After living in León, Guanajuato for eight months and enjoying a relatively care-free lifestyle with few worries (unless you happen to be one of my children and it’s exam time again), I have had my first negative experience. Negative is a relative term here. Neither my children nor my husband and I were harmed during the course of my misadventure. However, the whole situation left me feeling very frustrated and angry.
My husband was invited out to dinner with coworkers one night. Because we only have one vehicle, and I use it to transport our children to all of their activities, he asked us to pick him up after the dinner was over, around 7:30 pm.
The sun had set around 7 pm and rush-hour traffic in León at that time of day is very heavy. I missed reading a sign that indicated no U-turns until 8 PM. I queued up in the long line of cars for the U-turn (I was one of many that did not see the sign) and waited for the light to change. I then noticed what looked like an accident in the line ahead of me, so like some of the cars in front of me, I edged back out into the traffic flow to go around it and cut back over into the lane for U-turns without seeing the sign with the U-turn times. As I sat at the red light, a police officer walked up to our car. I rolled down my window and he asked for my license. I gave him my US license and thus began a 30-minute “discussion” where he spoke only Spanish and I spoke mostly English. My Spanish vocabulary at the time did not include any words that would help me understand what the officer was trying to explain. He, however, kept looking at me with significant looks and waggling his eyebrows indicating that he wanted something more. It must be part of a universal language because I understood him without understanding the words. Because he kept insisting my license was invalid, he refused to return it. There was an officer on the other side of the street who kept the light from turning green. My husband had given up waiting for me at the restaurant, saw where I was on our location tracker, and walked down to see what was going on. However, because the traffic was so heavy, he could not cross the street to get to us. The officer would not allow me to call anyone for help with translating and continued to explain that the only way to get out of this situation was with a bribe (eyebrow waggle). Essentially, my children and I were held hostage until I finally paid the man the amount of money he wanted and then, miraculously, the light turned green and we could go.
The entire experience was extremely frustrating. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was targeted and profiled and the police officers exploited me because they knew I was a foreign citizen. My lack of Spanish did not discourage the man and he was apparently in no rush to get out of there. My children, on the other hand, were exhausted from a long day at school and my husband was stranded on the side of the road in the dark.
Based on my frustrating experience, I have a few suggestions to offer on how to handle being pulled over.
- If you get pulled over, your US driver’s license is valid for driving around Mexico. They are lying if they tell you otherwise.
- Do not give them your license. Only crack the window enough to speak to the officer, be polite, but do not give him/her anything.
- Ask for the ticket ( called a multa) and insist on getting it.
- If you want to call for help, they cannot prevent you from making a phone call. We are allowed to call for translation assistance or consular assistance if necessary.
- Avoid situations like this by not driving in unfamiliar places at night. Take an Uber or licensed taxi instead.
- Do not carry a lot of cash with you. If you insist on paying with a credit card and not cash, they cannot receive a bribe that way.
- Bear in mind, these suggestions are really only appropriate for the local, municipal police. We have been told that they are the less reliable or trustworthy out of all levels of police in Mexico, probably because they are the most underpaid. If you are pulled over by federal police or higher for any reason, your best bet is to comply with what they tell you. They are much less likely to ask for a bribe.
If you have any other suggestions, please let me know. Good luck and safe travels through Mexico!