Cocktail Stories: La Mordida
The bartender’s art of conversation with a difficult customer can be used to entertain a difficult policia preventiva. A couple of summers ago, after a long day of legal documents involving the bringing together of our lives in Baja, my husband Demián and I were headed for a little respite in Todos Santos. All of a sudden, the red and blue flashing lights of you-know-who caught our attention.
“You smell like beer,” the policeman charged.
“No, I’ve been eating pesto,” Demián explained, pulling out a container of our homemade pesto made with ground nuts, olive oil, garlic, and fresh basil. He shoved the container into the officer’s face with a big grin, forcing the officer to take a whiff. “I do have a bottle of Champagne in this cooler, if you’d like to see it, but it’s unopened,” he offered.
The bottle was actually not true Champagne, as any sparkling wine labeled such should ideally come from the Champagne region of France. The bottle in our cooler was a much simpler sparkling wine from Washington State, but we figured this was not the time for a wine class.
The policeman asked Demián, “Did you not see the speed limit sign?”
Demián answered with a little chortle, “Well, no, officer. Did you see that woman in the car with me? I was too busy looking at her legs.” The officer attempted to remove our plates with Demián asking if he could just take a ticket so we could get on our way. The officer replied that this was not possible because he had already reported to his superior that he had pulled us over and that we would have to go in and wait at least 8 hours to pay the infraction. Then he made sure to get a good look at the legs in the passenger seat of the car.
Using as much charm as could be mustered, Demián explained that he’s a bartender and would love to buy him a drink sometime if we could just move along. The officer declined with, “I’m working, but we can make a deal.”
“How much do you want?,” Demián inquired.
“I cannot ask you for money, but you can offer,” the officer responded.
Demián offered 270 pesos. The officer instructed him to fold it under his license and hand it to him. This legerdemain went unnoticed by passersby but is forever ingrained in our minds.
It’s not unheard of to be pulled over in Mexico by the police for some cockamamie excuse. Often the officers just want you to offer them a mordida, a “bite,” in the form of a cash payment in exchange for being let go. In the few short months we lived in La Paz, policia preventiva bit us three times. One harasser left us be after handing over a pathetic, measly 20 pesos dug from the lint in pants pockets. Once on the Malecon, we were pulled over with great fanfare including large, intimidating rifles rather aggressively displayed by a truck load of officers. We were in a rental car and were warned it was illegal to have tinted windows.
When we returned the car to the rental company, we complained about the tinted windows accusation. The clerk told us, “All of our cars have tinted windows to protect them from the sun. Next time just tell them to *#%$ off.” With AR-15 guns in your face, courage to stand up to the police is not always easy.
The rental representative explained that the company pays a permit to the government in order to provide cars with tinted windows. She also explained that the policia is not supposed to take your plates as long as you have a license. They can only legally give you a ticket.
Not all policia are corrupt. On a positive note, we were once walking on a very busy road that had no sidewalks and a very narrow shoulder. A preventive officer picked us up and only offered to drive us home, lecturing us on the dangers of walking along that strip of road at night when cars can’t see pedestrians clearly. Not even a hint of a mordida entered conversation.
We interviewed a local policia officer to try to better understand their side of this problem. He proudly stated that he had never accepted a bribe and was adamantly opposed to this type of corruption. He said that mordida complaints to the local police headquarters usually did not result in disciplinary action. He suggested going to the Ministerio Publico and filing a formal lawsuit.
He reported that he earns about $6000 pesos (less than $500) a month working 8 hours a day 6 days a week. The minimum education requirement for his position is secundaria, around a junior high level. Perhaps the pressure of low wages and the level of education play a role in the problem?
Although he did not confirm that district chiefs demand weekly payoffs from their officers, when asked, he did not make eye contact and hesitated in his answer of “No.” This may not be the practice in the La Paz force, but reports exist of this type of pressure influencing the officers’ behavior on the street in some parts of Mexico.
A 2005 survey conducted by Transparencia Mexicana, a group dedicated to combating corruption, found that half of Mexican residents said they had paid a bribe to avoid being ticketed or detained by an officer. Could this tradition of accepted corruption be symptomatic of an unequal distribution of wealth in a democratic country still evolving? The shakedown might be viewed as a sign of the level of institutional development of a country’s government.
Articulo 153, Capitulo 8 of the Penal Code of Baja California Sur says that a public servant may be punished from 1-9 years in prison for soliciting a bribe. Articulo 10 of the Reglamento de Transito del Municipio de la Paz prohibits abuse of authority, fraud, and bribes, or cohechos in Spanish. However, this payoff tradition flourishes, and many consider it a fast track method to justice that’s much less hassle than the inconvenience of the hours it may take paying a fine or filing a complaint with the local police office. If you elect to go this route, $10 to $20 (U.S.) is the maximum you should pull out of your pocket.
The U.S. State Department’s web site instructs Americans to take down an officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number if they want to file a complaint. We suggest also noting the policia branch such as preventiva or federal. Photos and video proof may also assist.
Adriana Castro, in charge of the Departamento de Promoción in the La Paz tourist office, reported that their office had received no complaints from tourists regarding mordidas. Her advice is to not give personal papers such as passports or drivers licenses to officers when in a rental car. She suggested showing only your rental car circulation card and accepting the ticket. If the police take the plates, call the rental car office and report the experience and pay the fine at the local policia office.
She also suggested stopping by the Tourism Office located outside the Casa de Artesana Sucaliforniano on the Malecon near Applebee’s at Obregon and Bravo for help in filing a complaint, stating that the office can assist non-Spanish speakers with complaint forms. However, when we stopped by this office to inquire, the ladies staffing the office showed us a blank sheet of paper, smiling that this is their complaint form. This office is open Monday through Sunday 8:00am to 8:00pm.
If American, contact the local U.S. Consulate office at  (624) 143-3566 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experience.
Our La Paz attorney suggests after filing the complaint with the policia office, contact newspapers and/or radio. For example, Sudcaliforniano will print a copy of your complaint for free in their “Buzón de lector” section, but the paper does not offer English assistance so come prepared to speak Spanish.
Offering a bribe to a public official is a crime in Mexico according to the Titulo Tercero, Capitulo 1, Articulo 163 of the BCS Penal Code and punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine. If you play along, you are as much a part of the corruption as the officer.
But on to some drinking! Boost your courage to stand up to corruption with this cocktail inspired by our mordida experience. We used damiana for its energizing properties. Key lime and tequila are natural partners. Cheaper tequilas contain other spirits besides agave so we always reach for pure tequila labeled 100% agave. Since we had pesto made with basil and sparkling wine in the car, those ingredients had to play a role, too.
But don’t drink and drive!
- 1 Key Lime (regular lime will do if you can't get it)
- 1.5 oz/44 ml Damiana liqueur
- 1 oz/30 ml 100% agave Tequila Blanco, such as El Tesoro, silver medal winner in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition
- 2 leaves of Basil (medium size)
- Splash of sparkling wine
- Orange wheel (for garnish)
Cut the key lime in half. Lightly muddle the lime and the basil in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Add liqueur and tequila. Fill with ice and shake well. Pour the mix into a chilled rocks glass and top with a splash of sparkling wine. Garnish with orange wheel.