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I’ve heard it asked time and time again: What if I am arrested in Mexico?

Myths and urban legends abound in Mexico surrounding the ease with which foreigners are arrested, for all kinds of offenses, from drugs to public intoxication.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Foreigners are rarely arrested in Mexico. There is definitely a double standard at play which favors foreigners.

In the beach cities, where there are large influxes and/or a regular presence of foreigners, non-nationals are frequently detained, and possibly even put into handcuffs for the same types of offenses committed by locals, but foreigners rarely make it beyond that point.

Why? There are many factors, but in addition to police and district attorney staff not knowing English, Mexican law enforcement really does not want to deal with foreigners: to legally detain, house, feed and listen to their whining is a drain for an already-overly-burdened system. Foreigners often do stupid things, but statistically are not engaging in criminal activity while here on vacation or retirement.

According to the Mexican Constitution, anyone detained, whether it be for urinating in public or murder, must be either formally and legally charged or released within 48 hours. The only exception are charges for organized crime, drug and human trafficking, tax evasion and customs operations, which are normally federal offenses.

For some reason, cutting down trees is also a federal offense. For any federal offense, you can be detained for 72 hours without being charged.

Following a case where drugs were found in the luggage of two internationals tourists in a beach city airport, one of the tourists being Mexican and the other a foreigner, it was interesting to see how the charges evolved for each, who were initially accused of exactly the same thing.

The Mexican was charged with transportation of a controlled substance, a federal crime, carrying with it a minimum 10-year sentence, no option for bail, in a federal prison.

The foreigner was charged with a lesser crime, which allowed for a bail option. He paid his bail and officials suggested he leave the country and never return. He did just that.

The attorney, before charges were filed, argued that the suitcases could not really be traced back to either passenger individually since personal items were all mixed up, so he suggested to the DA to let one of them get the full weight of the law and the other go home. It worked.

What can happen between the “minimally invasive initial interview,” Mexican legalese for the police’s right to question someone they consider to have violated a law or lesser infraction and the subsequent 48 hours can be quite a scare. And that is likely from where the rumors stem.

Even before being taken for processing, the detained foreigner could be driven around for a while, possibly to an ATM for a cash payout in lieu of forgetting the infraction, which might actually be in the foreigner’s best interest for expediency if the infraction truly took place. If the requested amount is reasonable, the vacation can continue. Police, which are typically municipal, are usually willing to negotiate.

What if I feel I am the victim of a shakedown and really did nothing? Typically, police will not bring someone in for charges that will not stick. While ignorance of the law is not a defense, there are many other issues that come into play: language or expectations for treatment of seniors that human rights group monitor.

If you really did nothing, letting the police know that and bluffing your knowledge of the 48 hours will usually do the trick.

Police now have internal-affairs departments where it is easy to voice violations. States have specialized prosecutors for the reporting of public servants like police who violate laws themselves.

“I want to call my embassy!”

Not so fast.

Remember, a detention is not an arrest. In the off chance that a foreigner ever were to make it into custody — maybe you made the officer really angry or you vomited on him or her — you might go behind bars for a few hours or up to 48, or you could be released.

And it will not be behind bars. Mexico has international treaties, which require it to remove the metal bars in temporary detention facilities and replace them with secure rooms with plexiglass windows where you are segregated by sex and age. A doctor must examine your condition upon entry.

You also have the right to a free, court-appointed public defender, even before the 48 hours are up. This attorney will help you sort out the charges, if any, and will typically have luck in getting them dismissed or reduced. In fact, if you are beaten up, the court-appointed public defender is notified of this as you are being brought in. They are on duty at all hours, just as the DAs offices are.

But no, your embassy does not need to be informed until you are charged. The court has 48 hours to decide what to do with you. Often, it is as simple as someone bringing your official ID so the court can release you.

Your conduct during the “minimally invasive initial interview” will be the likely predictor of what happens next. Record the interaction on your phone. Invite everyone else to record it as well. If you have done nothing and are afraid, scream at the top of your lungs, “My name is x; please record this.”

Most police officers want to go home when their shift ends and are not looking for extra paperwork, and most judges will publicly chastise a DA who brings charges without sufficient evidence. In fact, a judge must accept the charges as well at a pre-trial hearing.

One last tip: Do not do stupid things while in Mexico, and if you do, ask for forgiveness early on. “Can I talk to you without others observing us?” will be understood by any police officer. Do this before you are in a dark place or in the back of a patrol car.

If you ever get to the place where you are assigned a public defender, know this attorney is now your new best friend, even if you later choose to hire a private attorney. And, yes, when it comes to charges being discussed with you, you have the right to an interpreter being present for all steps along the way.

Be cautious, but also be smart.

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