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Monday, April 14, 2008

!Nos Acercamos y Casi Nos Robamos!

Yes, that says what you think it does.

It means I'm going to tell another story. Are you shocked or what?

I need to lay down a few truths about Mexico:

1. The people of Mexico (los Mexicanos) are bonitos, simpaticos, amables, and some of the most friendly people you will ever meet. If you go to Mexico, you will fall in love with the people and their hospitality, and you will love them forever. If you don't, something is wrong with you.

2. The Government of Mexico is ALMOST as corrupt as the Government of China. And whiile, in the US, "the Policeman is your Friend", in Mexico, "the Policeman is Satan".

I wrote of this before, but let me rehash a little history: I spent a semester in Mexico back in 1994, an election year. I was ther when Vicente Fox was elected Presidente. That was a really big deal. I was also there when propsition 987 was passed in California, and thanks, subjected me to the Immigration Agent from Hell. I hope you have to meet him, too.

Anyway, in college, I majored in Criminal Justice, so while I was in Mexico, I sought to learn about their police. It was a curious phenomena; while in the US we tend to idolize, to a degree, our police (see shows like COPS), in Mexico, they are the scum of the earth. I remember visiting the Museo Antropological de Historia Americana in el D.F. (The Historical Museum of American Anthropology, located in the Federal District of Mexico City "el De Efe"), and the police guarded the doors...holding sawed-off shotguns.

I tried to get a photo, and it seemed they knew...every time I raised my camera, one of those Nazis would look straight at me, so I'd pretend to be looking at something else.

Sawed-off shotguns are outlawed in the United States. Sawing off the barrel causes the shot to spread, and this, of course, is deadly and unpredictable. While I was there that semester, I met a bouncer who was an ex-cop, Geudiel, ousted when the new governor came in. He explained, in a very matter-of-fact statement, that the cops carry sawed-off shotguns because they are more effective in crowd control. They kill more people.

I was so shocked that I asked him to repeat what he'd said. It wasn't a big deal to him at all. Those guns were MADE to shoot into crowds IN ORDER to kill more people.

Welcome to Mexico.

So it was that I came to see the mentality of the police force in Mexico. Their divisions were also different, and designated differently. And there was no coordination in between the ranks...they all had separate jurisdiction. A city cop could not respond to a call for a crime belonging to the jurisdiction of a different type of cop. But that didn't stop ANY of them from forcing bribes (mordidas) from anyone they came across. For any reason.

When I lived there for a semester, I worked in a practicum adjoined to the Delegacion (police station), and so I came across many cops. While I was curious, I wasn't stupid; they were not approachable, and as a light-haired (at the time) American, I knew I couldn't approach them without paying a price that I was not willing to pay. Just take a guess. As it was, I was once mistaken as a prostitute because I worked with them. That's a different story, too.

In any case, I was there for a semester, I returned home, and in 1996, I returned, with a friend who did not speak Spanish. We stayed in Mexico City with a friend of mine, and she and her cousin dropped Linda and I off at the TAPO, a bus station in Mexico City that would take us to Puebla, where I'd lived. We didn't have hotel plans, for I knew where to stay and didn't need a reservation. It was my city. It was home.

But just the same, my friends didn't wait with us as they had to go, but I saw them speak to the gate agent, pointing us out, likely asking that she make sure we understood the incomprehensible gate announcements when we were to board our bus. I saw the woman smile and nod, and then Vanessa and Quique left. I thought nothing of it.

It was broad daylight, and we were two clean-cut young woman. What could possibly happen?

Oh, right. The cops.

I was antsy, excited to see Puebla again, and Linda was seated on a bench against the wall, reading, trusting me to handle things.

So it was that as I paced, two middle-aged men approached me, both wearing jeans and flannel-patterened shirts. They looked like regular guys, and as I saw he was making a beeline, I figured at first that he was a guy who wanted to practice his rudimentary English. And hit on us. That happened a lot. (Keep in mind...I was 22 at the time, my friend was maybe 24 or 25.)

So I stopped, and waited, a polite smile already frozen on my face as I figured out how to deflect these guys considering that we were stuck while waiting for our bus.

He said, "?Hola Somos la Policia Federales. Tienes algunas drogas o narcoticas y puedo ver sus pasaportes?

(Hi, we are the Federal Police. Do you have any drugs or narcotics and can we see your passports?)

Just like that, in a rush of words. And keep in mind...I don't know if it's true now, but at the time, passports were not required in order to visit Mexico. But I had one and had recommended my friend get one. And upon entry, a tourist card was stamped and kept with the passport. I was so glad I'd advised my friend of this.

I knew about the Mordida , although when I'd lived there before, I'd never had to pay one.

And there we were...two young American girls, with a one-way ticket to Puebla, maybe $20.00 in American money (and almost no Peso) between us, no one expecting us at a specific one knowing when we would come back to Mexico City.

I was certain we were about to disappear.

But I was a college grad then (quite fresh..the previous week), and I was a future cop....I already had an offer in hand. And although I was terrified, I wasn't about to let my potential identity go unnoticed. It was the ONLY bargaining chip we had. So, I bet my knowledge, and I bet my career for both of us. I had no other choice.

Standing straight, at first refusing to be intimidated, I asked our accoster, "Tiene alguna identification?"

He stopped, shocked, angry. I'll never forget his expression...and thought maybe we'd be facing Mexican prison by the end of the day.

