Governance

How To Beat A Bribe in Mexico City

By Barbara F. Walter

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.

7 Comments

  • Directly confronting the police is kind of risky in many areas, including the United States, unless you are known to be, as they say, connected.

    • I agree. What I did was risky and unwise. I can only attribute it to my New York roots and my indignation at being falsely accused. Not a smart move.

      What I didn’t mention was that I was also pregnant at the time (although not showing) – something that made my husband even more annoyed at my behavior.

  • I can see this working both ways with regards to the retributive capacity of tourists. On the one hand, tourists are on average wealthy, and have a connection to embassy services. But on the other corrupt police may judge that tourists are unlikely to have the local knowledge necessary to ensure that retribution affects the officers in question themselves (by calling the correct local police station until they find a uncorrupt supervisor, for example) and not the police force overall (tourists complaining to their embassy, who then issue warnings to subsequent travelers).

    As an anecdote, while a student I occasionally guided recreation department trips in northern Mexico. Within the department there is a strong perception that vans carrying a large university logo are less likely to encounter trouble than un-badged vans, as the logo-carrying vans are thought to be seen as both a source of tourism dollars and perhaps retributive capacity.

  • As a tourist or short-term worker in Africa, I’ve often found that stonewalling is an effective way to get out of a bribe. (I.e. refuse to pay, change the topic, reiterate that there shouldn’t be a cost for the service, etc. until they conclude that you’re determined not to pay and let you go.) I suspect that part of the reason this works for foreigners but probably not the average person is that there is a significant time cost to it. I’m willing to be late for work or to argue with a border guard for 20 minutes if it means that I can avoid a bribe. I would probably behave differently if I thought I might lose my job for arriving late, or if I needed to get across the border to trade and was losing revenue by arguing with the guard.

  • I just received this email from a friend regarding the post:

    “Now, did you yell at them in English or Spanish? I’ve heard if you are stopped that if you speak in English and refuse to acknowledge that you understand them and what they are asking you to do their ability to extract a bribe decreases, frustration increases, time increases, they can’t reason with you and they are more likely to let you go.

    Were they speaking to you in English? Language spoken would totally change the game.”

    My friend is right. I do not speak any Spanish although I understand a bit. I was speaking quite rapidly in English the entire time.

  • I think this is a variation on my typical response to bribe solicitation: act as if you don’t understand it’s bribe solicitation and then ask for a written ticket or announce that you’ll need an official receipt for payment. About 75% of the time, I’m waved on quickly. I actually learned this practice from a middle-class local (I work in Africa), so I wonder if it is not partly what is driving the rich local driver effect. I haven’t seen the paper, so I’m not sure if this is what the authors mean by retaliation, but the demand for documentation does work wonders. As Rachel suggests, directly challenging the bribe or arguing agent wrong-doing is often a time-consuming process (as delaying you is a form of punishment). … I’m reminded here of the zero-rupee campaign in India: might conveying knowledge of the formal process and legally set cost be sufficient to constrain corrupt officials? Or at least might do so in contexts where this knowledge is rare (so sacrificed cost of bribes from knowledgeable individuals is low)?

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