THE BITE THAT FEEDS THE HAND: POLICE BRIBES IN MEXICO CITY

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The wide avenues and boulevards of Mexico City are deep oceanic trenches. An enormous, sleek marlin swims down Paseo de la Reforma effortlessly passing all the other, inferior fish using its seemingly effortless speed to cut through the water. Avenida Insurgentes is Angel Falls, gushing in a precipitous drop from north to south. The plazas (squares) of the city are shimmering lakes. Two trout stop to chew the fat or have a game of chess or smoke a cigarette and maybe even a sly shot of something strong under the midday sun. Callejones (alleys) are brackish estuaries jutting off calles (streets) which are rivers spewing shady characters into the murky, narrow night which stinks of piss and smoke and taco grease.

 

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In Spanish, the word ´mordida´means bite. It´s a noun which comes from the verb ´morder´- to bite. In Spain for example, you might hear ´Dame una mordida de tu bocadillo´(give me a bite of your sandwich). In Mexico, however, if you hear someone talking about una mordida´or asking for una mordida´ they are probably not talking about the bite of cake they had with their morning coffee or asking for a bite of the blue corn quesadilla you´re holding. ´Una mordida ´ is Mexican slang for a bribe, what a Brit might call a backhander. An example of usage: I got stopped by the ´pinche policia´ (fuckin´police) because one of my taillights wasn´t working and had to pay a ´pinche mordida´ (fuckin´bribe) and now ´estoy jodido´(I´m fucked) until the ´próxima quincena´(next pay check).

 

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I just read The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway´s classic tale about the old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, who heads deep out to sea on a solo mission in his wooden skiff to try and turn his fortune around by landing the big one. He hooks a huge marlin, bigger than anything he has ever had on the end of his line before through all his years plying his trade in the sea. After whole days and nights battling with the monstrous fish, he manages to triumph despite his age, his weariness, his hunger and his wounded hands. Without the boy who used to accompany him, the fish is too big for him to get into his skiff. There wouldn´t be enough room for it anyway.

The old man is forced to tow his catch back into the distant port of Havana, having gone out much further than was his usual custom. As he makes his way back in, he admires the size, strength and beauty of the awesome marlin.   With his growing fatigue he grows repentant for having killed such a marvellous specimen but finds solace thinking of the pesos he knows he will get when he takes it into market. However, inevitable sharks arrive to destroy and devour his catch, in an attempt to foil his plan. The old man valiantly fights off several sharks, killing them with his harpoon or knife attached to his oar and for a time manages to protect at least a part of the flesh of his giant catch but with the fall of night yet more sharks come and in the end they win. The old man´s prize catch is reduced to nothing more than a huge carcass, his dreams of a windfall lost in digestion in the bellies of hungry sharks.

 

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The cops of Mexico City are fishermen too, roaming the waters of the federal district looking for that next fish. Their eyes are their rods, their ears are their reels and they want to get their hook right into your pocket. They throw out a line, hoping to catch an infringement fish here, an infraction fish there. There is a difference though. The cops here don´t want to reel their catch in all the way to the station. That would be too much hassle, akin to feeding the fish to the sharks attacking the old man´s marlin, which in this case are the coffers of the state. Funds will be siphoned off into bureaucratic nothingness or to line the pockets of those corrupt further up the chain. Who wants to feed the sharks? Why drag the catch in and fill out all that pesky paperwork so that the fat fish can pay an official fine? Nobody wins. All a common cop wants is a bite, to hold you on his line for a fleeting moment, a little something for me and mine.

 

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A friend actually told me that many cops out on the beat have a daily quota, set by their superiors, of money they need to bring in in order to keep themselves on the payroll. And so obligated, days are spent on the beat looking for the next bite. Police are ubiquitous in Mexico City. And there are all kinds too; transit police, district police, federal police, auxiliary police.  I often see hundreds of the latter in the inky darkness of early morning, congregating at metro Insurgentes to receive daily instructions before fanning off to their beats, often street corners, all over the city.  I once saw 8 officers crowded around in a circle, each one licking an ice cream on a sunny day – a lick instead of a bite.

