There´s no denying it – Mexico is a beautiful land. But there is no uglier sight in this world than what I am about to describe. Imagine a portly man dressed in black pants with a yellow stripe down the side. He is standing on the side of the street, hidden except for his pot-bellied “panza” that nearly gives him away. But somehow he always manages to mask his unwanted presence until the last minute. And BANG! Just like that, he waddles out of nowhere and signals for you to pull you over.
These Transitos, or traffic cops, are literally everywhere in Monterrey, Guadalupe, and all of the surrounding towns at all hours of the day and night. Oh good, you might think. They are there to keep possessed Mexican drivers under control. But no, Transitos are really crossing guards that can cost you money. They carry no more legal authority in terms of stopping a crime than you or I, and as for controlling the traffic, they only make it worse. These guys live for one thing – to make a buck. They have no function except to pressure unsuspecting drivers into giving them a good, old-fashioned Mexican mordida, or bribe.
I live off a street that is absolute hell. It looks like hell, it smells like hell, and it flows like molten lava seeping out of hell. All along this street, which is one of the two main streets accessing a large part of the city, are schools. So, all along the street are school zones and Transitos. The Transitos are there supposedly to help the school children cross, but I see them pulling over more cars in a school zone than helping students to cross. The maximum speed in a school zone is 20 mph in Mexico and these cops take it seriously. However, they are all on foot, and none of them has radar. Who knows if people are actually going over 20? They just pull over anyone they think might be going over 20.
Getting pulled over initiates a 10-30 minute process of haggling with the transito as if he didn´t know how the situation would end. If you are lucky and know how to play the situation, the transito will let you go without having to offer him a bribe. If you are not so lucky, he will expect a bribe. In the rare case that he does not want a bribe, he will give you an official ticket.
I have had to deal with Transitos three times in Mexico in the two years that I have been here. The first two times were for “speeding” and the third was because I was in a minor car accident. Let´s start with the speeding incidents.
The first time I was stopped, I don´t even really know why or on what grounds the transito pulled me over. I had stopped at a light and stepped on the gas when it turned green. Immediately the transito pulled me over. I think I hadn´t even had a chance to hit 20 mph yet. But apparently, I must have just come out of the light too fast according to the transito. I had a nice little chat with the official. I explained to him that I was new to the area and I didn´t realize I had to go so slow on a street with three lanes going in each direction. After a short while, he asked me why I was in Mexico. I told him because I married a Mexican. He immediately asked me where my husband was. DOES IT MATTER? I said he was with his mother. It struck the man as very odd that I was out on my own and not with my husband apparently, because he seemed to have sympathy for me after that and he let me go without giving me a fine. Thank God because I escaped having to decide whether to bribe him or not.
The second time I was stopped for going over 20 mph in a school zone. I think I was actually doing 30 mph, so ok, I was wrong. The transito pulled me over. It just so happened that Carlos was in front of me in his car, and he pulled over too when he saw what had happened. He waited in his car for me. The transito showed me in his official book, which looked like a cartoon drivers´ ed manual, that the maximum speed in a school zone is 20 mph. I asked him where the school was and where the signs were. His answer was basically, “Back there.” Very specific.
I tried to get out of my situation by saying I hadn´t realized it was a school zone, and this was the honest truth. I told him I would be on my best behavior and asked him to let me go this time. He was very insistent, and he knew where he was going with the situation. When I realized he wasn´t going to let me get off, I told him to write me the ticket, but he said that since my car has foreign plates, he was going to hold my license and car permit papers hostage until I paid the fine. I REFUSED to surrender my documents. The mother of a good friend of mine is Mexican. They took her license once and lost it. She never did get it back. My license is from Massachusetts, and I´ll be damned if I´m going to fly back to Massachusetts to get a new one if some transito loses mine. And I´m sure they won´t be paying for the plane ticket!
I told the transito that I would not give him my documents, but if he would accompany me to the office where I have to pay the fine, I would pay it then and there. But of course, he didn´t want to leave the street where he could pull over more cars and make more money, so our conversation was going nowhere. I would not give him the bribe he was looking for, but he would not let me go until I gave him my documents.
