Emily and Alex at an Acapulco Beach

Why we left Mexico: The Extortion

Anyone seeking information about traveling to Mexico has undoubtedly heard dozens of horror stories. The U.S. media and government always pick up stories that shed a bad light on the country. If we were to listen to them, they would have us all flying into Cancun and visiting only resorts in Qunitana Roo.

But on the other hand, we have probably all heard stories about expats and retirees flocking to other parts of Mexico. Sure, some do go to the beach towns. But, tell me you haven’t heard about San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca lately. Many people are finding really good lives in more central areas of Mexico. And being newly nomadic, it was our first place of interest.

So, in August of 2021, we set out on a six month road trip to discover Mexico. We fully intended to fall in love with it and buy a condo on the beach.

We lasted two months…

… and the main reason we left was the difficulty we had driving in Mexico.

It seems like the easiest solution would be not to drive, but we wanted to see how it was to really live there. Mexico has a lot to offer in terms of beautiful places, beautiful people, and affordability for foreigners. And we were definitely still interested in seeing the Riviera Maya, but we also wanted to see other things along the way.

We did a good amount of research before we left on our driving trip in Mexico. We knew not to drive at night until we became really familiar with an area. We knew what could happen if you got pulled over by a police officer. We knew that we should have a decoy wallet where we kept bribe money for cops so that they wouldn’t see all of our money in one place and ask for all of it. We knew there were areas best avoided, and we planned our driving route accordingly as to spend as little time by the border as possible and avoid driving through Tamaulipas too much. We also knew the notoriously corrupt “Federales” had been disbanded in 2019 (about two years ago), so we thought maybe it wouldn’t be so much of a problem.

Note:

After we shared our story with our Instagram followers, we heard several stories of this type of bribery happening to people on foot as well. So, just be aware that even though it is less likely, this can occur even if you choose not to drive.

Click above to see our post about driving across the U.S. border into Mexico. This will show you everything we did to get ready to cross without any issues.

It’s easy…until is isn’t.

When it comes to actually crossing the border, it is relatively easy for a U.S. citizen. I was a bit scatter-brained because I was just nervous to get it all right. But, it wasn’t a big deal because we had everything in order. We made it to our first stop in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon for the night with no problems. But, about an hour into our drive the next day we got stopped at a Municipal Police road block.

They “pulled us over” with the pretense of checking our papers, and it soon became clear this person could care less wether we had any of the correct documents. We showed the officer our passports and immigration stamps and they barely got a glance. The officer then asked “do you have anything for the cops”?

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Now, everything I had read had strongly advised to not give in to paying the bribe. Much easier said than done. At first I was adamant. I answered, “Sure, I have my passport and visa stamp, and vehicle permit, and insurance, and driver’s license. That is what I have for the cops.”

Well, you can imagine the cop didn’t like that. He then asked Alex, who was driving, if he would show him what was in the back of the vehicle and on the roof rack. We have a dash cam, so I believe this was a diversion to get Alex to the back of the car and to get off camera (even though we weren’t rolling, but he didn’t know that). Once at the back of the car, the cop straight up told Alex he required $10 to let us go. And because I am a raging idiot, I grabbed the first bill I found and basically threw it out the window. It was $500 pesos, which is like $25 dollars. We were just pushed past the point of any comfort, and that is their goal – to push you until you give in.

And he asked for it in dollars because it is super clear we were American. And that is why we were a target. We were driving a bright red SUV with a blue luggage rack and California plates. We knew this would probably not be the last time this happened, but we weren’t prepared for how bad it felt the next time.

You see, it will never be fun to be extorted, but the encounter with the first officer wasn’t really all that bad. While he did have a large automatic weapon, it didn’t really feel threatening. It felt like what it was. He just wanted money, and not a lot of money, so it was very matter of fact. We had a discussion about wether or not we were willing to experience that again and we decided we could deal because it was more important to us to have our Mexican road trip.

We continued on to San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, and even drove all the way to Acapulco without any issues.

Our first full day in Acapulco was almost amazing. We drove from one side of the bay to the other and ended up at a secluded local beach with white sand and warm water as far as our eyes could see. We were the only people on the beach excluding two guest of the nearby resort hotel lounging under a palapa.