 

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A few years back I was new in the madness of the Mexican megalopolis. It was a Friday night and a couple of other Australian guys from where I was staying and I decided to go for a wander and some tacos and beers. We wandered into ´la zona rosa´, Mexico City´s ´pink zone´, an entertainment district full of bars, gay bars, nightclubs, restaurants, fast food, street vendors and beggars, strip joints and brightly illuminated sex shops selling oversized dildos and the latest in dominatrix leather ware and whips. After a few beers and the tacos we kept moving, making our way over to the deep trench of Reforma right where ´La Angel de Independencia´, Mexico´s grand monument to the ousting of the Spaniards, is situated. We stared up at the golden angel glittering against the black sky in the glow of the urban light pollution. Just before we had stopped at OXXO, Mexico´s ubiquitous chain of convenience stores. Our eyes were on the angel, our feet on the street and open beers were in our hands. It was an amateur mistake. 2 cops nearby saw us and thought to themselves, I suspect, as they approached, a bite is nigh. Events proceeded like this:

 

(The policeman´s part of the dialogue in Spanish, of course)

 

´Good evening. You can´t drink here. Drinking on the street is prohibited.´

 (I made a snap decision to feign no knowledge of Spanish. The other guys didn´t need any pretense)

 Sorry. I don´t understand. No español.

 No cerveza. (pointing at our cans)

 Ah ok. Sorry.

 Where are your from?

 Sorry?

 Your country? America?

 Ah, country? Australia.

 In Australia you can drink on the street?

 Yes, in Australia we can drink everywhere.

 Well, in Mexico no. We will have to go into the station.

Go to see the boss. El jefe. The boss. In the station.

 Really? Can´t we fix this little bind here?

 

Officers speak amongst themselves:

 

´¿Cómo se dice quinientos en ingles?

(How do you say five hundred in English?)

 No sé güey

 (I don´t know)

 ¡puta! ¿cómo se dice? ¿Cómo se dice?

 (Fuck! How do you say it? How do you say it?)

 fifty? Sí, fifty!

 Fifty! (points at culprit numero 1)

 Fifty! (points at culprit numero 2)

 Fifty! (points at culprit numero 3 – me)

 

The cops´ numerical confusion seemed a fair compromise to us and we handed over a requisite 50 peso note each. They protested but we had them on the record – ´you said fifty….look fifty! As they seemed about to continue their protest, one of the cops got a call through on his radio. They were needed elsewhere, they had to go, cut their losses. They got their bite but just a small one, we minimized the damage – una mordidita no más.

 

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There was one other time that I was caught up in a mordida affair. It was just a few months back. This time I was a passenger in a car driven by a new acquaintance, a friend of a friend. We had bonded over several jugs of beer in a busy bar just off the central square of Coyoacan in the south of the city. At around 1 or 2 in the morning we called it a night and J offered to give me a lift back to my apartment in Mexico City´s historic center. We were going along one of the city ejes (axis or arterial roads), I´m not sure which one when a police car approached from behind and signaled for us to pull over. J, as you know, had had some beers and while far from fall-down drunk most likely let off an inebriated glow. J wound down the window and was asked the obvious question – had he been drinking? J responded in the affirmative but to a lesser quantity of truthfulness. The cop, skeptical, and angling for a bite suggested a breath test was in order. J was direct – ¿cuánto? And the answer was $150 pesos. Cheap in the circumstances, I thought. J handed over the pesos and were on our way, the hook shaken off, barely lodged in his lip, just a few drops of blood.

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I like what´s in my pocket hip

 and want no hook through my lip

 but they say that things come in threes

 So for what will the next bite be?

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4 comments

  1. I’ve actually met a few decent cops while living here. Two mates who arrived from Blighty on a visit went to a party with me; we went to an OXXO and grabbed some beers. I didn’t realise one of the lads bought a can of cider and started drinking it as we walked through Del Valle.

    Copper pulls up on his own and gets out of the car, and called us over; there’s me with a bag of grass and a lump of hash in my back pocket. But I knew it was illegal for them to search us. I told my mate to tip the can out, and explained to the policia that he was English, alcoholic like the rest of them, and then everyone drinks everywhere in England: breakfast, lunchtime, dinner, on the metro, even in church.

    He found all this hilarious. He said he was obviously living in the wrong country, gave us a warning about drinking on the streets, and drove off. Decent bloke.

  2. Funny story! I actually find most of the cops to be pretty friendly, always happy to give directions.

    Just the other day I was walking home with a six pack and the cops on the corner said ´hey güero, how about a couple for us!¨

    Thanks for commenting man and hope you´re doing well! Cheers

    1. All good, mate. Love this city. I’ve not crossed any bad cops as yet. And I think speaking the lingo helps…everyone treats you with more respect. Keep the writing up; I’ve not touched my blog in a year, you’ve inspired me to pick it up again, as we have similar styles.

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