A brief introduction to how Mexico's law enforcement system operates

Latest attraction at Mexico’s oldest theme park.

When Americans can’t quite explain a situation or event, they might just say, “Oh, you had to be there!”

And so it is with Americans who might be baffled by the stupendous inefficiency and corruption of Mexico’s law enforcement system, which allowed the July 11 escape of the world’s most notorious narco-trafficker, “El Chapo,” from Mexico’s most secure, state-of-the-art, he’ll-never-get-out-again, don’t-worry-about-it, maximum-est maximum-security prison.

If you lived here, you would have seen how—instead of outrage—the average Mexican reacted to El Chapo’s escape with bemusement, derision, resignation or a shrug. What else is new, Mexicans will ask you. Few, if any, high- or even middle-profile criminals are ever captured, tried and permanently put away.

How does the country’s law enforcement system work? It’s simple, you’ll hear: It doesn’t.

If we had a comparable system in the U.S., Timothy McVeigh would have been last seen five years ago camping somewhere in Yosemite National Park, and no one would expect that Dylann Roof would serve much time for the killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

In Mexico, such prosecutions—no matter how high-profile—typically meander along endlessly, get mired in bureaucratic bungling and corruption—and are eventually eclipsed by another, even more scandalous, law enforcement debacle.  

The humor newspaper El Deforma, a close cousin of The Onion in the U.S., hit a goldmine of material with El Chapo’s escape.

My favorite “news story” was that the amusement park Six Flags Over Mexico had just inaugurated the “Chapo Tunel,” a new attraction over a mile long—the length of the entire park— embellished with such realistic touches as laundry carts, picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and motorcycles on rails. Visitors ride hidden inside the laundry carts, just as El Chapo did in 2001, when he escaped from prison the first time.

Corruption—as in bribes, extortion and payoffs—seems to be at the heart of the system’s dysfunction. Kind-hearted American liberals often argue that if the poor Mexican policeman on the beat received a better salary, or equipment, or patrol cars or whatever, he would not be so easily tempted by the lure of “mordidas” or bribes.

Though I have no way of proving it, I suspect that even if San Miguel’s street cops were paid $50,000 dollars more a year, the mordida system would abate only temporarily, because even with the enhanced salaries, why not shoot for $60,000 a year, particularly when the entire police department is in on the scam? There’s no ceiling to greed and corruption.

My first brush with the mordida system came in Mexico City many years ago, when I asked a transit cop where I could park my car. The official matter-of-factly told me that if I gave him some money, can’t remember how much, I could park right on the sidewalk, where he’d “keep an eye on it.” I passed on the suggestion.

A while back, here in San Miguel, a pickup with riders on the truck bed—which is technically illegal yet universal because of the erratic bus schedules—was stopped by a local transit cop who, after some throat-clearing, made it clear a nice mordida would induce amnesia.

The driver said he didn’t have that much money, and the cop—without pause or shame—suggested the riders should pitch in to cover the entire mordida, which they did.

Or take an American friend who lives about ten miles farther out in the country than us. His lovely Texas-style cottage was broken into about a year ago, and the burglars walked off with an odd loot: Booze, some clothes and a set of silverware—every piece except for the knives. Much police hoo-hah ensued, including dusting for fingerprints and questioning, but the case has languished unresolved.

Félix, our own consultant on matters of ornithology and Mexican forensics, suggested that if our friend contributed several twenty-dollar bills to the investigators, that would greatly enhance their perspicacity and interest in cracking the case.

Félix also said that it was foolhardy for Mexican drivers to turn in crooked cops. All that would accomplish, he said, would be to get one’s drivers license taken away or car towed to the city pound, and the financial hit would be far greater than the mordida.

I have one mordida story, my favorite because it involved me. While driving through Nuevo Laredo, a rathole of a town, on the way to the U.S., we were stopped by a man dressed as a policeman, on foot, and wielding what seemed to be radar gun.

He said I was speeding and not wearing seat belts. A fine of about three-hundred and fifty pesos, about twenty-five dollars, was in order. We’d been driving for about ten hours and I wasn’t in the mood to argue, so I went along.

The “cop” got on the back seat of our car and gave me directions to an OXXO store, equivalent to a Seven Eleven or White Hen Pantry, about ten minutes somewhere else in town, where we would settle the fine. I paid the “fine” to a young woman behind the cash register, who could barely stifle a laugh. That done, the policeman asked to be driven back to where we’d found him.

About an hour after we crossed the border, it all became clear to me. Shit. The guy was not really a policeman, what he was wielding was a hair dryer not a speed gun, and the babe at the OXXO was probably his girlfriend. This scam took place in broad daylight, in the downtown of a fair-sized Mexican city, a few blocks from the U.S. border.

