Travel Tuesdays: How to deal with police stops when driving in Mexico

Ian Carroll
Mutilated Bodies Dumped on Mexico Highway / Highway Muscle - Author: Surian Soosay - CC BY 2.0
Mutilated Bodies Dumped on Mexico Highway / Highway Muscle - Author: Surian Soosay - CC BY 2.0

I slowed the car down and turned the AC up as we approached the checkpoint. The sun was blazing hot overhead, and I knew it was more than likely we were going to be stopped and searched. When you’re driving in Mexico, that’s just a part of the game. So, I enjoyed the last bit of cold air while I could. Sometimes these things take a while. Just like I expected, we were stopped, pulled out of the car. Three black jacketed police surrounded us, each one was armed to the teeth. To the average overlander, this would already be pretty scary. After all, your car is literally your entire life when driving through Mexico. And at that point, it’s pretty easy to think they have all the power in the world over it.

The stop played out normally. They asked for my paperwork, what I do for money, and where I’m traveling. They took a look around the car. Everything seemed normal until the boss came up to me and said a scary sentence. The big words that jumped out at me were, ‘go to the station’ and ‘I found residues’. It took me a second to translate this uncommon word. But it quickly became apparent what was happening. He was about to take us to the station because he had found – quote, unquote – ‘residue of drugs’.

Circumstances matter

Now let’s back up a bit and cover some basics. I’m a 25-year-old white man. I had been traveling Mexico and Guatemala and living out of my car for about five months at that point. And although I speak pretty much fluent Spanish, I stick out like a sore thumb.

Furthermore, my Subaru is painted with a colorful, and somewhat noteworthy paint job. Pretty much every time a cop gets a look at it he assumes he’s going to find drugs in my car. Now, I know that to most people, that sounds like a pretty dumb move. Maybe it is. I might also argue that it creates a good conversation and opens up space for a relationship with people I meet, including cops. Bottom line, I love it, and the paint job is non-negotiable.

Subaru car
My car is pretty easy to spot in Central America, or anywhere for that matter.

And even considering I was an easy target, after five months this was still the first time I’d had any real trouble with the cops. They’d searched my car plenty of times of course, but this was the first time the word ‘station’ had ever come up.

So, what are the basics about driving in Mexico and how do you avoid this situation? How can you be best prepared for the average police stop or for the occasional corrupt police officer? Well, that’s what we’ll cover in today’s edition of Travel Tuesdays: How to prepare for and deal with police stops while driving in Mexico. Furthermore, what do you do if you start to get a bad vibe during an encounter.

First, a note on Latin police

When you’re driving in Mexico, it’s pretty easy to be intimidated by the police. They wear full body armor, carry automatic weapons, and all sorts of other scary things we aren’t accustomed to in the US. The most important thing to remember is that that is all for your protection. It really is. I had this conversation with one of the officers at my last police stop, and it’s recorded on video. In the US, our police officers have what is usually a very tame job. Especially traffic police. But here in Mexico, they are fighting what this officer termed ‘una Guerra interna’ or an ‘internal war’. Keyword being ‘war’.

car driving in mexico
Heavily armed Mexican police searching my car. This was as he explained to me ‘la Guerra interna‘.

In Mexico, these guys are the only thing keeping law and order in the face of the cartels which are just as heavily armed and far less friendly. Trust me, you’d rather the police pull you over with an automatic weapon than the cartel. Every time I’m stopped, one of their first questions is how do you make your money? It’s a long shot, but they are trying to ask if I make money from a legitimate source or if I am an unlikely participant in the drug trafficking that plagues the country.

Most of the police officers I have encountered in Mexico are great people whose primary concern is justice and safety. In Guatemala, that number drops a fair bit, but still holds true. Don’t treat police like criminals when driving in Mexico. Chances are, they are the only thing standing between tourists like you and the ‘guerra interna’ that they deal with every day.

