner of settling a "fine" and it’s usually a much cheaper solution than it would be north of the border. I have been pulled over on several occasions over the years by the Mexican police, and I'm pretty sure that what I was charged with in each case was accurate. My last speeding ticket in California cost me a day in "traffic school" and about $150.00 US. A similar ticket, on the way to Ensenada, set me back $20.00 US and two cold Carta Blancas from the ice chest. This took about five minutes and I was on my way and I didn't have to endure a stern lecture on responsible driving as I did by the Cal cop.

Like you, I have heard the horror stories of the Mexican police extortion shakedowns in the past, but I have never actually talked to someone whom it happened to. I always believed the stories to be anecdotal evidence at best, with a few rare exceptions. And they are disappearing even more due to a concerted effort by the government to make Mexico a safe place for tourists.

There is obviously a long history of la mordida in Mexican culture. In its most destructive and damaging application, it has resulted in bribery reaching into the highest levels of government. There is evidence that the drug lords have bought off whomever they needed to in moving narcotics through the country. And numerous government members accumulate massive amounts of money by selling their influence while in office. These are tremendous problems that the people of Mexico are going to be addressing in the near future as they move closer and closer to a true democracy with free elections open to competing political parties. Of course there is no guarantee that another party won't be equally corrupt and dishonest. Change sometimes comes slowly in a system that has evolved over centuries and in many ways is expected by the proletariat.

So when I say I like the mordida system, I'm only referring to the practicality to us, the tourist, as it applies to the cop on the street. These guys don't get paid much and if you mess up and commit a driving infraction, why not pay him directly? Local governments don't have the money to pay him a decent wage, so it becomes more like a user fee. If you think about it, it doesn't work that much differently in the States or Canada. You get taxed, the money filters through several layers of bureaucracy, and a small amount finally pays the policeman’s wages. In Mexico it’s more of a direct payment.

Some people advise that you should insist on going to the police station and paying the fine to them. If you really feel that you have not committed an offense and want to make a point, I guess it is a good option. There is always the possibility that once the cop sees that you are serious and that he isn't going to get anything, he will give you a warning and you will be on your way. Of course, he may say, "Fine, follow me to the station," and then you end up paying a bigger fine than you would have originally and you waste a couple of hours. Personally, I don't like police stations in any country. So if I can pull out ten or twenty dollars and get on with my day, it becomes an easy choice.

When driving, or any time really, don't keep a wad of bills in your wallet or purse. Be able to show the police that all you have is the cash on you and it isn't much. Keep the rest of the money hidden elsewhere. If they see sixty dollars, that may be the price of the fine. If they see ten dollars, that becomes the price.

Finally, my observation is that the cops on the street are becoming more honest and less likely to ask for or accept offered money. But it still exists and that's just fine by me.