I recently read an excellent article about bribery and discrimination in Latin America. In it, thee Yale scholars present the results of a field experiment conducted in a major Latin America city. Their goal was to see if police officers were more or less wiling to extort bribes from people based on how wealthy they appeared to be. They found that poor people were more likely to be solicited for bribes for committing a traffic violation than rich people and argued that this was because officers associated wealth with a greater capacity to exact retribution.
This reminded me of a similar experience I had a few years ago in Mexico City. I had just rented a car and was a few miles from the airport when I was pulled over by the police at a busy five way intersection. The officers claimed I had committed a traffic violation and wanted to collect a fine. My reaction was to immediately get out of the car, look them in the eye, and argue my case. “Get back in the car,” the officers insisted. “No,” I said, “I’m not getting back in the car until you remove the fine.” The result? The officers quickly backed down and I drove away. No bribe was paid.
Why did I beat this bribe? The Yale scholars might argue that getting out of the car allowed the officers to see that I was a tourist (and relatively wealthy by Mexican standards). I disagree. The officers knew I was a tourist before they pulled me over. I think the officers backed down because I had taken an ugly practice public. Mexican police were happy to extort an American tourist as long as it occurred in the relative privacy of a car. But when the extortion could be viewed by a wide audience in public, the officers wanted no part of it.
Do I advocate getting out of the car the next time you are pulled over in Mexico? Only if you are in the middle of a busy intersection where you can easily be observed. (ed: And perhaps only if your spouse isn’t sitting next to you. My husband almost killed me as we drove away.) This suggests that corrupt practices are increasingly likely to decline, the more public they become.