We weren’t prepared to spend all day at the beach, so we went on to do our grocery shopping all the while talking about the epic beach day we would have the next day.

Majorly excited, and with a car full of groceries we headed back to our rental. Then we saw this:

A motorcycle cop pulling us over in Acapulco, Guerrero Mexico

This photo was actually taken after our encounter was over. Because, again, I froze under the tension. I should have filmed the whole thing.

It is perfectly legal to film an interaction with the police in Mexico, just like it is in the United States.

But, I guess having gone through it one before didn’t really prepare us. Why? Because we expected it to be the same as the first time and that was a mistake. You see, while the first crooked cop wasn’t trying to scare us, this one was.

He asked to see our Temporary Import Permit, which is a document you need in order to drive a foreign car in Mexico. We had this document, but like a fool in love with the beach I had stupidly just unpacked our folder of important documents from the car the night before when we arrived in Acapulco. Like, actual effing Homer Simpson level D’oh.

Luckily, I have all of our documents backed up as electronic files on my phone, so I showed him. He said no, I need a paper. Now, this paper I needed was nothing more than a print out of this electronic document that had been sent to me by Banjercito, the official Mexican Federal Bank issuer of these documents. But, the officer insisted we needed to show him a paper copy or we were in “big trouble”.

I am well aware that we were not in big trouble because of the paper. We were in big trouble because we were in the clutches of a corrupt cop that was going to say anything in order to scare us. As mentioned before, the goal is to intimidate you into giving them the most money possible.

He went on to say that he could arrest us right now, take us to the station, and impound our car…

OR

Get this! Or, we could pay the fine to him now and be on our way. How convenient for us all! At this point I was crying out of fear and frustration. He had been hurling so many threats at us I really had no idea what he would do. All I could think was that he was trying to separate me and Alex somehow, or get us off of the crowded street we were on.

When we asked how much the ticket would cost he said he had to “call it in” and ask. So, he went back to his motorcycle to make a “phone call” while we counted how much money we actually had on us out of his sight. We had MXN $760 (about USD $37).

The officer came back and told us it would be MXN $2100 (about USD $104). OMG guess what? We don’t have $2100 pesos in cash on us because we aren’t total idiots. This is when he offers to follow us to the ATM. But, like I said, thankfully not complete idiots.

We said no. We are not leaving the car. I am in hysterics because he is still trying to separate us. Alex said he will not drive to the ATM, but says we will go into the station and we will pay with a card. Then all of the sudden the officer is willing to negotiate the price of the ticket based on how much money we had.

Again, Alex ends up at the back of the car with the officer where he pretends to make another phone call. Alex said his phone screen was clearly not making a call. This time the officer tells Alex flat out that if he settles this with him, it will be an “illegitimate” deal. Absolutely admitting that this is a bribe. Alex tried to hand him the money, but the officer says no, drive down the road past the red light and then pull over again. I am not exactly sure why he asked us to move the car first. Maybe he knew he was in front of a camera or he was worried about witnesses. But we were still on the same crowded and busy street, so we drove past the light and I shoved the money at him. Then he made sure to warn us that he would be looking for us again and that if we did not have that paper, we would be in big trouble.

Technically it is illegal to pay a bribe, but I think the only illegal actions here were perpetrated by the so-called officer. Alex and I did nothing wrong. We didn’t even break any traffic laws to warrant getting pulled over.

And that is the scariest thing about all of this.

This means that you are at risk even when you are not doing anything illegal. We were at risk by simply just being there. And our only choice is to break the law (of paying the bribe) in order to get out of the situation. That is why he made sure Alex knew it was a bribe. That way, if it ever came back on the officer, they would also have a charge for us.

We really tried to let this one go in the same way we did the first one. But, the next day as we were driving to find another magnificent beach, we passed a road block and freaked out. We didn’t get stopped, but what if we did on the way back? And we had now graduated into complete idiots because we forgot to go to the ATM to get cash after we forked over all but $20 pesos to the police. If we didn’t have enough cash, what would they take from us next? Alex’s laptop? Our car? One of us?