Keep all your forms in order

The first and most important thing you can do to avoid trouble with the police when you’re driving in Mexico is to get all your forms in order and keep them that way. If you have rented your car, ask lots of questions in the office about your paperwork. Ask what forms you will need in a traffic stop. Keep every single form they give you. Upon entry with your own rig, you’ll pay a number of fees to import your car and purchase your visa, etc. They are likely to give you a manila envelope with these forms. Keep all your forms in it, or another organized location and keep them stashed somewhere safe in your car. I like under the seat instead of my glove box (which doesn’t lock). If these forms were to go missing or be stolen, you’d be in for a lot of trouble and expense to replace them.

He hands back my paperwork signaling I’m good to go.
He hands back my paperwork signaling I’m good to go.

When you are pulled over or stopped at a traffic inspection driving in Mexico, the first things you’ll be asked for are almost always your license, the title to the vehicle (as in the actual title with your exact name on it), and your sticker (or import form, which is colored tan and was given to you at the border upon importation). Don’t be afraid to hand these forms over to the officer, just be sure to get them back. Usually, that is their way of telling you that you are free to go.

Speak at least basic Spanish

I know that this is easier said than done, but it has saved me on countless occasions. Speaking fluent Spanish always disarms cops considerably when I’m driving in Mexico. The good ones usually strike up a nice conversation and ask me funny questions about what I do or where I’m from. The bad ones usually rethink how easy it will be to force a bribe out of me. Even if you only understand the basics such as numbers, how to say where you’re from and going, and stumble through a conversation, it’s better than nothing.

I had a gringo explain it to me beautifully a couple of months back at a bar in Antigua, Guatemala. “Man, I don’t speak any Spanish! It’s so much better. I’ve been caught with weed, drinking, and driving, my paperwork is all out of date.”

“Every time they get me, they always act all tough about it, and then they act like they’re going to take me to jail. But I just say ‘cuanto cuesta ahorita’ (in his horrible accent), and they say one hundred quetzales and I’m free to go. It’s just a hundred Q every time, and you’re a good man.”

Small bribes can add up to big spending.
Small bribes can add up to big spending.

Aside from how belligerent his attitude and opinion seemed to me, I’ve never paid a single bribe on the road in my life. Never had to. Rather than his strategy which he thought was saving him money, I just speak to them in Spanish, have my forms in order, and don’t drink and drive. Simple enough, and I’m good to go. Zero quetzales. I never told him this, of course. He was not the type of guy that was looking for someone’s advice.

Know your rights

Now, I’m no lawyer, and I’m certainly not qualified to give you legal advice in the US, let alone in Mexico. But if you’re driving in Mexico, there are some basics you should know. First and foremost, you are always allowed to film the police at roadside stops in Mexico. I asked an officer at my last stop directly while filming him and he told me that it is your right to do so.

Furthermore, if the police do tell you they need to take you to the station, they are lying. Unless they have found a big stash of drugs, illegal firearms, or some other serious crime, all they need to do is write a ticket. I’m not sure of the procedure if you have committed a crime, but in most instances, it can be dealt with on the roadside, and you can take whatever ticket they write with you. They cannot impound your vehicle.

If you have any doubt, tell them you need to call your embassy before you comply. That will get to the bottom of it pretty damn fast.

Be straightforward with police

Don’t beat around the bush. First thing when you get out, ask them if you can film them. I use my GoPro, but it’s even better if you can use your cell phone. Many cell phones have apps that stream directly to the web so confiscating your phone doesn’t confiscate the video. If they ever say no to filming, I would start filming anyways and tell them that the last police officer said it is legal. Short of them threatening me with a weapon, I will always film. The word for film is ‘grabar‘. To ask if you can film you say ‘Puedo grabar por favor?

Don’t be afraid to ask other questions too, if you speak enough Spanish or they speak enough English. In my experience, they usually answer you directly and honestly. No hard feelings.

