Safety — Police

Safety: No Thanks to the Police

POLICE HAVE LITTLE TO DO WITH CREATING A SENSE OF SAFETY IN MEXICO. There are tons of different police in Mexico, and even Mexicans don’t seem to understand them. Here is a breakdown that might help you out.

TRAFFIC POLICE (POLICÍA DE TRÁNSITO) The police with whom you are likely to have the most contact are the traffic police. Blatant corruption and lack of training, and rock bottom salaries among traffic police reduces the expectation of safety in Mexico. These are the guys who stop you when you are driving, invent an infraction, and ask for a bribe.

They often set up road blocks on highways between two larger cities. At these road blocks, they flag you down and invent an infraction. Common belief says that they can confiscate your car and keep it at their station. This gives them the power to extract a bribe from you. If you challenge the validity of the infraction that they have invented, they remind you that they can keep your car while you file your complaint and wait for a judge to decide in your favor. Normally people don’t refuse the bribe while on a trip out of town. One Mexican I know did. He told his wife to pack up their 6-month-old baby and their things: they were going to take a bus. The officer let them go.

If you aren’t brave enough to call their bluff while out of town, the smartest thing you can do before setting out on an inter-city trip is to put 50 pesos in your pocket, remove all of your cash from your wallet, and hide it. If a police officer flags you down and begins to give you a ticket (this is how they open the topic of the bribe), you can say that all you have is 50 pesos.

On the other hand, if you want to fight corruption, you can definitely do it while inside your home city. In Cuernavaca, the police generally ask for 100 to 200 pesos, depending on the infraction committed. Usually people give around 50 pesos per bribe. One day my husband was stopped for not wearing his seat belt. The officer told him that he would have to go pay a 200 peso ticket at the police department, implying that it might be better to make a counter offer, and end the whole situation right there on the street. Well, my husband told him that he wouldn’t participate in corruption and to go ahead and write up the ticket. Much to his surprise when he went to pay the ticket the service was quick and friendly and best of all, the ticket was only 50 pesos!

FEDERAL POLICE (POLICÍA JUDICIAL) These men decrease my feeling of safety whenever they are around. They dress in black and ride around in the backs of official pick-up trucks, carrying large weapons. They deal with big things like shootings. They are the muscle and are famous for having too much testosterone. Do not talk to these men.

METROPOLITAN POLICE (POLICÍA METROPOLITANA, also called POLICÍA PREVENTIVA) This is a group of police hired by each city. We have no idea what they prevent–could it be safety itself? They also often direct traffic and fall under the description of traffic police above.

FEDERAL HIGHWAY POLICE (POLICÍA FEDERAL DE CAMINOS) These guys can stop you anywhere on federal roads. They usually check for bad driving and vehicles carrying loads. They won’t stop on smaller roads because those are state jurisdiction.

STATE POLICE These guys can stop you on smaller roads. They also check for unsafe driving and loads.

THE ARMY These guys are not police, but are included here because sometimes they have roadside checkpoints, particularly in “wild” places like Chiapas. They are looking for drug traffickers. They are mostly around 18 years old and dressed all in green. They are considered honest and not a threat to safety.

Generally they just flag you on by. Sometimes they stop buses and check the passengers’ documents to be sure they are in Mexico legally and don’t show whatever signs drug traffickers show. Sometimes this operation includes getting all of the men off of the bus for a more thorough “inspection.” They might let the bus drive on without one of its passengers, if they want to question the person more. I doubt they would do that to a tourist.

Occasionally, there are “judiciales” (see above) in black or plain clothes mixed in with the army boys. Since they are federal police, they can handle all sorts of illegal activity. Officially, they are looking for drugs or maybe illegal immigrants. Unofficially, they are looking for victims. If they think they can take advantage of someone they will make up some excuse about they’re ID not being official or whatever they can cook up on the spot. If the person looks nervous, they can get them down off of the bus, or out of their car and stick them for a bribe.

You increase your safety by not acting like a victim. My husband and I have noticed that avoiding eye contact with them is a good idea. Also, if they do question you, be firm about your documents and reasons for being where you are.

TOURIST POLICE Let’s end this page on a positive note. These guys are there to help you. Not all cities have them, but those with a large population of tourists do. I’ve seen them in Mexico City at a parade. An officer stepped in front the crowd to protect the people from an out of control horse that couldn’t stop on the pavement. This officer’s ankle was broken in the line of duty and he was carried into the crew transport van on a stretcher.