But no; he pulled his badge out of his pocket. It was black with red and gold, and upon it was written, "Policia" across the top, and underneath, circling around the oblong, "Federales Judiciales" I'll never forget it. I even put my hand on it, as if to test its authenticity, to be sure it wasn't from a Cracker Jack Box and these guys were not just a couple of punks. I'm not sure what made me reach out...I should have been terrified. And I was...but if this was a fake, I needed to know because I would not suffer for a fake.

It was real. He pulled it away from me, glaring at me balefully, amazed that I had DARED to ask for credentials.

It was then, when I looked into his eyes, that I saw the truth; and that we weren't in America, and that this guy wasn't playing fair. We didn't have Civil Rights, and in fact, by demanding ID, I'd just ticked him off.

We came to a non-verbal understanding, and I turned and walked towards Linda, who still sat, absorbed in her book, glancing at me in surprise as I backed into my seat on the bench next to her.

By then, another guy joined the first one. I knew this scene...I'd seen it from the outside. I knew these guys thanks to my research in 1994 and my friend Geudiel.

The Federales are bad..the Federales Judiciales (Federal Judicial) they are the worst. They have the "most" education...which is a far cry from even our "least educated" police in America. And The Federales Judiciales...they live on torture and mordidas. They know the law enough to manipulate it the most to their benefit. They know how to make people disappear, and how to cover their tracks.

It's a common scene in Mexico...the cops robbing someone. Give them your money willingly or they'll take it by force.

And Linda and I had no money. I'd thought we'd be safe at the bus station. We looked like college students, both recent graduates, and really, we didn't stand out from the crowd, not traveling on a Sunday afternoon.

Until the Federales came our way.

I sat down, shaking, pulling my purse open, pawing for my passport and tourist card. Linda stared at me, surprised, asking,

"They want our passports?"

She saw my shaking hands, but she hadn't seen this coming and had no idea why I was scared.

"Si! Passaporte! Si! Passaporte!"

I couldn't speak English so I resorted to rudimentary Spanish, the only important words. But I showed her mine as an example as I handed it over, and she, too, pulled hers out. She asked me if we SHOULD hand it over...would we get it back? How did we know these guys were for real?

I didn't say anything...I only looked at her, saying, "Si" as an indication to hand over her documents.

I knew they might keep them...but it was a chance. And if we refused, we'd be immediately taken into custody...and no one would know. We'd disappear. We needed a miracle.

I'm not sure which cop took my documents and hers, or if they both looked at them. I kinda think the first guy took them both as the second guy stood behind him as the secondary indimidation factor.

The red flannel-looking cop stood before me with an expression of interrogation. He asked me where we were going.



Because I lived there for a semester in 1994 and I was returning for a visit.

Does my friend speak Spanish?


He was silent, flipping through my passport...the same one I'd used in 1994.

I knew it was coming...the mordida. But we didn't have enough. And I knew it was time to volunteer information; I had to find some way to identify with these guys. I knew it was our only way out. (I'm pretty sure it was my Guardian Angel's idea).

So while Corrupt Federal Cop #1 was looking at our documents, I told him that I, too, was going to be a cop, and that I'd been educated to be so.

He asked me where.

I gave him the city and state.

He said something else, but I didn't understand the words he used, so I asked him to clarify, explaining I didn't understand.

He started yelling at me, speaking rapidly, screaming...I had NO IDEA what the man was saying. At that point, I could not have understood either English OR Spanish, and this guy was going on a tirade. I fought to maintain my composure in the face of his verbal onslaught.

Then the other guy spoke up. I saw immediately, amused in my mode of terror, that they were playing "good cop. bad cop". The guy who was playing "Good cop", when he could get a word in edgewise, asked me simply, "?Que tipo?"

His tone was comforting, as well as his simplicty of words. The other guy had steam coming from his ears.

I didn't trust him one bit, but at least I could understand him. (He reminded me of my Jr. High science teacher...that was weird).

So I explained that the police in Mexico are far different than the police in the United States, and here, we have City (Ciudad), County (Condado), and State (Estado), and that I was going to be a police officer for a city, beginning in September. (That fall).

The Federale playing the "Bad Cop" role snapped our passports shut, handed them both back to me, and stomped away. In the meantime, the "Good Cop" told me all about Puebla, where to go, what to do, and admonished us to have a good time.

I know he said more, but I was so far beyond understanding that all I could do was nod in accordance, trying to maintain a semblance of composure, hoping he would leave, wondering why he was telling me about the city I already called my home.

Finally he thanked us and walked away.

Linda kept looking at me strangely, and I put my passport away, still shaking. She didn't say anything.

The dear woman at the gate ran up to us as soon as the plainclothes cops rounded the corner.

Her approach was both motherly and professional as she chattered and helped us gather out things, ushering us out to the sidewalk outside the gate.

The metal detector went off; I stopped, waiting to be searched. She ushered me through, and Linda too, telling us it didn't matter. We protested that our bus wasn't in...she said it was due any moment. So we walked through to the shrill alarm.

It was maybe another 15 minutes before the bus arrrived, and we were searched by metal wands before we entered. As we finally were seated, Linda noticed I was still shaking...I couldn't even tell her why. I told her it was the Fedrales Judiciales...but she didn't understand. And I don't think she ever did. And she didn't need to. Because, somehow, we got away both without a mordida..and with our freedom.

And I still thank that unnamed woman at the gate; I fully believe that had she not sent us through, the Federales would have come back and our story would have a different ending.


Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I seem to remember you telling this before...but it's not any less scary in the second telling! It's too bad their government is so corrupt. Maybe if it wasn't...things might be different there and here as far as immigration goes.

Dymphna said...

Your gaudian angels were looking out for you.