By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
PUERTO VALLARTA, Jalisco — Online groups for foreigners and expats in Mexico are filled with questions like: What are my rights in Mexico? and What can I do if I feel I am being falsely targeted by a police officer?
The level of misinformation out there is high. And as in most countries, there are a lot of myths about police in Mexico. Honestly, where there is power, there is always the possibility for abuse.
Most foreigners are likely to never have an encounter with the Mexican police. For example, in Puerto Vallarta, a city with a high percentage of foreign population — almost 3 percent — the “tourist” police are exactly the same as any other part of the force, but they wear white shorts because they look less threatening to tourists that way.
Officers assigned to that beat supposedly have some level of English, although the police chief reports there is no test to verify their efficiency. Those selected for the job usually love that beat because they can basically interact with happy people on vacation, along with some who, from time-to-time, might have had too much to drink.
But what about when the interaction is not about asking for directions to your favorite bar?
Mexican law is basically broken into two wide divisions: state and federal. Most state laws tackle contracts and traffic, and, not that such issues are not serious ones, if the charges get to the point of jail time, let’s just say a foreigner is likely not going to a state prison, unless a homicide is involved.
Federal crimes, though, are a whole different ball game. This is where the police come into play.
An officer who arrests you does not determine the nature of your crime, the district attorney, known as a ministerio público or fiscal does. And let’s just say if he wants the charges are going to stick, he will determine the crime with some very precise criteria. For a foreigner to be charged, there better be good evidence in place because his boss in Mexico City does not want an international incident.
You should know that in the case of federal crimes, independent of the accused’s migratory status, everyone is entitled to a court-appointed defense attorney.
If there is physical harm involved, that attorney must come to where the accused is being held, even if it is in the middle of the night, and the fiscal knows this.
The fiscal actually has to call the public defender assigned to that region in the middle of the night and the conversation is likely to go something like this: “I picked up someone for x federal charge (usually drugs or arms, although cutting down trees in a forest is also a federal crime).” The public defender will then ask, “Any bruises on the detainee?” “No,” responds the fiscal. “Ok, I’ll see the detainee in the morning.”
Remember, any bodily harm requires the public defender to meet his client immediately for a statement.
Each state also has a specialized office to report any public official, including police officer, for abuse. The process (which is in Spanish) is relatively easy to do on-line and is not reserved for Mexican citizens.
So now let’s bust some of those myths about Mexican police: Yes, you can film a public official while they are doing their work, as their work is of a public nature. But you cannot interfere with their detention or investigation.
Yes, a police officer, by law, must identify themselves and your request does not have to have a motive. Their official ID must have the name, position, finger print and national registry of the person in question. Them pointing to their name on a vest does not meet the federal statute.
No, police cannot ask for your ID unless you are being charged with a crime. But, yes, police may request your ID in a traffic stop to issue you an infraction. And, yes, you can be charged with failure to cooperate with your own lawful detention.
No, you do not have to surrender your personal property if you are being lawfully detained until you are formally arraigned. But, yes, you do have to hand over (at some point) your personal property if you are being held for drunk driving.
No, you do not have to be detained in the back of an open-air pickup as is it against the law for nonmilitary or police to transport detainees that way in almost every state.
Yes, you can ask for the specific infraction for which you are being detained, including the statute number.
No, there is no law in Mexico called “suspicious activity” for which you can be detained. To be clear, yes, a police officer should investigate any suspicious activity, but if no statutory law has been broken, the interaction ends there.
Yes, a police officer can ask you questions as part of an investigation. Yes, you can say you need to be legally detained or you need to continue about your way if the interaction is bogus.
Would I proceed this way during the day with someone observing? Yes. At night alone, probably not.
For example in Mexico City, most of the 85,000 police officers have a high school education, but next to no training in law, so they may not even be aware of your fundamental rights.
In smaller towns, you can expect officers to often have less knowledge of the law.
But they do deserve your respect and you are legally obliged to do as they say, unless it violates your rights and/or Mexican law.
Also, remember that in most municipalities, they work 24-hour shifts and have very low salaries. Give them a break.
If you are stopped by a police officer in Mexico, keep your calm and do not insult them or scream at them.
Once they know that you know your rights, that creates a different relationship.
Be polite and hear them out, and that may just save you from getting a speeding ticket.