Moving to Mexico: Chapter 20
Tired of Explaining and Tired of the Police
Last night, we were at our local Elks Lodge for the weekly Thirsty Thursday BBQ. Fraternal organizations like the Elks and Masons are popular with The Greatest Generation so a Gen X’er like me, two generations away from the WWII crew, is a little outside their demographic. Still, I love being around those people. They are friendly, engaging and can hold an intelligent conversation. Most of the time.
One of the benefits of being an Elks Lodge member is that you may travel the nation and park your RV in the parking lot, hook up to their power and water and stay pretty much as long as you like. Last night, there were several RVs in the parking lot, so I knew we would get to meet some visiting members.
I had invited the friends who recently traveled to Mexico with us and the four of us talked about our travels. A woman, probably in her mid to late sixties, seated at the bar next to us overheard our conversation and chimed in.
“What city are you talking about?” She asked.
“Tulum, Mexico.” My friend replied.
“Tulum.” My friend repeated, enunciating the syllables.
“That’s an odd name.” She said.
“Is it?” I asked. “What’s really odd is that Tulum means ‘wall’, not really a popular word in Mexico these days.” She noticed that I had a beautiful photo of a beach open on my phone.
“May I see that photo?” She asked, and I handed it to her. She began swiping left and right. I thought that was particularly rude.
“Careful.” I said. “You might see a photo of me nude. Or something else private.” She just chuckled and handed me the phone back.
“Those beach photos don’t look real.” She said.
“Not real like ‘too perfect’ or not real like fake?” I asked.
“Like photoshopped. Did you take them?”
“I did. With this iPhone. And I don’t use photoshop.”
“Well, Mexico is dangerous. It’s certainly not high on our list.” She said.
Here We Go Again.
Once again, I felt obligated to defend my adopted home from the unsolicited jabs of a stranger. One thing about Baby Boomers like this one, they love to speak their mind, unfiltered, and with zero regard for the listener. Instead of just saying, “Oh, how nice”, she had to go with, “It’s dangerous” and “We have no interest in the place of which you speak, have obviously spent a fair amount of money and plan to retire.” I felt the polite face I wear in public slowly transforming into the defensive, sarcastic and offensive alter ego we all possess when poked.
“You’re right. It’s horribly dangerous. I would avoid it. The only reason we’re moving there is because we’re obviously not very intelligent. If I were you, I would stay right here where it’s safe.” I replied to her, thinking she would fade away, but she persisted.
“Oh, I have avoided it. I don’t need to visit a third-world nation.” She smirked. “I don’t need to go to Mexico to be robbed or see poor people suffering.”
“Exactly. I mean, why travel all that distance when you have so many homeless using the streets of San Francisco as a toilet?” I replied. “Plenty of poor people right here in the Bay Area. And with the rising crime rates, you don’t have to go far to get mugged anymore.”
“It’s not exactly the same thing.” She said. “San Francisco is having a temporary problem with homelessness that will be solved soon. Mexico has always been poor and dangerous. That’s why so many of them come here.”
I was really beginning to tire of defending Mexico to people who have never been there. But her comments were bothering me.
“San Francisco has had a problem with homelessness for decades and it’s only getting worse, not better. Our state is losing about 100,000 middle class people a year. The poor can’t leave and the rich keep coming. The entire Bay Area is becoming a highly stratified place. That’s not sustainable.” I explained. “Oh and, NEWS FLASH: poor people always flock to wealthier, neighboring nations where they hope to make more money. That’s nothing new. Believe me, the wealthy folks in Mexico are staying put. California taxes are too high.”
“So, I suppose you don’t have any family around here.” She said.
“I have plenty of family here. And they can’t wait to visit me in Mexico where they will enjoy lovely beaches, historical ruins and a vibrant culture. Where did you say you were from?”
“Fresno.” She replied.
“Ahh, Fresno. The center of the world. Not exactly a vacation destination. I can see why you parked your RV in Walnut Creek. It must seem like an oasis.” I said.
“Fresno is just fine.” She said.
“Maybe. Did you know that Fresno is almost 50% Latino. You should reconsider Mexico. You might be more comfortable there than you think.” I said.
“And you think living in Mexico is going to be enough for you?” She asked.
“Any place can become routine. Lord knows I got bored with this place years ago. I can explore Tulum for many years. If I get bored again, it’s a huge country with a lot to see. For my money, Mexico is a very good place to retire.” I explained. “And I’m not really an RV person”
“Sounds like you travel a lot.” She said.
“I’ve been to many nations and I chose Mexico. You must get quite a few ‘smiles to the mile’ in your rolling home.”
“You seem to have a problem with recreational vehicles.” She said.
“I like parking my car and going into my home, not parking my and being home. And don’t you find living in that thing a little stinky?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they never really perfected the toilets. They tend to smell really bad. And it’s not a lot of fun emptying the ‘black water’, is it? Remember that scene in Christmas Vacation?”
“To each their own.” She said.
“You do have good door locks on that rig, right?” I asked. “Can’t be too careful in the Bay Area. There are some real weirdos around here, creeping around at night. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just keep your phone charged and remember, the phone number for 911, is 9-1-1.” But she had turned away. Good thing, too. I was tired of hearing her voice.
Most people who hear our plans are just plain envious. A few people think we’re crazy. And then there are people like RV Lady who just want to piss on our parade. They will take a headline and turn it into a fact. “Mexico is dangerous” to them means ALL of Mexico.
In 2017, Mexico posted the highest homicide rate in decades. That is simply true.
With just under 30,000 homicides, a 27% increase in killings from 2016, Mexico has become more dangerous than ever. And 2018 is shaping up to be even worse. Drugs = violence. They go hand in hand. Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela and El Salvador all have higher murder rates than Mexico. St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit all have higher murder rates, too. Most of the really violent killings are drug-related and many happen near the US border.
California has a real problem with inner-city gangs. I never see them because I don’t go to the inner city. It’s that simple. I would also avoid the US/Mexico border areas.
Tulum is many things, but dangerous is not one of them. There are police everywhere, throngs of tourists and people walking around day and night. The same cautions you would use at home apply in Tulum:
- Avoid being alone in unknown areas.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t hang out in seedy places.
- Be careful when talking to strangers.
- Nothing good happens after midnight.
I have never been asked to buy drugs in Tulum, but I have in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen. I have never felt unsafe in Tulum, been harassed (even the day after the 2016 election) and honestly, Tulum feels like many smaller beach towns in California.
Cancun is a party town, simple as that. If you go to the all-night clubs, you’re going to be around drug dealers. It’s supply and demand. Club-goers like party drugs and the dealers know this. That will probably never change. I have not been to Cancun in many years. It’s just not for me anymore. When those clubs are just getting full, I’ve been in bed for hours. And when they are letting out as the sun comes up, I’m getting up and enjoying the morning. I understand the club-goers. I used to be one of them. We all get older and hopefully, we mature a bit.
Playa has become a very populated place, way too crowded for me. It’s a place to shop, that’s it. And I avoid shopping there as much as I can. A trip to Wal Mart can take 45 minutes from my place so we only go there when we need to buy in bulk. Fortunately, there is plenty of covered parking and I’ve never seen anything shady going on at Walmart.
Sadly, the only times I’ve been affected by anything criminal in Mexico has been from the police. I’ve been shaken down three separate times by local cops. It’s simply armed robbery
The first time was in Tijuana for having about two ounces of beer in a Solo cup. My wife and I had driven down to spend New Year’s in Rosarito Beach and stopped for an hour or so in Tijuana as neither of us had ever been there. When we arrived, we were surprised as it did not appear to be the seedy, dangerous place people describe. We had a nice meal in a street side restaurant and when we were leaving, the waiter asked if my wife wanted to take the remainder of her beer with her.
“Can I take the bottle out on the street?” She asked.
“No, senora. No bottles on the street. But I can pour it into a cup for you. That is legal.” He said, and we left with a small cup. Why she wanted to carry one swallow of Dos Equis, I’ll never know, but she did. We were no more than ten feet outside the restaurant when a cop walked up to me.
“What’s in the cup?” He asked. I looked back at the restaurant for the waiter, but he was gone. I felt like we had been set up but had to keep calm. This cop was huge and armed.
“A little beer. The waiter at that restaurant said it was OK to walk with it if it was in a cup.” I said. Betty looked nervous.
He shook his head. “He is wrong. It’s a very serious offense. Follow me.” He motioned to a covered concrete walkway where there was an alcove with stairs going up. We followed him. This was BS but we were in Mexico and this menacing cop had a gun. Inside the alcove, we were hidden from passersby. The cop spoke into his radio in rapid-fire Spanish. I could not tell what he said. I began to get angry but calmed myself. This situation could only get worse.
