The conclusion reached has been born out from discussions with Oaxacan friends: it all depends on if one is driving a rental car or simply out-of-state. In either case, drivers in Oaxaca, both tourists and locals, are likely to have to resort to bribery not to escape jail, but rather to avoid lengthy delays in arriving at their destination. The issues are invariably how long it will take until you’re on your way, and how much it will end up costing, if anything.
Why Traffic Police Corruption in Oaxaca
It´s really not considered corruption, but rather just giving the police a mordida, a little bite from the pie. And government, at least at the state and municipal levels in Oaxaca, rationalizes it this way: why should we pay the police more, when we know that they’re probably equaling their salaries on the street.
Municipal police are paid the least, state troopers better, and their federal counterparts the most. Experience and common sense both suggest that accordingly, federal police are least amenable to receiving payoffs, and municipal and state police demand their salary supplements from drivers. It’s expected, and at least to a certain extent accepted by government.
State police tend to command more since they wield more power than their lowly municipal counterparts, and the latter are just happy to make a few pesos more from motorists.
To avoid municipal fines for driving or parking infractions in Oaxacan cities, often all you have to do is briskly drive away, since officers are on foot and don’t have either the communications equipment or the wherewithal to have a fellow policeman cut you off at the pass.
The Typical Traffic Police Scenario in Oaxaca
In Oaxaca, the vast majority of rental cars are plated in Mexico City rather than in Oaxaca, since the annual renewal cost is much less. Some cars are licensed in Puebla or the State of Mexico, also more driver friendly states than Oaxaca in terms of registration costs. So right off the bat there’s an understanding that tourists renting cars will have out-of-state plates on their vehicles. Combine this fact with white males wearing shorts (Oaxacan men, be they white or appearing indigenous, never sport cut-offs during the week in the cities) and appearing to not know where they’re going, suggests that vacationers are easily visible, and easier prey.
Oaxacans know the game much more so than do American or Canadian tourists. The latter two groups tend to respect the authority of police in particular; their honesty, their forthrightness, and their being beyond reproach. Thus, they defer to men in blue. Mexicans in Oaxaca, on the other hand, know that to get what they want when confronted by police, at the municipal level in particular, the best approach is to literally yell at them, and relentlessly. Rather than open themselves up to abuse at the hands of Oaxacans, local police will target the meek – the tourist.
A couple of years ago while driving in the City of Toronto with a Oaxacan friend as passenger, I was nabbed by radar. I got out of the car, spoke with the officer, and had the fine reduced to five kilometers over the limit. Upon my return to the car I explained to my Oaxacan companion what had just happened, to which she replied “how in heaven’s name did you get the fine reduced to five over; I didn’t hear you yelling at the cop.”
The tourist, presumed to be respectful of police authority, is an easy target when an infraction has been perpetrated, or if he can be convinced that the law has been broken. Laws and their breach are often made up by the police.
Strategies for Reducing Liability When Driving in Oaxaca
For tourists in Mexico visiting the State of Oaxaca, there are two different theories for avoiding fines while driving. The first is two pretend that you don’t speak any Spanish, and hope that the officer quickly becomes frustrated and sends you on your merry way. The second is to do as Oaxacans do; that is verbally abuse the officer appearing in charge. The matter of how much must then be considered.
Always start low, irrespective of how much the officer demands. It’s wise to keep a few small bills in one pocket, and larger ones elsewhere. Even if you reach an accord for an amount, once a policeman sees you pull out a wad of big bills he may demand more. In Veracruz I made the mistake of reaching a deal, pulling out several bills and counting out the agreed upon amount, only to have the officer ask for the money remaining in my other hand as well.
You may be confronted with a story that your car will have to be impounded for a day or two until a judge has had an opportunity to review matters. Police know that vacationers don’t have time to waste. On the other hand, if you call their bluff, the last thing that policemen want is involve higher authorities or additional officers, since that may mean a smaller piece of the pie that would otherwise be obtained if a deal were to be reached then and there, or no dessert at all for the policeman.
Stay calm and do not be afraid to subtly suggest a payment. If you’re afraid of the suggestion of a bribe, you can always simply tell the officer that he should give the money to the court, the judge or his superiors and that you don’t need a receipt.
The Proactive Approach to Police Payoffs
Sometimes you may want to knowingly break the law for the sake of convenience. A case in point is double parking, a common occurrence in downtown Oaxaca because of the volume of traffic and shortage of street parking spaces and paid lots. There are lots of traffic police patrolling the streets, ostensibly to prevent traffic congestion resulting from two lanes being turned into one by double parkers.
Try double parking right in front of an officer, and going up to him with ten or twenty pesos in hand, assuring him that you’re just running into a store for a moment and asking him to watch over your vehicle in exchange for the fee for service. It usually works.
The most important fact to remember when dealing with traffic infractions in Oaxaca, is that you are not in Canada, the US, Britain or Australia, and that accordingly the rules of the game are different. Usually municipal traffic police, and often state troopers, are more than happy to accept a bribe – or rather just a little mordida. If inclined to proceed as suggested, you’ll be helping policemen and their families, and confirming government’s rationale for not increasing the wages of Oaxaca’s law enforcement officers.
Alvin Starkman and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com). Alvin has written over 270 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca. Alvin takes visitors to the sights in and around the capital, spending several hours a week driving throughout the state’s central valleys.