Imagine this: it’s your average Tuesday morning; the soft ping of your alarm has just woken you up from a blissful sleep. You yawn and as per usual, immediately turn to check your phone. 

Suddenly, below several work emails and app notifications, a Whatsapp message from your mother catches your eye:

“Well… I just had the longest shower…ate breakfast and drinking 3 cups of coffee… I just spent my first night ‘ever’ in jail.

Yes, jail.

Story will come after I leave the country. 

Still feels surreal. I’m ok…gonna go sleep now.”

Let me tell you. For someone who needs at least an hour of quiet time and a strong cup of coffee to feel human in the morning, on that particular day, I was immediately wide awake.

Allow me to give you some back story: my mom has long been an avid traveler. Growing up, both my parents prioritized travel and made it a point to regularly widen the horizons of my sister and myself with trips big and small. I whole-heartedly owe my sense of adventure to my parents who, from a young age, encouraged me to explore what the world had to offer. That wanderlust has taken the front seat in my mom’s life too, and she continues to confidently explore the world either with friends or solo.

Thus, when my mom announced she would be traveling to Mexico solo for two weeks that summer, I honestly thought little of it. Having visited the country several times already, (many of them solo), I was confident my mom would be safe, street-savvy, and have an incredible time. The fact that she also knew jiu-jitsu definitely helped, too. What could possibly go wrong?

With a million questions running through my mind, I let my mom sleep off what I could only imagine was one of the scariest nights of her life. I imagined my poor mother, lying terrified in a jail cell the night before as I slept blissfully unaware, thousands of miles away. 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, my phone rang and I let out a sigh of relief. It was time for some answers.

¿Cómo Se Dice “not guilty”?

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende

This story starts in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial-era city located 170 miles from Mexico City. Known for its Spanish architecture, thriving arts scene, and cultural festivals, the town is also a proclaimed World Heritage Site and attracts thousands of tourists every year.

As one of these tourists, my mother set out to explore the vibrant little town immediately after checking into her Airbnb that morning. Hours later, as the sunset on her first day in San Miguel, my mom found herself walking through the town square to get back to her Airbnb for some much-needed rest.

Moments later, as she neared the street of her Airbnb, a cop car hurled around the corner, coming to a screeching halt just steps in front of my mom. Before she knew what was happening, she was handcuffed, pushed into a cop car, and hauled off to an unknown destination.

Terrified, confused, and angry, she struggled to ask in broken Spanish what was happening, what she had done, and where she was being taken. She persisted again in English but was met only with blank stares and hostility as she sat vulnerable in the back seat.

After an hour or so on the road, the car pulled into what appeared to be the police station. From there, she was told to undress, put on a uniform, and declare each item on her person. 

“I’m honestly pissed they made me cut off my ankle bracelet,” she later told me. “I had just bought it in Hawaii!” 

Leave it to my mom to worry about accessories when facing jail time.

Hours rolled by as questions remained unanswered. Getting answers from passing guards proved to be hopeless, so she kept herself busy doing yoga, counting ceiling tiles, and glaring at passersby from her cell. Anything to keep her mind occupied as she tried not to fall asleep, fearful of her personal safety should she drift off.

To this day, my mother is still in jail. We went down to Mexico as a family to visit her last week.

Handcuffed hands passing money to police as bribe.

Totally kidding. This story has a happy ending, and thankfully, my mother was released from jail nine (very long) hours later. With an explanation about her arrest that involved ‘sexo in the park’, (what?!) she was told to pay 600 Mexican pesos (approx. USD 30) if she wanted to be released. Yes, you read that right. My mother was extorted for the price of Sunday morning brunch. For having sex in the park??

Traumatized and exhausted, but elated to be free, she walked out into the morning sunshine to call an Uber and get the hell out of there. 

“Yes, I have a story. Sure, it’s funny now,” my mom later wrote on Facebook. “But will I ever go back to Mexico? Probably not.”

Police Corruption a Global Issue

Waking up to a text that your loved one is in jail is not a situation I would wish on anyone. Unfortunately, however, police corruption involving tourists is surprisingly common not just in Mexico, but in many popular tourist destinations around the globe. 

In Bangkok, senior police and embassy officials are investigating claims that police checkpoints in heavily touristed areas have been systematically abused to extort money from foreigners

Officers who routinely spend the night administering alcohol tests, drug tests and passport checks in the bustling Thai hotspot are often met with claims of extortion, threats, and harassment that have tourists and expats alike fearing for their safety.

Similarly, last December, police were arrested in Costa Rica after shaking down two Canadians in an extortion scheme targeting unwary tourists. 

The married couple was traveling near Belén in the northwest region of the country when they were stopped at a police checkpoint and fined $600 for failing to carry their passports on them. This is not at all illegal, according to the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ), a specialized national police agency that is similar to the FBI.

Dollars and pesos

Staying Safe on Vacation

The reality is, extortion of visitors happens way more often than is reported. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 6.5 million extortion cases went unreported in Mexico in 2017. Often, victims fail to report crimes because they considered it a waste of time, or due to a lack of trust in authority.

From planting false evidence to shakedowns and extortion, police corruption in the country remains one of the most significant challenges facing Mexican law enforcement agencies. Corruption among local police exists as a means to either boost one’s standing in the local community or to supplement the extremely low income that most of the Mexican population receives. It is a systemic issue and one that has roots in colonial times. 

Okay, so we know that tourist-related police corruption is widespread in hotspots across the globe. But does that mean we should heed every warning and stay put where we know it’s safe? I think not. 

Instead, consider the following tips from Overseas Citizen Services to stay safe when dealing with police corruption while traveling.

  1. As a tourist, avoid carrying large amounts of cash on you.
  2. If you’re wrongly accused of an offense and in doubt, ask to see the written law violation at the police station. This is said to discourage a phony citation.
  3. Try to get the name, badge number, and specifics about the officer you’re dealing with.
  4. Contact your embassy and file a report.

All in all, tourist-targeted police corruption is a common issue around the world. Those who have lived the experience first-hand will vow never to return to said countries — and rightfully so. (Hi, Mom!) 

But for those of us who still yearn for the warm sands of Mexico’s beaches? All we can do is stay informed, be aware, and do our best to keep out of jail.

Mexico Beach