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What to Do If You’re Pulled Over by the Police While Driving in Mexico

A step-by-step guide to what you should do to ensure you’re not being scammed.

Afew years ago, my husband and I rented a car on a big family trip to Cancun. It would help us get away from the pack, we thought, and since we were savvy travelers who’d been to several countries, we weren’t that stressed about the whole experience.

That is until we were followed one day on the way to the grocery store. It was by a person in a black SUV who had police lights flashing on their roof. We were speeding a bit, we admitted, and worried about having committed an actual crime, so we pulled over. The person got out of their car in a uniform, told us they were a cop, asked for our passports and driver’s licenses, which my husband handed them, and said that unless we gave them something like $500, “the police” would be holding them as a sort of bond for our speeding offense.

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My husband and I panicked. I knew it was a scam, but my husband wasn’t so sure. After all, what if it wasn’t? How were we going to get our passports back? We weren’t going to fight the faux cop, and it felt like we had to decide quickly. My husband pulled out his wallet in front of the guy, saying all we had was $200. The guy agreed to take that, returned our passports, and peeled out. We had been taken and were now out $200, a fairly substantial sum for us. In the aftermath, I wondered what we could have done differently.

I realize now that this scam affects countless tourists throughout Mexican beach towns yearly. Scammers stake out resort areas and look for rental car plates, rolling the dice that whoever they pull over won’t know what to do and will fork over money with little pushback, just as we had. In the years since the incident, I’ve come to learn what we should have done and what every traveler’s rights are if they come across a similar situation.

Know What Should Be Happening, and Note Any Differences

If you’re pulled over by a bona fide police officer, you will be asked for your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. You can ask the officer for their badge number and information before you present any of that documentation, and you should visibly write it all down in front of them before handing anything over.

It’s worth noting that if you plan on driving in Mexico, you can carry a photocopy of your passport or get an IDP or International Driver’s Permit. You don’t actually need an IDP to drive there—a U.S. Driver’s License works just fine—but AAA issues them for $20. If you get pulled over and feel that you must present something, you could give the interrogator the IDP or photocopied passport rather than your actual documents, which you can keep stowed safely back in your hotel. If either one gets taken, you’ll lose $20 and something you didn’t really need in the first place.

Either way, if you are being cited in Mexico by a real officer and have given them your documents, you will be asked to follow the officer to the nearest station—not the nearest ATM. You will be asked at the station to pay your fine or fight your case. Most tickets are reasonable—usually under $20—but if you feel you’ve been unjustly charged, you can roll the dice. If anything other than that is happening, like if an officer is demanding money, keeping your documents, or refusing to go to the station, then you know it’s a scam.

Keep Your Money Separate From Your License

If you’re driving and carrying cash, keep $20 or 200 pesos near your license or IDP and the rest elsewhere. That way, if you have to get your license out in front of an officer—real or not—you can tell them all you have is what they see. Sadly, there is some corruption in Mexican police forces, so it is possible that whoever is pulling you over is an actual officer just looking for a little extra cash.

Regardless, some scammers or corrupt officers would be happy with any sort of payday, especially if you’re being forceful and adamant that that’s all you have and you don’t have an ATM card or access to anything else. They may just take the $20 and walk away. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s not substantially more.

While forking over money might be perpetuating these scams and corruption, your personal safety and comfort always comes first.

Do Not Offer to Bribe Anyone, Period.

While corruption isn’t unheard of in the Mexican police force, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to offer to bribe an officer. If they’re asking, it’s one thing. If you’re volunteering, that’s another. If a cop is corrupt, they will take the $20 or 200 pesos you say you have and leave. If they’re not, then luckily, you never offered a bribe and therefore have committed no crime other than whatever minor traffic offense you’ve been pulled over for.

Related: How to Deal With Bribe Requests and Corrupt Police While Traveling

Go to the Station

If the person who has pulled you over still insists you give them more money, tell them you want to go to the station. If you’re being extorted, the last place an officer—real or fake—wants to go is the police station. Tell the officer that you know the law and that all fines must be paid legally at the station. Thus, you can say you want to handle your fine in an official manner. Most of the time, an extorting officer will decline since they’ll have to spend hours with you at the station, which is time they could be spending on the road, shaking down other tourists.

If you do go to the station and pay a fine, yes, it will be a hassle, but at least then you’ll know the money will be going to the municipality for a legitimate citation rather than to a scammer.

Never Tell the ‘Officer’ You Have Somewhere To Be

Telling the person who pulled you over that you’re in a bit of a time crunch lets them know that you’ll probably do whatever it takes to get out of your situation. Let them think you’ve got nothing but time, and you’re willing to spend all day at the station in legal purgatory if that’s what this is going to take.

Be Firm, but Not Aggressive

Don’t feel like you need to get puffed up and angry if you’re being pulled over—even if you’re absolutely sure it’s a scam. You never really know what someone else will do, so the best thing to do is just to set your boundaries and know your rights. Stick with “I’d like to go to the station for my official citation” or “All I have is $20.” These phrases, repeated again and again, can deter the scammer and encourage them to move on.

Report It

If you’re unsure whether you were or are being pulled over by a legitimate police officer, call it in. In Mexico, you can dial 078 from any phone to reach a tourist information line 24/7/365. There, you’ll find all the typical information about rental cars and tourist attractions, but there will also be someone there who’ll be able to answer all your questions about traffic stops and what you can expect.

If someone is trying to extort you on the side of the road, there’s no harm in calling it in to ask for a second opinion—or in letting the officer or scammer know that you plan to make a call to 078. If you’ve been a victim of a scam and want to report it, you can do that by calling 078 or by hitting up the regional Sindicatura or the local government. Letting the 078 operator know where you are should help you find the right department or office, and if you can present the bribing officer’s name, badge, or car number, it’ll only help assure that they’re brought to justice.

7 Comments
Avatar for lisamattson
lisamattson July 3, 2023

Good advice, but the price of a speeding ticket has gone up in the last two years, at least in Baja where I live  half of the year--$50 USD for going 10-15 miles over the limit. That's way cheaper than a speeding ticket back home. I drive a car with California plates but carry local insurance. My experience is that if you speed, you will get pulled over. Do not give them a reason to pull you over. When we drive the speed limit, we don't get pulled over. The two times my husband has been pulled over for speeding have been on Sundays when the police station was closed, and both times, we were leaving the country the following day so going to the station wasn't possible. Real police officers also carry a sheet of paper that lists the infractions on it with the price for each. One of the most expensive tickets is for running a yellow light. It's not like the US where you can speed up and drive through yellows legally. You must stop on yellow. A cop who wants to stick it to a non-national or tourist can give you two tickets for doing this: one for running a yellow, and one for speed exceleration through an intersection. This costs $200. So it's also important to brush up on the driving rules in foreign countries too. Driving just like you do back home can get you pulled over. And try not to drive after dark in Baja. There can be large animals on the road. 

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fouDor June 25, 2023

Spent 14 winters driving from Canada to Mexico and around most of the country by car without any bribes or fines. Got reprimanded for showing a facsimile of the official driver's licence. Stopped going as smart phone use is rampant and rules about such use are not being enforced. This is the biggest concern there. I miss these trips...

M
markjohnston9895 June 19, 2023

Great article!

Avatar for tep1955
tep1955 June 19, 2023

How about just stop going to Mexico.