Don’t travel with drugs

This is a no-brainer, but for young people, it can sometimes seem like no big deal. Trust me, I’m a young person who used to think it would be no big deal. I’m from a state where Marijuana is legal, and I’ve had a permit to smoke it medically since I was 18. Up until traveling Latin America in my car, I never took it that seriously.

The police aren’t just looking for weed. They are likely to ask you about any pills they find in the car as well.
The police aren’t just looking for weed. They are likely to ask you about any pills they find in the car as well.

This isn’t some old dude telling you not to smoke pot. Seriously, the risks of traveling with drugs in the car in Latin America are high. Weed is extremely easy for them to find and it along with other drugs carry far more serious penalties than you might imagine. You can basically procure drugs anywhere and everywhere in Mexico and Central America, so don’t take the risk of transporting them. If you want to smoke a joint, just buy weed on whatever beach you get to next.

How a traffic stop should look

So now that you know some basics about driving in Mexico, let’s go over the average police checkpoint.

The checkpoint will be clearly marked with signage leading up to it, and the highway will most likely be designed to funnel cars off into the checkpoint. It may look a lot like a simplified border crossing or just a small set of barriers that direct cars into parking areas. There should be a number of people there, not just three, and they should be armed. After all, if they don’t have some serious firepower, they aren’t going to be prepared to do their job in the event of finding a cartel vehicle loaded with drugs. That is really what they are there for.

When you get out of the vehicle, they should ask you for your documents. That will include, as we mentioned before, your license, registration, vehicle title, and import form. They may ask to see your passport, but that hasn’t happened to me before.

driving in Mexico car
He asked me to stand across from him while he conducted the search so I could watch.

Then, and this is very important, before they start their search, good cops will ask you to take all your valuables out of the car. That means your wallet, cell phone, etc. This is so that there are no misunderstandings, and you know they aren’t trying to rob you. I have also had police ask to look through my wallet for drugs before and it was completely normal for me to take out all the money before giving it to them. This should not surprise or offend them.

Once they start the search, you should already be filming, and a good officer will usually ask you to go around to the other side of the car where you can watch what he’s doing. Again, checks and balances. Good police are always trying to be transparent and make sure you know they are not robbing you. They aren’t stupid, and they know that there are corrupt officers in Mexico. They know that white people are afraid of finding one.

If there is anything wrong or you committed a crime, such as speeding, they should write you a ticket. There are very few circumstances where they should be talking about impounding cars or taking you to the station. Again, if that comes up, you should ask to call the US embassy first.

What a police checkpoint should not look like

So back to me driving through Mexico. When the policeman came up to me and started talking about going into the station because of drug residue, I knew something was wrong. I knew there were no drugs in the car and I knew it was highly unlikely there was any residue either. So, I asked him to show me.

He took me over to the passenger seat and pointed at some sort of plant matter that had fallen into my emergency brake slot. Clearly not drugs. I pulled it out and showed it to him and said ‘no, no, no, sir this is clearly just dirt.’ I wasn’t rude, but I certainly wasn’t polite. By now I knew what was happening and I was no longer afraid that he had anything on me. It’s not like cops are going to pull their guns on you in the middle of the highway to demand a bribe.

He continued to point at little bits of dirt, and I made it very clear to him that that wasn’t going to fly. I said things like ‘if you find drugs, we can talk, but this is just dirt.’ and ‘I know what’s going on here, and I cleaned my car carefully before I left.’ ‘I don’t do drugs.’ It only took about three minutes before he gave up. He said something to the effect of ‘I’ll be nice and let you off, but just so you know, that was enough for a police officer to arrest you, so you should clean your car.’ I said thanks for the tip and got the heck out of there.

That was before I had learned to film police stops. It was also before I had learned to watch them closely. I’ve been lucky so far and haven’t run into any really sketchy situations driving in Mexico yet. When I do, I’ll take them as they come.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival