The Little Bite

Tue 15 January 2002
By John Mark Schofield in Poetry

So I was sitting on the beach in Playa Del Carmen with these three German girls me and Paul met there and we were passing a joint back and forth and when Anna was dragging deep these two undercover narcs came up to us and shined flashlights in our faces and we were well and truly busted and it didn't get any better when they told us that only Anna had to spend the night in jail since only she was holding and Anna started crying because, you know, Mexican jail, and two thousand miles into this trip I knew a little something about bribing cops and since I was the only one there who really spoke Spanish it was "Instead of going into the station can we just pay a fine here?" and they didn't say no, so then I was sure Anna was all right, it was just negotiating from there on in and I told Anna to go to her bunk and get forty bucks in small bills but keep it out of sight when she came back, and twenty minutes later those cops were leaving with thirty dollars US and our joint and I was thinking probably could have got them down to twenty.

My first trip to Mexico I rode public transportation and never got asked for a bribe in a month of hitting towns small and large, but this trip me and Paul were in a '67 Volkswagen Bus, and translated to Spanish that means gringos with cash, so we got a crash course in "la mordita" which translated literally means "little bite" and proves Mexicans have a sense of humor.

Our first night in Mexico in Chihuahua we were hit up for bribes, but we were too damn stupid to realize it — we were driving the wrong way down a one-way street when we got pulled over — it was past midnight and the signs are really small and up high on the sides of the buildings — and the cops told us they'd have to take our license plates and we'd have to go into the station in the morning and pay a fine to get them back and we were just "OK — where's the station" and they kept repeating themselves about the station and we kept saying, "OK" and finally they gave up and escorted us to our hotel and let us go and were amazed at how cool Mexican cops were, and two days later we were in a different hotel in a different city talking with this Mexican guy and he just about shit himself laughing when we told him, 'cause we had been missing our cue: "Can I pay the fine here?" Turns out the standard bribe in Mexico's 10 pesos (about a buck-eighty) — more if you're actually guilty of whatever they get you for. You see as the bribe-er you've got a little power, 'cause if the cop actually takes you into the station to pay the fine he has to do paperwork and he doesn't get a cent besides his salary.

Just after that we were on our way into Puerta Vallarta after driving through the desert and the mountains and we were stopped at this roadblock by local cops who searched the van and threatened to put it up on blocks and take the gas tank off looking for drugs, and they were getting steadily more intimidating and this went on for like 40 minutes, and me and Paul kept having these whispered discussions, "Is this where we’re supposed to bribe them?" and the cop keeps saying how much he likes Paul’s mini maglite, and finally Paul tells him it’s a gift, and we were on the road two minutes later. And that was our first bribe in Mexico.

Two days later we have to pass through the same roadblock on the way out of town and this cop’s face lit up when he saw us, and he shouted, "Dibbs on the gringos" to his buddies, ‘cause the last time we were taken for 500 times the standard bribe, and as he comes up to the driver-side window Paul slips him a 10 peso note and it’s like we gave the secret handshake or something; the cops looks surprised for a moment and then disappointed, and waves us through, and we’re on our way to the rest of Mexico, only from here on in we know the routine.

Mexico kept surprising us, though. It was like a college-level course in corruption. We got stopped at a roadblock in Chiapas by the Federales — Federal Police, like the FBI — and Paul's ready, he's got a 10-peso note in his passport, and he hands it to the cop, who opens it, and looks at the bill, and looks at Paul, and looks at the bill, and looks at Paul and there's the most awkward moment of silence I've personally experienced until Paul sheepishly takes the 10 peso note out of the passport the cop's holding and after a very thorough search they let us go.

Paul and I were from LA, where the cops might beat or frame you but wouldn't ever take a bribe, and we were raised to respect cops, but Mexico taught us different — one time in Mexico city this cop standing at the side of the road waves us out of traffic and yells that our front plate wasn't visible — it was — and Paul started to pull over and I'm all, "He's got no car. No gun. No radio. Floor it!' and since we were on the road out of la cuidad we just pulled back into traffic and hauled ass out of there — felt like outlaws for a day.

Back in Los Angeles I got pulled over for doing 50 in a 45 (guilty) and the cop shined a flashlight in my face and called me sir — only when he said "sir" it sounded like an insult — and wrote the ticket, and it was over in 15 minutes, and my insurance took the hit the next month, and I really started to miss Mexico, where damn near any problem could be taken care of with some finesse and some cash.