“So, what do we do?” I asked after long, silent moments.
“I am calling a car to take you to the station. This will take a very long time.” He said. He was very intimidating and looked like he wanted to hurt us. His expression communicated anger for some reason. I knew this was an act, but it was a good one. We were scared. Just then, a cop on a dirt bike came sliding up. The second cop said nothing. He just looked around. Maybe this was their first heist.
“All the way to the station house, huh?” I asked. He nodded. “Well, I’m wondering if you can help us out. You see, we’re on a tight schedule so we can’t afford to spend a day in the station house.” The cop squinted at me. “What I’m saying is, just to save time of course, would you mind paying the fine for us?”
“I can do that.” He said. “The fine is fifty US dollars.” I looked in my wallet and pulled out two twenties.
“The ATM only gives twenties.” I said and handed it to him before he could negotiate.
“Don’t hand it to me!” He shouted. Then he realized he had spoken a bit loudly and looked around before speaking again. “Fold it and put it into my hand. Shake my hand.”
That part irked me. I did not want to touch this rat crook. I wanted to break his arm. I reluctantly folded the two bills, palmed them and shook his hand. He took the money and walked away. His backup kick-started his bike and took off. Betty and I looked at each other and said nothing. We walked back to our Jeep, drove away and never visited Tijuana again. That was 24 years ago. Tijuana drives away another money-spending tourist with its short-game thinking criminal cops. No wonder only drunk college kids and servicemen frequent that place.
“I hope he chokes on it.” I said. I cannot put into words how angry I was.
The other times I have been shaken down in Mexico have been by traffic cops in the Yucatan. One motorcycle cop pulled me over for speeding as we headed back to the Cancun airport in a rented minivan with friends. I was not even close to speeding and he did not have a radar gun. He pulled up to my window on his bike and half-shouted over the traffic noise.
“Follow me to the station.” He said. “You’re going to miss your plane today.” His routine was well-rehearsed. He knew we were tourists and we were heading for a plane we could not afford to miss. We were fish in a barrel to him. I tried the “I only have 500 pesos” thing that my local friends told me to use, keeping the rest of my money in a different place and only having one 500 peso bill in my wallet for just such a situation. It did not work. That dirty cop assured me that if I did not give him $400.00 US, that all four of us would be sitting in his office for hours. I’m sure I’ll hear from local expat experts that I could have done this, and I could have done that. I assure you. I tried everything and wound up paying him, so we could make our flight. I had my wife and two guests in the mini-van. I didn’t want them to be any more frightened than they already were. *That couple was thinking of buying a place in Bahia Principe. That cop assured that they not only didn’t buy, they never visited again. Another opportunity for Mexico lost by the short-game thought processes of another uniformed parasite.
Another time, I was parked at a Tulum beach in a parking area that was well-marked. When I returned to my car, a cop was taking my front license plate off. What was this?
“You’re parked in an area where baby turtles cross. It’s illegal.” He said.
“There is no sign.” I said.
“Does not matter. It’s well-known.” He said. We went back and forth but he had the badge and the gun. I had an appointment I could not miss so I was short on time. Cost: $1,100.00 pesos after much negotiation. He said he would pay the fine for me.
“Do I get a ticket or a receipt showing that the fine has been paid?” I asked. He shook his head and sped off on his motorcycle.
My local friends tell me that many Mexican cops are dirty because they are broke. They work long hours and are paid very little. Taxing tourists is the only way they can make ends meet. It’s just an accepted fact of life. It is one of the things I truly despise about my adopted home. I’m hoping that after I’ve been there a while, I can figure this out.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever stop cringing when the cops whiz by in their black trucks, all dressed in black, wearing facemasks, with one guy standing in the bed of the truck, manning what appears to be a mounted machine-gun. And I’ll probably always get a bump in my blood pressure as I drive through those useless traffic checkpoints on the highway with the cops outside in their riot gear, machine guns in hand.
One real problem: the cops in Mexico usually don’t speak any English. They will rattle off in Spanish quickly regardless and expect you to understand. It’s such a scam.
I respect the work that good cops do. They do a job I would not want that can be very dangerous. To me, cops are like insurance and lawyers: I am happy to have them when I need them. Otherwise, they are expensive, troubling and can be dangerous. Everywhere.
“What are you trying to say with this article?” Betty asked me.
“I have no idea.” I replied. “I think I’m just repeating what most people already know: no place is perfect. But when I look at the pros and cons, I still love Mexico for our future.”
“Some people will never understand that.” She said.
“Good!” I said. “Tulum is already getting too busy for me. The secret about Tulum was out many years ago. It’s growing, just not as fast as Playa, thank God. I’m glad we live on Bahia Principe and that our neighborhood still has so few houses. By the time the place gets built up, we may be ready to move on to a quieter area.”
“What about the police issue?” She asked.
“I have some ideas on how to deal with that. When we travel, we’ll leave our car at home and take a van to the Cancun airport, just like we do here at home. That will keep us from having to drive through that gauntlet near the airport.” I answered her.
“I think they are taking that Tulum checkpoint out, which is nice. I didn’t see any cops there last time.” She said. “What if you get pulled over?”
“I’ll be a resident, living there full time. If I get shaken down, I’ll just offer the standard 500 pesos that I’ll keep in my wallet and no more. If they want more, they can take me to the station. I’ll have the time and I’ll have a lawyer, too.” I said.
“It’s such a shame. That is just part of living there.” She said. “No place is perfect.”
“On the bright side, our property taxes in Mexico are a few hundred bucks a year. In California, they are almost ten grand a year and going up. I could get pulled over every day in Mexico and still save money.” I laughed. “California robs us every year.”
“Besides, I love taking the Collectivo buses to Tulum, Akumal and even Playa. Sometimes, it’s nice not having a car.” She said. “Can’t do that in California.” She smiled.
“No place is perfect.” I said. “But in Tulum, I can take a bus to a beach and look at perfection. I can sit very near bliss and watch the sun go down in a place I still love, regardless of the flaws.”
I posted this article this morning about eight hours later, a reader emailed me an awesome comment.
Awesome because she was:
- Polite! 🙂 *Thank you for that!
If only more people were like that in this world. Thank you very much to that reader. You know who you are.
Per this reader:
Interesting article til I came to the cops in Yucatan part…lived here for 10 years..back and forth to Cancun to pick up family and friends when they come to Merida to visit. My husband and I also own an Expat Services company here and do pickups all the time to and from Cancun. I have only been pulled over once…many years ago..stated I was speeding. I told him in broken Spanish to write the ticket. Insisted…he finally told us to have a nice day, shook my hand, said mucho gusto and moved on. My husband was an officer in Yucatan for many years. Never did he pull the mordidas on anyone…he says too many “tourists” insist on paying them and it makes the situation worse. In fact, here in Yucatan, to try and squash these situations, there are notices for NOT paying a bribe and insisting on the ticket. The police now make approx 10,000 pesos a month compared to the 4000 pesos they made up to 4 years ago. Try it next time you get pulled over…you might be pleasantly surprised. 🙂
BTW: I had to look up “mordidas.” It means, “bitten” or “bribe” according to Google Translate, anyway.
Now, just a few comments from me:
- I never offered to pay a bribe. The bribe idea came straight from the officers. For example, when the cop in TJ said that two ounces of beer in a Solo cup was a “serious offense” and that to handle it would take all day, he was asking for a payoff. When the officer who was taking my plates, he flat out told me he wanted several thousand pesos (4,000 as I remember) and I negotiated it down to 1,100. The cop who stopped me outside the airport was very clear: pay me or you will miss your flight.
- None of the officers I ran into ever pulled out a ticket book. And when I asked for a receipt, I never got one. They simply threatened me with missing a flight, not getting my deposit back on a rental car or spending all day in his office. *Why would the one in TJ make us follow him out of sight of passersby, call for cover/back up and then make me palm the payoff to him? Because he was robbing me.
- Local Mexican citizens have made it clear to me: keep only $500 pesos in your wallet and hide the rest of your money.
- Even in my reader’s article, she mentions that only when she insisted on a written ticket was she let go. Up to that point, that cop most likely was expecting a bribe. Unfortunately, I have never seen any written notices telling tourists to insist on a written ticket. *I’m so glad to know this now.
The problem is this: the police who robbed me knew they had a tourist over a barrel. They used fear and intimidation to coerce me to pay and it worked. In America, it’s nearly impossible to bribe a traffic cop. I’ve driven here for 53 years and it’s never even been suggested. The reason it is so known in Mexico is that for many years that was how things worked.
I am thrilled to hear that things have changed and I thank my reader for suggesting that next time I get pulled over to ask for a written ticket.
I just hope I am not late for a flight.
Thanks again to my reader for the thoughtful reply. We need more people like you. 🙂