Another tourist police officer helped my husband and me when a scooter rental guy on Isla de las Mujeres wouldn’t give us our money back even though the scooter broke down twice and left us stranded on the opposite side of the island. Tourist Police do increase safety.

If you can handle frightening news, read about how police themselves lack safety.

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Safety — Kidnapping

The absolute,
number one,
most nightmare-inducing safety issue in Mexico
is kidnapping.

And it happens. I met someone who was a victim and have heard 4 second-hand, but too close for comfort stories. A friend who knows various extremely rich people in Cuernavaca tells me that they have body guards. They have to be concerned about their safety. Morelos has one of the highest rates of kidnappings in Mexico. There are a lot of rich people here.

A former governor of Morelos was supposedly even involved! Mexico City also has a very high rate of kidnappings and shorter go-to-a-cash-machine-nappings. Other areas throughout Mexico also experience them. The police and judicial system have been fighting this crime, and it has reduced in frequency. If this is better, I’d hate to see worse!

The good news for us foreigners is that mostly Mexicans are targeted. Though, one English businessman was killed last year in a kidnapping. The good news for parents is that mostly adults (or young adults) are targeted. We are also talking about extremely rich people. One TV star was kidnapped and told his story in a special interview on TV.

As with rapists, one of the perpetrators is usually someone relatively close to the victim. Extended family members sometimes give the needed information. To top it all off, the police might be involved. It seems that survivors usually come home AFTER the demanded payment has been made.


Don’t look and act too rich.

Don’t tell ANYBODY how much money you have.

Don’t tell ANYBODY if you sell a large property.

Change your daily habits regularly so that it isn’t easy to grab you on your daily walk.

Register with the US consulate nearest you. The contact information is online.

Do the things above, then try not to worry about your safety. It’s hard, but life is risky anyways.

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Safety — Home

Safety at Home in Mexico

Luckily, I don’t have any firsthand experience with how important it is to protect the safety of your home in Mexico. Judging by the way Mexicans construct their homes, there must be a real need for security. Mexican homes tend to look like Fort Knox. When I first came here, I felt threatened and reduced next to the 20-foot-high walls people build around their houses.

An architect from UNAM (Universidad Autonoma de Mexico) told me how the cultural history has influenced Mexican home design. The Spaniards brought with them an Arabic tradition where external windows were small, permitting people to shoot arrows out through them, while the interior courtyards were private family spaces. He stressed the macro-cultural factors influencing this, such as tribal warfare. I noticed the micro-cultural factors surrounding women’s roles in private and public life.

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Anyway, when these Spaniards came to Mexico to rape, plunder, steal, and control, they had good reason to reproduce architectural features that kept them safe from upset native people. Sadly, the modern situation STILL reinforces these same home safety features (not that the features themselves are bad). Once someone breaks into your house, your stuff–and possibly you and your family are toast. The police don’t or can’t keep you safe.

Prevention is the key to the safety of your home.

Physical precautions:

1. Choose a home in a neighborhood where people are out and about. This would be a not-so-rich, not-so-poor neighborhood. Some rich neighborhoods are terrifyingly lonely, with nothing but blocks and blocks of 20-foot-high-walls topped with razor wire. Who will hear you if you get into trouble? If you don’t want to be with other people, why not just stay in the US where the police are professional?

2. Mexican houses and housing complexes generally have a wall surrounding them, with a huge metal door. Only people with keys can get in through the giant door, called the porton. You have two good choices. You can choose a home with a private entrance. Or, if you want to live in a complex, choose one with a limited number of people who have access from the street. Complexes are nice because they often include a shared swimming pool.

3. Keep your street door (porton) locked, even when you are inside.

4. Ground-floor windows need to lock and have bars protecting them.

5. If your house doesn’t happen to have a wall around it, lock all windows when you leave. People will know your schedule.

6. Make sure there is no place where people could climb up, around, or into to reach unprotected windows and doors.

7. When you take a quick walk to the neighborhood store (doesn’t that sound great?!) don’t leave your door unlocked. There are always many people around. Most will protect you, but someone just might decide to steal something.

Community precautions:

1. Form networks with your neighbors by saying hello when you see them and trading little favors. This is actually our TOP safety precaution and I admit I don’t always follow the physical ones listed above.

2. Don’t let people know what you have inside.

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