It is 2014, and I am staying in a hostel in the Centro Historico in Mexico City. As you do when staying in such establishments, I chat with the people in my dorm, asking, “Where are you from?”, What is your plan for the day?”, the usual small talk. I meet a Dutch woman, an Australian man, and an Englishman who I end up hanging out with for a day. I have no idea that I’m about to live through a real life travel horror story.
I speak Spanish very poorly, but I still manage to understand what is going on around me and make myself understood. The Australian man’s Spanish is non-existent, and the Dutch woman’s skills in the language are excellent since she has been living in Spanish-speaking countries for quite a while. The Englishman has been living in Gibraltar all of his life, so of course he speaks a perfect Spanish.
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My new friends and I decide to head off to explore the city. Our first stop is the Leon Trotsky Museum, followed by a visit to a pub for a few beers. We walk around the city, trying different foods, having a good time. At the end of the day, we are tired and go back to the hostel. The Englishman decides he wants to go to bed, and the rest of us decide go and have a couple of beers.
As we are heading back out, we are told by hostel employees that there is a reggae party in a club not too far away. I don’t really like clubs, so I tell my new friends that I will go there with them, but I am going to stay outside. At that point, my thinking is that I’ll stay for an hour or two. So I simply take my credit card and my hotel key and leave.
We get there and there are as many people outside of the club as there are inside, so we stay outside and chat with the locals. There is a convenience store across the street, so I go and buy a few beers and I grab some paper cups from the coffee stand. I come back and pour the beer in the paper cups thinking that if anything happens, we can just chuck the cups and we will be fine.
We spend maybe an hour or two out in front of the club. The Dutch woman is asking different people where she can get weed. A man says he has some and she replies that she wants to buy for the equivalent of $5 USD. The man takes a bag of weed from his pocket and gives her a tiny bit. She complains that the amount’s too small. The guy stares at her, laughs and says, “With the amount of money that you gave me, you could get the whole bag if you want”! He then proceeds to give weed to everyone who’s standing by, by the handful. He puts a little bud in the front pocket of my shirt. I don’t pay attention to it because I don’t smoke.
Being from out of town, we of course start to attract a lot of attention.
We start passing around the beer and offer some to the locals. My new friends start rolling big, fat joints and pass them around, as well. This, of course, attracts even more attention.
I realize that there is now a large group of very loud people in front of the club. I tell my friends that we need to leave. We start walking away, but as soon as we turn the corner, we hear someone yelling in Spanish.
We turn around and see two local cops who are ordering us to come toward them. They motion for us to go to a nearby bus stop. We are standing in the bus stop with one of the cops. The bus stop is made of tin so no one else can see that we are all in there.
The one cop grabs my paper cup and says, “What is this”? I respond, “Nothing”. He smells it and proclaims that it’s beer. “You cannot drink beer on the street”, he informs me. I tell him that I didn’t know it, that I am not from here. He says, “You are not allowed to do that and now you are in trouble”.
I stay cool, because this is not my first encounter with a corrupt cop. I know exactly what he wants…money. But I will not be offering any bribes, as I have an advantage over him. When I left the hostel, I thought we were going to be away for a maximum of two hours, so I didn’t bring any ID. He has no way of identifying me.
The cop reiterates that I am in trouble and before I can say anything, the Dutch woman starts pleading my case, kicking, screaming and crying, “Let us go, let us go, we didn’t know, we didn’t do anything wrong”, she says, in Spanish. She is making everything worse with her hysterics.
The police officer then informs me that I am going to spend the night in jail. The other cop goes to the trunk and takes out an AK-47. With very theatrical, violent movements, he loads the weapon and, for added dramatic effect, points it at my forehead. The Dutch woman falls to her knees and continues her fruitless appeal. I slowly put both of my hands in my pockets and stare at him while the gun remains pointed directly at my face.
These cops can do absolutely nothing to me. All they want is to intimidate me so that they can get their bribe. I am actually quite calm in the midst of all of this. My heartbeat is normal, my palms are not sweaty, and I feel relaxed. I find it odd that my body is reacting in such a contradictory way.
The cop with the AK-47 is bellowing at me to get in the car. He opens the door and I tell him bluntly, “I am not getting in and I am not going anywhere”. The Dutch woman is still carrying on. I tell her that she needs to stop making a scene and that we are going to turn around and slowly walk away with our hands in our pockets. Her reaction to these directions is, of course, to continue her frenzied behavior.
I realize that the only way to de-escalate this situation is to get her out of there. I tell her, “listen, here is the deal. You need to leave. This is my problem and I will take care of it”. After asking her maybe five or six times, the Australian man finally chimes in after having been perfectly quiet during this entire ordeal. He tells her that they need to do what I say, leave, and let me take care of the issue.