When our day of peaceful beach-going soon turned into a hectic game of find the nearest ATM, we knew we had to re-evaluate. We got some cash and drove straight back to the apartment where we stayed for three days without leaving until we decided it was time to leave Mexico.

Yes, we know the state Guerrero, home to Acapulco, is on the US State Department’s Do Not Travel list. But, we had just spent a month in Mexico City without any safety issues whatsoever. And we had done our research on Guerrero as well and felt convinced by the fact that major criminal organizations don’t bother tourists. We kind of just didn’t realize that the police are a major criminal organization there – or they are at least heavily controlled by one.

Judge me all you want and call me stupid all you want. Believe me, looking back now I feel very un-smart about it. But, as I said, at the moment I was beside myself because being in the actual situation is almost impossible to prepare for. I would like to think that had this happened a third time I would have been so fed up that I would have handled it well. But, that would have all depended on which officer showed up that day and how far they were willing to go to intimidate us. Not a chance I wanted to take anymore.

Like the opening paragraph of this blog says, we have all heard stories that go both ways. What you have to decide is wether or not you are willing to take the risk. And we decided that we were not any longer. We had so much anxiety that we didn’t leave the apartment for a week. What kind of life is that? We were exited to explore and learn so much more about Mexico, but the thought of driving any further made us frozen in place.

Sure, we could have stayed and it all could have been fine. Everything in life is uncertain. There are plenty of situations in life when we have anxiety for unfounded reasons, and we push through that. But, once the anxiety is founded in reason, it becomes really hard to want to push through it. For what result? To prove that Mexico is safe? That isn’t our job and not the hill we choose to die on. We loved so many things about Mexico, but it wasn’t worth our mental health.

Goodbye Acapulco, and Mexico.

One thing remains certain, we have an almost unfair amount of privilege to get to decide to just leave. We acknowledge that we have passport privilege and that traveling to Mexico should not be viewed as a cheap novelty, but as an opportunity to learn. We do not want this article to imply that we dismiss Mexico as a whole. The first thing I said as we walked through Colonial Roma in Mexico City was “I never want to leave”. And just because that ended up not being true, doesn’t mean that moment wasn’t one of the best of my life. Mexico gave us so much. And it made us smarter and tougher. It helped us prove that we can do so much more than we ever thought we could. And it gave me enough beauty to make me smile forever. I felt really lucky for having gotten to go.

Tips for getting pulled over as a foreinger in Mexico:

Note:

We are absolutely not lawyers. We are just people who experienced this and hope our experience can help others.

We are absolutely not lawyers, but here are a few tips we learned that may help if you are ever in this situation:

  • Always have a close friend or family member in the loop. For us, someone has digital copies of all of our documents and we share our live location with people we trust using our phones.
  • Attempt to film the interaction if you feel safe doing so – it is legal in Mexico to film a traffic stop, etc. on a cell phone. But, sometimes you may not feel safe doing so.
  • Tell them you are going to call your country’s embassy and actually do it. Tell the embassy why you are being detained and ask for clarification. They will be able to tell you all the legitimate reasons you could be detained. Add the number to your phone as soon as you can, not after the second time you get extorted like us!
  • Know the reasons it is legal to threaten you with arrest. Again, call the embassy or a lawyer if you have one to ask for clarification. You should only be threatened with arrest for very serious crimes like drugs, alcohol, driving under the influence, disturbing the peace, fighting, weapons, violence, etc., not for a simple traffic violation and especially not for none at all.
  • If you really did commit a traffic violation request a written citation or ticket. There is no need to go with them anywhere unless it is a major offense. A traffic violation just requires a written citation and you can even pay it by mail.
  • Some people say it is best to not speak Spanish, or pretend you don’t know any. But, I also talked to plenty of locals in Mexico that said extortion happens to them as well. So, I don’t think it really matters. I would say speak the language that helps you communicate the best.
  • Never expect the same situation when getting pulled over. Each officer is going to have their own limit on how far they are going to push and take advantage.

Note:

After we shared our story with our Instagram followers, we heard several stories of this type of bribery happening to people on foot as well. So, just be aware that even though it is less likely, this can occur even if you choose not to drive.

Want to read some good things about Mexico? Check these out!

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