The Spanish word mordida (mor-DEE-dah) translated directly means "to bite," but in Mexico, this slang term usually indicates a bribe—one paid to a public official. For travelers, a mordida can happen when a Mexican police officer pulls you over in a car and offers to disregard a traffic violation in return for a cash payment. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when you are traveling internationally and unfamiliar with Mexican traffic laws. Requesting and receiving a mordida is illegal and should neither be paid nor offered but it does happen in the country. Luckily, there are steps you can take to stay safe.
Issuing a Mordida
Small bribes like mordidas became a part of Mexican life likely because of a local perception that the Mexican government can be undemocratic when it comes to small mistakes. When a law is broken, however menial, the excessive red tape and endless requirements needed to clear oneself of wrongdoing can be overwhelming to most. Therefore, paying a mordida seems worth the risk to avoid the hassle.
Issuing a mordida, however, is illegal, and the Mexican government has been working to crack down on this practice. Situations are less likely to occur in popular tourist areas, but in some regions tourists and unfamiliar visitors are targets.
What to Do If You're Pulled Over
If you are pulled over in Mexico by a traffic cop, stay calm and present your driver's license, registration, and rental car agreement, but don't hand over your official documents (it's wise to travel with photocopies of your license and passport for this reason). The officer may then go back to his car and produce a citation with a fine that needs to be paid. An authentic traffic violation ticket should be written in both Spanish and English, stating where to pay the fine. The fines have a deadline for payment and can be mailed to Mexico from the United States. However, in some instances, paying within a five-day window will get you a discount. The location of the police station should be listed on the ticket.
What to Do If You're Offered a Mordida
Unfortunately, there have been cases of cops pulling over tourists in Mexico for no wrongdoing. If you find yourself in this situation where an officer tries to fine you for a supposed violation and has not issued you a written ticket, politely stand your ground, even if they pressure you or try to negotiate a deal ,and state that you have nothing wrong. If the officer is insistent you pay a mordida, state firmly that you will gladly follow their vehicle to the police station where you will pay your fine with a credit card or travelers check, insisting that you have no cash on-hand. At this point you may be let off with a warning, but if you do follow the officer to a station, calmly explain the situation. The worst-case scenario is that you may have to may a small, but legal, fine.
Driving in Mexico
Driving in Mexico and abiding by traffic laws can be difficult for newcomers. In many cases, roads remain unmarked and the rules are unclear. Roads outside of big towns may be in poor condition with potholes, and in rural areas, you will find animals grazing nearby or standing in the middle of the road. For this reason, always drive during the day and make sure you reach your destination before sunset.
Road assistance in Mexico is readily available, should you have car trouble. The Green Angels offer aid on Mexico's federal toll highways. This bilingual crew patrols the roads looking for those who are stranded and often carries tools, spare parts, and a basic first-aid kit. Their service is free, but tipping is highly appreciated. You can contact the Green Angels by dialing their 24-hour toll-free number (01-800-987-8224) or you can also dial 078 from any Mexican landline.
When getting gas, most stations are equipped with full-service attendants, but keep your eye on the pump. Always make sure the pump's counter starts at zero, double-check the amount of money you give the attendant, and make sure to count the change you receive. If the attendant washed your windshield or checked your oil, it is customary to give them a small tip.