Mexican Police Myths

The first time I saw a Mexican police officer he was standing in the back of a pickup truck holding a machine gun. This was a huge leap for me, coming from a country where you rarely see a cop’s handgun out of it’s holster. I found it frightening and unnerving, especially since I had negative images of Mexican police in my head from the media. I have (mostly) grown accustomed to it and I no longer feel unsafe. However, many of our friends and family still think that Mexico is a dangerous place, made even more dangerous by corrupt police. This is an image (and issue) that Mexico has faced for years, encouraged by cartels, drug trafficking and kidnappings.

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According to these statistics, Mexico is seen as being very corrupt compared to other OECD countries. This corresponds with what we have experienced talking to visitors and people we know, but surprisingly even Mexicans seem to perceive their own country this way. In fact, almost every expat we’ve talked to has had a more positive outlook for Mexican police and the end of corruption than every Mexican we’ve discussed the issue with. The general attitude in Cancun seems to be that the police aren’t to be trusted and that they are extremely corrupt. The interesting thing is, according to recent testing and investigations, 70% of the country’s most corrupt police officers are concentrated in only 10 states, neither Quintana Roo or Yucutan being one of them.

The truth is there is a lot of crime in Mexico, but it’s concentrated, and most of it is targeted at specific groups of people; tourists are not one of them. However, the distrust of police does lead to a sense of lawlessness.

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According to The International Crime Victimization Survey, in 2004-2005 only 16% of victimization incidents were reported to police. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, only 1 in 10 crimes is reported and only 1 in 100 reported crimes makes it to sentencing. This effectively means only 1 in 1000 crimes is punished!  This is mainly due to mistrust, lack of resources, and corruption. Even in our middle class neighbourhood people seem hesitant to call the police for any reason. According to Transparency International just over 30% of Mexico’s population reported paying a bribe to one of nine government officials in the past year.

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So far, the statistics that show that Quintana Roo’s police officers are mainly not corrupt fits with our experience here. We have had a handful of interactions with the police; most of them were positive and we have yet to pay a bribe (fingers crossed). A while back, shortly after we purchased our motorcycle, we had an incident with a cop due to missing licence plates. It seemed like the perfect scenario for a bribe to occur. But, the officer was understanding and let us go with a warning; a bribe was never even eluded to. We were asked for a bribe at the Mexico/Belize border, but we refused to pay it and eventually, with help from a local, got through. Many people, such as Kate from wanderingnotlost.org, have also had similar positive experiences with the police while traveling in Mexico. However, even though we haven’t paid a bribe, it’s still not unheard of in Cancun, and certainly a frequent occurrence in many parts of Mexico. Christine from almostfearless.com tells a story that is (unfortunately) fairly common, especially on the west coast.

Most of the corruption comes from a lack of training, poor salaries, and a lack of education. A recent analysis of the police force brought to light some disturbing things.

It detailed that “the training, preparation and institutional support for local police are generally poor,” plus it warned that most police had completed only primary school or less resulting in the “erosion of institutional rules” and “it delayed the modernization of the police.”

Most cops in Mexico make less than $1000 a month (many significantly so), making the temptation to engage in bribery to help support themselves and their family very hard to resist. Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has made promises to reform the current system of corruption. He has stated a desire to, among other things, replace corrupt municipal police forces with state police, and to increase federal presence in the 4 worst states. This may sound like a great plan, but many in Mexico do not trust Peña and don’t believe meaningful change will come. They have heard it all before.

Corruption and crime are complex problems that have been in place for many years in Mexico, but gradually change is beginning to take place. Don’t let stories you hear in the media stop you from visiting the country, especially the Yucatan Peninsula. There are some states I wouldn’t currently visit, and I would take certain precautions in others, but where we are I feel just as safe as I do back home in Toronto. Stay away from drugs and be prepared to pay the odd bribe, but for the most part the cops in the peninsula are just like they are in Canada; don’t do anything stupid and you will be fine.

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