By this time, Carlos had seen that the situation was taking a while and he called me on my cell phone to see if I wanted help. I told him to come over. Well, he only made the situation worse. He immediately started to drop names of important people that he knows in order to scare the transito. He told the transito he was a lawyer and that under the Mexican Constitution, no transito has the right to confiscate my documents. The transito said that he did have the right because my plates were foreign. I have to admit the transito may have been right – that is their policy when someone has foreign plates.
But it could also be true that foreigners are protected under the constitution, and if that is the case, then I certainly didn´t have to give him any documents. In any event, the transito got angry at Carlos and started to write the ticket. Carlos then asked me if I wanted to offer him a bribe. I said no, but that I didn´t want to give him my documents either. So Carlos gave him $200 pesos (we didn´t have a smaller bill…) and we went on our way with the documents.
For me, what it boiled down to is that I didn´t want to entrust this person with my important documents. It was a Friday at 6:30 pm. The office where you pay the fines closed at 7 pm. I also thought it probable that the transito would go directly home from his post and not even hand over the documents he had confiscated until Monday. That would give him a whole weekend to lose them. And without my license, I´d have to make an unexpected, expensive trip to Boston to get a new license. Furthermore, without my car papers, I´d be driving illegally and they could confiscate my car. No way, José! Perhaps this seems an excuse, but once you see a transito you will understand – these guys do not inspire you to trust in their responsibility and good nature.
This particular transito seemed miffed as well that I didn´t offer him money at first. I didn´t want to contribute to the cycle of corruption. But I also didn´t want to suffer personal expenses to be a martyr for a cause. I was trying to be realistic. After my third encounter with a transito, I´m actually starting to believe that bribing a transito, even a particularly repugnant one, may be the lesser of all evils. Here´s why:
Here in Mexico, when you are the party responsible for causing a car accident, the Transitos fine you for blocking the flow of traffic (as if you did it on purpose!). Well, when I had my minor accident, I was at fault. I rear ended the car in front of me. Once again, I did not want to offer a bribe, but it was the same dilemma all over again. The police officer wanted to take my documents. Carlos eventually took matters into his own hands and started negotiating with the transito so that he would accept a bribe. Carlos has a way with people, and he ended up talking to the transito for over 20 minutes. He actually had the nerve to ask the transito how much he earned in a month. It was about $400 dollars. A month. The guy had 2 kids. There is no way you can support a family in Monterrey on $400 a month. And this is the kicker. Carlos wanted to offer the transito about $15 because that was all we had on us. The transito wanted something over $25. We had to get him down to a lower price or I´d have to surrender my documents. As Carlos was trying to get him to come down, he said to Carlos, “Man, don´t take me wrong, but as Transitos we pray to God that there will be accidents so we can make a buck.” That shocked me. What an awful thing to say, and what an even worse thing to think!
But this line got me thinking – Who is really at fault here? These guys depend on bribes as a way of living. Really, the situation of a transito in Mexico is similar to that of a waitress in the States. Both earn next to nothing and live off tips or bribes. The government that pays the Transitos urges the Mexican people to end bribery and corruption in Mexico, yet the same government won´t pay these officials enough for them to live as human beings! I´m not saying that offering a bribe is right, but when these people are literally depending on your bribe to live, it makes you wonder if human decency and the right to earn a living should affect our concept and interpretation of what is right.
I have finally come to the conclusion, whether it be right or wrong, that I will continue to bribe Transitos if need be until I can sell my car and buy a Mexican one. That way, I will be able to let them ticket me without them confiscating any of my documents. I came into Mexico wanting to help change it. I still want to change it. But the country itself has weakened me. They make it so hard for you to do the right thing, and it´s equally as hard to know what the right thing is. There is no black and white here in Mexico; everything seems to fall in the gray area. Corruption is bad, but where is the real problem? The transito? Or the big, corrupt government that milks the little guy for all the hard work he´s worth and then pays him too little to provide for his family?
If anyone has a feasible solution to this dilemma, please let me in on it. I´m near exasperation!