How could I be so stupid? Hmm. All I can say in my defense is: you had to be there. 

10 thoughts on “A brief introduction to how Mexico's law enforcement system operates

  1. Anonymous

    During my four-month road trip around Mexico last year, I must have been stopped a hundred times by cops, mostly at checkpoints when crossing state borders, though a couple of times mid-flight, as it were. Surprisingly, I was not once asked for a mordida nor accused of doing anything wrong. But I had heard that Saltillo, just south of Monterrey, had a particularly nasty reputation with regards to mordidas, so I made sure I had enough gas so that I could just stay on the highway. And Norm, one of my readers, darkly hinted at some sort of likely problem near Campeche (though not Campeche itself), so I did the same, passing through as quickly as possible, and without problem. I don't know this for a fact, but my sense is that the mordida problem is slowly diminishing. Is this your understanding? What does Felix think? (Is he old enough to have a perspective?)Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere my Mexican friends are astonished by tales of the efficacy and swiftness of the Boston Police.


  2. “Few, if any, high- or even middle-profile criminals are ever captured, tried and permanently put away.”I am absolutely agog at seeing someone who understands suspensive hyphenation.


  3. I find it interesting that you don't mention some similarities in the USA such as the maximum security escape of those two guys in NY from a “they'll never get out” place. OR all the video cams of police beating and maiming people on traffic stops in the USA. I could go on and on with personal stories of things not being resolved in the US justice system as well. As far as mordida, if you don't pay it and drive off, what will they do? Nothing……..I've never paid a dime and never will.


  4. Here in San Miguel mordidas continue, though some gringos are learning how to fight back. Felix told me there is something called a “gafete”, which is a police badge with the name and ID number, that all cops are required to wear prominently. Just last week a friend said he and his wife were stopped by a cop demanding $600 pesos for some BS violation, and he calmly asked the cop for the gafete, which was not visible, and also for a signed receipt for the money transfer. The cop practically ran. I have no idea if mordidas are increasing or decreasing; as you know, Mexico is a huge place and god knows what goes on. Poor Felix has been shaken down several times and he HATES cops. I don't think he'd be an objective source.


  5. There is very little similarity other than both were prison escapes. Just think that El Chapo somehow dug a fully equipped tunnel, about a mile long, and how much corruption and collusion that required and from how many people, from prison guards to surveyors to direct the project and dump truck drivers to haul away the dirt. Also remember that El Chapo was THE most important prisoner in the system, who escaped while the video was running. A comparable event in the US would be Charles Manson or the Unabomber escaping from a Supermax Prison in the U.S. Police racism in the US is just as deplorable and undeniable, but different from the corruption that permeates law enforcement in Mexico from head to toe. If your way of dealing with mordidas is to pull away from a cop, I salute your cojones. I'd never have the balls to do that and risk having the guy start shooting at me. I respect and value your opinion but I think we're talking about different things here.al


  6. Anonymous

    And I'll bet no one is prosecuted or fined for either failure of “suspensive hyphenation” or incorrect use in Mexico. Scandalous, truly!


  7. Anonymous

    On Tuesday night, there was a “Frontline” story on PBS about El Chapo. The crew even managed to interview his mother, and almost interviewed El Chapo himself, who apparently at the last minute thought better of being interviewed on Gringo TV, so never showed up. They also did extensive interviews with the author of “Los Señores del Narco,” Anabel Hernandez, who is a strong critic of the Mexican government. And at the end they covered El Chapo's escape from prison. The conclusion of the program was that El Chapo escaped because the Mexican government wanted him to escape. And watching all ninety minutes of the program, it was hard to come to any other conclusion. If you can watch that episode on YouTube, I'd highly recommend it. Saludos,KGP.S. Have you seen this post of mine? https://gringosuelto.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/yes-comment-please/


  8. KG: We saw that show and it was amazing, though not as tightly edited as the usual Frontline. I found the description of corruption in the Mexican prison system amazing. I agree that someone high up in the Mexican government, maybe as high as you can go ;), facilitated or at least turned a blind eye to his escape. What I can't figure out, partly because I missed the last fifteen minutes of the show, is why? (Tell me, I'd like to hear) I'll check the blog that you mention.


  9. KG: We saw that show and it was amazing, though not as tightly edited as the usual Frontline. I found the description of corruption in the Mexican prison system amazing. I agree that someone high up in the Mexican government, maybe as high as you can go ;), facilitated or at least turned a blind eye to his escape. What I can't figure out, partly because I missed the last fifteen minutes of the show, is why? (Tell me, I'd like to hear) I'll check the blog that you mention.


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