As they are trying to walk away, the cop says that they cannot leave because I have to go in the cop car. He says this in Spanish, of course, and I understand what he says, but the Dutch woman screams, directly into my face, “get in the cop car, get in the cop car”! I do not want to get in the car, but I tell her that if she goes away, I will get in the car. She agrees, so I get in the back of the car. The cops do not bother to cuff or restrain me.
Now the cops start driving around in circles in Centro Historico, going no more than two or four kilometers an hour. The one cop starts asking me questions in Spanish: “What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you?” My answer to every question is, “I don’t understand Spanish, I don’t understand what you are saying”. He then asks me, in English, where I am from. Since I do not have any identification on me, I say “France, I am from France”. He asks for my name one more time and I give him some silly, made-up name. I make up my age, as well. We continue the game and every time he asks me a question, I reply that I don’t understand.
As I am sitting there in the back of the car, I start thinking about what is going to happen to me. Are they going to kill me? Probably not. Are they going to put me in jail? That would be very unlikely. If I can contact the Canadian Embassy, these guys would probably be in trouble – that’s my assumption, at least, while I’m sitting in the back of a police car.
I then realize that I’m not under arrest… but that I’m not free either. Have I just been abducted?
We cruise around like this for another 10 minutes. The car turns a corner, and right in front of us, I see the Dutch woman, who is now in a complete panic, and the Australian guy walking down the street. They see the car, but they don’t see me inside because of the tinted windows. We drive around for yet another 10-15 minutes while the cop continues his relentless interrogation. I respond each time that I don’t understand and give him random, made-up responses.
They finally take me out of the car and make me put my hands on the hood so they can frisk me. They find my credit card and chump change.
I suddenly realize that I still have the marijuana bud in the front pocket of my shirt! This is the only moment in the whole situation where I become truly anxious. If they find the pot in my pocket, I could be in real trouble – or so I think at that point. As they are searching the pockets in my pants, I nonchalantly put my hand in my shirt pocket and chuck the bud. They are none the wiser.
This situation has now attracted the attention of four other local cops, who join the party. I am leaning against a wall surrounded by six cops. They speak Spanish to each other and to me. I just stand there, waiting for it to end. I have nothing to offer them and they can’t do anything to me. It is a Mexican standoff.
Finally, I break the stalemate by telling them good-bye and walking away. They follow me like a bunch of ill-tempered children, shouting and waving their hands, telling me that I cannot go anywhere. One of them grabs me by the collar, shoves me against the wall and tells me, in English, “you are not going anywhere”.
More questioning ensues and I am standing there continuing to not answer. One of the cops suddenly blurts out, “tourista!”, and they all scatter like rats off a sinking ship. The cop that has been harassing me for the past half an hour is the only one left.
A cop car with the word “tourista” written on the hood pulls up. These are the tourist police, the cops that are in charge of protecting the tourists from the corrupt local cops.
The tourist cop asks me, in Spanish, what is going on. The local cop replies that I was drinking beer in public. A conversation follows and the tourist cop looks at me and asks me if I am ok. I respond that I am and tell him that they were demanding bribes.
It is worth noting that at absolutely no point in this entire situation has any cop actually asked me for a bribe.
The tourist cop translates what I said to the local cop, who vehemently denies having ever asked me for any sort of money. I understand the conversation in Spanish and counter just as vigorously – in English – that I was not drinking beer in the street. All three of us just look at each other and no one says a word.
The local cop, who basically kidnapped me for half an hour, gets in his car and drives off. The tourist cop says, matter-of-factly, “you were drinking beer in the street”. I deny this. After all, I know he cannot prove it. He tells me he is going to have to write me a ticket because I cannot drink beer in the street. I say okay, but we have to go back to the hostel so I can get my ID.
We are only maybe a block and a half away from the hostel. We walk over there. I then tell the tourist policeman to wait for me in front of the hostel. I go in and the Dutch woman and the Australian man are in the process of relating my travel horror story to the other hostel guests. The Dutch woman sees me and screams, “you’re alive!”, and hugs me. I tell her to keep quiet, and tell everyone, whispering: “If anyone comes looking for me, I was never here, ok?”
I then go upstairs, get in bed, and hope that no one comes up here to find me.
Of course, I can’t fall asleep. The adrenaline of what’s just happened is still flowing through my veins. But after about an hour, I convince myself that the tourist police officer is probably gone by that time. And slowly start dozing off.
Oh, and that weed in my pocket? Turns out, all drugs are legal in Mexico. Even the harder ones.