The military checkpoints or roadblocks can be very intimidating. Young men, often under 20, in full army fatigues and automatic rifles stop you vehicle. Often there is a sandbag hut with armed security guards to the side of the road. YIKES! This sure doesn't feel like home.
The checkpoint military are primarily looking for drugs and firearms. Carry neither unless you want a do not pass go card to a Mexican prison. The soldiers will stop your car and want to talk to you. We immediately produce our passports and hand them to the guard.
The soldiers will unlikely speak much English. If you cannot speak Spanish, I strongly suggest you prepare what you are going to say before you go.
The questions they will ask include:
Where are you from?
Where were you today?
Where are you going?
Do you have drugs or firearms?
Get an English/Spanish dictionary (or a translator program on the net) and prepare for the checkpoints. Write out your reply in Spanish. Tell them no guns. “No drugs.”
Sometimes they will ask to enter your vehicle to look around. Usually only one guard will enter your vehicle and will likely spend less than 5 minutes opening doors and drawers.
We have found that it is best if I handle the military. A woman is less threatening. I wave at them as we stop - almost like I would a long lost relative. I laugh with them and tell them I wish I could speak better Spanish. I invite them to see "My Casa." They come in and are impressed. They smile if I smile. I am not afraid of them and they have never been a problem.
You can expect, for example, to be stopped about 5-6 times on the way down to Cabo. Treat it as a safety precaution that is benefits you. We have never been asked for bribes or articles from our rig. Only once when I stood outside and was joking with some of the guards did one young man ask very nicely if we had any salsa as he had just run out.
Sandbags and AK 47's are disturbing sights, but in the end the military road blocks are there to look for drugs and guns....illegal items that hopefully RVers are not carrying.
You may also be checked for fruit and vegetables at various spots usually on state lines. Sometimes they want to look in your fridge. They are searching for fruits, vegetables and sometimes meat and eggs that their particular state doesn't want entering their area.
There is one vegetable checkpoint going south just before Guerrero Negro. Stock up on veggies after this location and you are home free both to Cabo and back to the US border. Meat and vegetable checks were made the last time we entered Campeche. They confiscated bacon, eggs and all our pork products.
We have been "fined" three times in 16 years on the road by Mexican police. Both times we actually committed an infraction. Mexican police are supposed to take away your license and take you to the police station if you have broken a law. You would be required to pay your fine in cash.
About 14 years ago in Todos Santos we ran a red light. Regardless that it was small and completely unwarranted at that particular intersection; we ran it accidentally. The police stopped us and told us that we were being fined approximately $20. The policeman also told us we would have to go to the police station and pay the fine. Unfortunately for us, he said that the police station was closed and we would have to wait until Monday morning to pay the fine.
When we complained that we must be in La Paz that evening, he shrugged and said "Maybe I can help you. I will pay the fine for you on Monday."
In June 2002, we rented a car and were driving on the outskirts of Mexico City. Before we knew it we were being pulled over. The policemen couldn't speak English but they did have a translated piece of paper that indicated that we were being fined because our license plate number was banned on that particular day with DF's attempt to cut back on air pollution. We were clearly in the wrong, all-be-it a rented car with no warnings from the rental agency.
The young police officer made it very clear from the beginning that he wanted $200US for the infraction. He was not interested in taking us to the station or to the bank. He wanted the money now. We only had $35 cash in our "phony wallet" and he took that and escorted us to the end of town. (We had the license number of his car and descriptions but nothing to our knowledge was done about it. We complained to our consulate, the Mexican Ambassador, the tourist agency etc.)
Most experienced travelers we know say that in general, municipal police over the years have greatly improved their practices. The exception to this rule is Mexico City police who have still continue to stop tourists with real or imagined infractions.
No discussion about Mexican police would be complete without a mention about the kindness and compassion of many officers. On a trip with my kids into Mexico's interior, my RV broke down. I had police - both municipal and federal trying to help me. A farmer gave my kids tours of his farm so they wouldn’t be bored. A woman who went to the nearest town to buy my daughter a piece of cake because it was her birthday - and we all - including the police sang "Felix Compleanos".
There was a rancher who eventually towed us to Leon with a police escort because it was dangerous to drive at night AND THEY ALL...ALL OF THEM, THE 20 OR SO PEOPLE THAT STOPPED FOR 5-8 HOURS TO HELP OUR FAMILY, REFUSED TO TAKE A DIME. Including the farmer that towed us. Including the police that escorted us and guarded or rig all night in Leon.
Advise for interactions with police? Don't try to bend the rules. Discretely take down their license numbers and names on their uniforms if you are stopped. Be friendly and respectful.
Tourist Police like this one in PV are there to assist you.
We have never been stopped or robbed by a bandido. Maybe they are nothing more than a Hollywood Myth. I don't know.
We know that in our country, when someone breaks into your house or vehicle it is called a burglary. If the criminals detain and otherwise secure people for money, it is called a home invasion. In Canada home invasions are unfortunately common enough. Kidnappings seem to be increasing world-wide. We wonder if we call these criminals banditos in Mexico because we are in Mexico. We am not sure how to compare apples to apples and if we could we are not sure what the answer would be.
Never-the-less, we do take precautions. Sound silly? We don't drive at night. We carry a phony wallet. We hide what little cash we have on us. We have made plans in case we ever did see an unauthorized "road block."
If someone out there has experienced Bandidos...and has a police report to prove it wasn't the peyote, then contact us. We'd like to know.
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