I’ve been here two years and only now had to pay my first bribe. It was an extorted bribe, not a voluntary one. I paid it to get out of the supposed threat of a worse situation, rather than to attain some personal benefit.
My friend Dana and I got stopped on the street, in Lagunilla, while walking with 40-oz micheladas that we bought from an ambulatory vendor. Open containers are illegal in Mexico City, although generally no one cares. I now realize more clearly something about the concept of “legal grey areas”: they’re “grey” because they’re selectively enforced, by cops who want bribes.
Between the two of us, the cop (his name is Fernando) got away with $150 (about $12 US). Dana and I later decided it was worth it for the experience of having had to do it. We had both been in situations with Mexicans who had to pay bribes, but neither of us had ever negotiated one ourselves.
After analysis, however, I am pretty sure we could have just poured out our beers, “apologized” and walked away without having to pay anything. Not only was Fernando nervous– he kept asking us “¿Está bien?”– but he also used his cell phone to “call” a unit to take us away, rather than radio. Also, by the time the transaction was concluded we had attracted some attention from several good samaritans on the street, who argued with the cop in Dana’s and my defense. If we had gone with pouring out the beer and walking away, I think Fernando would have realized he was outnumbered, should he be so undignified as to try to stop us.
So I think we probably held the upper hand and therefore are suckers for paying him, but another factor is, being gringa, rational or not the first thing I thought to analyze about the situation was whether Fernando was carrying a gun, and in fact he was. The US has socialized me to be afraid of being shot by cops, so I don’t think I really had it in me to be so bold. But maybe I do now.
By the way, when we handed over our beers, Fernando did NOT pour them out. He also gave me his phone number, in case I ever want to pay him to help me get away with breaking any other laws.
For anyone interested in the details of how it went down:
Dana and I were in Lagunilla looking for a dining table for her apartment. Lagunilla is a street market with some warehouses converted into furniture “showroom” stalls. We had purchased the offending micheladas from a woman and her daughter in one of the surrounding covered street areas.
Michelada vendors are pretty typical in these types of markets– they make them in front of you. After the salsas are all added in, there isn’t quite enough room in the large paper cup for the entire caguama (40) so they wait for you to drink a little while bit standing there in order to pour the rest of the bottle in.
We did that, and were thus walking around with our big-ass paper cups, browsing furniture, for probably about a half-hour. We emerged in I guess a more public street and all of a sudden this cop (who was smoking a cigarette) was talking to us. I didn’t quite realize right away he was addressing us, but was shocked when I did, especially since he was talking about us having to go to the police station and spend up to 36 hours in jail.
“¿Está bien?” he asked. No, of course that’s not okay. We don’t want to go to jail for drinking beer in the street. Can’t we just pour it out? He was afraid not, because we had already been caught on camera. He explained to us that of course he would like to let us go, but such things are no longer done.
I told him, “Look, I have $150 on me. Can’t we just settle it here?”
“Nope, sorry. That can’t be done. ¿Está bien?”
“¡No!” I think Dana and I actually said this in unison a couple times throughout the “¿Está bien?” iterations.
His voice cracked a little as he placed a call (on his cell phone) asking for a unit to come pick up “two señoritas with open containers.” I forget the term he used for the offense.
We asked him what the procedure would be. He told us the fine would be $800 pesos but that we would have to call a family member to come pay it for us once we were at the station.
“But we don’t have family!”
“Don’t you have someone else you can call?”
Dana explained that she could call a friend. I explained that we really didn’t want to have to go to the station for such a minor offense. Dana asked if there wasn’t something else we could do, and she repeated the idea that it was ridiculous to go to jail for “chelas.”
He repeated the term “chelas” (Mexican colloquialism for “beers”), shook his head, but at that point he sort of stepped us aside into a store front. He carefully took our beers from us and set them down in the enclave.
Okay maybe we could work something out. “$150 you said?”
That’s when the local vendors started coming to our defense. One youngish guy with a Beckham faux-hawk started arguing with him that it wasn’t fair because we were foreigners; we didn’t know any better. The cop kind of told him to shut up, and I shook my head at them, like, “It’s okay. Everything’s under control.” Another guy and a señora came up to start arguing. I think they were annoyed that this twerp cop was hassling potential customers.
I pulled out the contents of my pocket. I actually had $180, which he saw, but I handed him the $150.
He asked us, “Now you’re not going to go buy more beers, are you?”
“No. If we had known it were illegal we wouldn’t have bought them in the first place… it’s just that people are selling them in the street so we thought it was okay.”
“I can recommend some places where it is okay to drink.”
“No, thanks. We already know of some good bars.”
The vendors were standing around watching still. “Would you like my phone number?”
I thought about it and figured why not, you never know. “¿Y cómo te llamas?” “Fernando.” I put his name into my contacts. He was pretty hasty giving me the number, which I guess meant it is really his. I made him repeat it because I didn’t get it the first time. Again he was hasty but I made him check it, and he confirmed I had noted it down correctly.
“Alright well, nos vemos.”