Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nothing Shakin' on Shakedown Street

We teach a Pilates class for indigenous midwives in San Miguel once a week, as part of our "Burro Hall Cares" community-outreach program. So yesterday, we're pulling into town, running a few minutes late, as usual, when a transit cop pulls us over to the side of the road (this would be on San Antonio, just past the glorieta, across the street from the Pemex). We probably should have just ignored him, but with enormous speedbumps situated every 50 meters, we would have been setting ourselves up for the silliest car-chase ever. Also, we were pretty sure we'd done nothing wrong.

We roll down the window, to be greeted not by a policeman, but by an official with the state of Guanajuato's environmental agency. "Buenos días," he says. "We're checking to make sure you have your emissions verification certificate."

Transito police vehicle, GTO license plate # 06-516 - Feb 14, 2011, 11:30AM

Mexican cars have to be inspected once a year (twice a year in Guanajuato) to make sure they comply with government emissions standards. As tree-hugging lefties, we heartily applaud this, considering that when we first moved here, leaded gasoline was still available, and we didn't move here all that long ago. However...

"Um...no, we don't have an emission verification, Sir. In fact, no one has ever told us that we needed one. Actually, we were under the impression that foreign-registered vehicles like ours don't have to be emissions-tested."

"Oh, no, Señor, all vehicles must have a verification, even foreigners. So I'm afraid we will have to give you a violation."

Okay, so a couple of things at this point. We're running late already, and we have to be back in Querétaro after class to meet with some venture capitalists for our upcoming IPO (more on that later in the week), so we're really pressed for time, and while we think we're probably in the right about being exempt, we're not 100% certain of this - and as we learned bringing the perro though customs last year, just because no one here tells you need to do something, that doesn't mean you don't need to do it. So we're on kind of shaky ground.

The environmental official steps aside and hands things over to a transito police officer, who takes our license, and informs us that our fine will be 283 pesos - or about 23 dollars - plus we'll have to get our emissions tested. He then puts our license in his pocket and says that after we pay the fine at the environmental office, we can reclaim it. We're watching our entire day go up in a cloud of toxic exhaust smoke.

"Well, can't we take care of it here?" we ask. We know that, in Mexico, this is the traditional opening gambit for offering a bribe, but in our case, given that we were in a massive hurry, it really was just a request to see if we could take care of it here. The fact that the officer was so willing to oblige us was our first sign that something wasn't right.

That he was willing to take 270 pesos instead of 283, because that's what we had exact change for, was our second sign.

At this point, we probably still had the option not to pay, but he was still holding our license, and time wasn't moving any slower, so we handed over the cash. His refusal to give us a receipt or any official document attesting to the fact that we'd paid our "penalty" for "failing" to "verify our emissions" was our third sign that, yes, we'd just been shaken down by one of San Miguel's finest.

We understand that police officers are paid very little to do a dangerous job (though we doubt this guy has been shot at too many times in San Miguel de Allende), and when an opportunity presents itself, who among us can saw we would always resist temptation?

But having checked with both the Querétaro Secretaria de Desarrollo Sustentable and the Guanajuato Instituto de Ecología, we can confirm that

What that means, of course, is that the environmental official who spoke with us just flat out lied, telling us we had committed a violation when in fact he knew we had committed none. He turned us over to the police officer, who was in on the scam from the start. And the fact that they expected us to go to the local environmental office to pay the fine leads us to believe that their superiors are aware of the scam and approve of it. [Update: Subsequent correspondence with the Director of the Instituto de Ecologia persuades us that this is not the case.]

Fortunately, we always travel with a camera, albeit a crappy one, and were able to get somewhat grainy pictures of public officials who knowingly and with premeditation stole 270 pesos from us. And while it's considered bad manners to pay a bribe and then out the offending recipients, we really weren't offering a bribe, so we consider ourselves to have been robbed, literally in broad daylight.

[Update: At the risk of ruining everyone's fun, we've blocked out the faces, having been assured by the officials' superiors that internal investigations are underway. No need for us to pile on, right? For what it's worth, the pictures weren't very good...]

The official from the Instituto de Ecología who insisted we needed an emissions verification.

The San Miguel policeman to whom we paid a 270-peso "fine."  "No, no receipt," he told us.

Another view of the same police officer, now 270 pesos richer.

Update: To the great credit of the San Miguel Tránsito Dept, and its director, Sr. Adolfo Cervantes, they have announced that an investigation is underway, and the offending officer has been referred to a disciplinary committee. Effective immediately, the participation of Tránsito officers in Vehicle Verification program is suspended until further notice. Muchisimas gracias, Sr. Cervantes!


Poncho Sancho said...

It looks like Sra. Caldaza's influence ranges wide. Obviously, the brains behind it.

art said...

how about sharing it with a local opposition paper (if there is such thing). they always need a headline like POLICE EXTORSIONS SCARE OFF TOURISTS. [RULING PARTY]'S GOVERNMENT DOES NOTHING AGAINST CORRUPTION or something like that

I Must Be Crazy To Live In Mexico said...

That's just highway robbery.

Anonymous said...

I commend you for keeping your cool and keeping your mouth shut. Not always your strong points, but you did well here.


Anonymous said...

I'm very impressed. By the time I read this entry, the same blog that you linked to is already linking back to Burro Hall and states that the responsible policemen have already been sent to a discuplinary committee. Nice.

Anonymous said...

What a shock a mexican policeman taking a bribe, that kind of abuse of power only happens in the failed state of Arizona.

Lorena said...

I´m glad things are happening fast. Hope they get suspended for a long time.

Anyway, I have to say, there is no way it can be legal to offer to pay a fine in the middle of the street; i don´t know if it is in the US, but certainly not in Mexico.

These people get away with their behaviour because most people aren´t willing to take the time to get out of a trouble they didn´t even caused.

I can proudly tell you that I have never paid bribes to this thieves.

Anonymous said...

Good work. Alas most people here don`t equate patriotism and love of their country with standing up to corruption, extortion and incompetance. If people spent less time saluting their flag and getting upset over Top Gear, and more time trying to weed out the real problems of this country, then they may well be able to consider themselves patriots. Mexico salutes you Burro Hall for fighting the good fight. Hasta victoria siempre amigo.

Anonymous said...

And you are home, safe and sound, without any need for the perro's chewing of telephone lines?

Jeff Duncan said...

thanks for posting this... we live in Leon and this just happened to us but we didnt pay the guy anything.. he gave us a ticket and now we have to go deal with that... not even sure where to go for that.. but this was timely information.. we got the guys car plates, and name... I knew he just wanted a bribe but we didnt pay him... hope this isnt a hassle to dismiss this...