Some police officers in Mexico are corrupted. No breaking news here. We read a few stories from tourists who were arrested by the police and asked to pay a bribe. Still, we decided to rent a car to have more freedom for our visit to the Yucatan Peninsula. The Yucatan Peninsula is safer than many other places in Mexico. That does not mean the police isn’t corrupted there. Just Google “Cancun police corruption” and you’ll find plenty of examples that make you wonder if you should be driving in Cancun.
We were not too worried about the corrupted police in Cancun, but I am glad we were prepared.
We saw it as a small financial risk to take. We knew that corrupted police officers could take us over to ask for a bribe during our trip in the Riviera Maya, and especially while driving in Cancun.
We saw many police officers during our trip around the Yucatan Peninsula.
Cars slow down to pass a police guard at the entrance of every town. The police also help the circulation in busy areas. Many vehicles seemed just to be patrolling.
The police pulled us over twice during our trip to Mexico.
We didn’t get arrested by the police in Cancun, as we expected, but we got pulled over twice while we were driving more south.
Once, they just checked our rental contract. I believe they wanted to have a look at our insurances – as this seems to be a headache in Mexico when you rent a car. The control was straightforward and hardly took a minute.
The other time, they clearly wanted a bribe, but we got away quite easily. Here is some advice from our experience and from what two expats in Mexico advised us to do in case it happens. Of course, you’ll have to adapt to the situation and use common sense: this article provides tips and not rules.
1. Don’t give the Mexican police a reason to pull you over
Well, not breaking the law is, in general, a good advice to follow. Not only will you be likely to do things the right way, it will also give you confidence that the corrupted police officers that pull you over are lying and inventing a reason to threaten you with a ticket to get a bribe.
There were two police officers on the bike that pulled us over. The first one talked about our speed and gave up in less than one minute as he understood this was not going to work. We knew we were not over the speed limit. The second one said we did not stop in town at a pedestrian crossing, giving some very blurry explanations of how things work in Mexico for pedestrian crossings. But we saw them coming from the checkpoint out of the city: even if we had done something wrong back in town, they would not have been there to see it.
If you can, try to hide that you’re driving a rental car. Corrupted police officers target tourists and will spot the rental car stickers to chose which cars to pull over.
2. Pretend you don’t speak English nor Spanish
Two expats told us the officers would usually give up trying to get a bribe if it is too complicated – unless you did something wrong of course. If you act dumb and pretend you don’t understand what they say, they may feel they are wasting their time. Luckily, it was easy for us with our French driving licence to pretend we didn’t speak English nor Spanish. Could Americans pretend to have a strong accent to give the officers such a hard time that they finally let go? I have no idea if this would work.
As we were driving a lot during that trip around the Cancun region, we expected this would happen at some point. So we took it as a challenge. Could we sound dumb enough so they give up? They asked many questions to impress us and wrote our answers on a small sheet of paper. On purpose, I was watching closely what the officer was writing. Fail from him: I was not impressed. It had no official look at all and I knew this wouldn’t put us in any danger. So I doubled my efforts in sounding stupid while answering his questions with the worse Spanish I could think of and a lot of gestures. To be honest, it was sometimes hard not to laugh.
3. If the Mexican police officer asks for money, pretend you don’t have cash
It can help to carry an empty wallet, in case he asks on seeing your money.
They did insist in our case: “Check it! Check it!”, said the police officer at least twice. We showed him our wallet that only had a few coins. We told him (in a terrible Spanish of course) that our bank card was not working, and we were unable to withdraw cash. Of course, he was suspicious. They asked further questions – that we pretended not to understand – and we finally explained we paid our entire trip on the Internet, hence we had no need to carry cash.
I’m sure he’d have taken the notes from our wallet if we had any.
4. Have an International driving licence
Often, the rental companies don’t ask for our International driving licence and we can hire a car with just our French licence. If you’re in the same situation, I still advise going through the process of getting an international licence. When a corrupted police officers hold your driving licence, he’s got power because you need that document and you’ll be willing to pay to get it back. It’s even worse if it’s your passport. So if you can avoid to give them your precious documents and give them the international driving licence instead, it will be less stressful for you.
5. Identify the corrupted police officer
We did not have to do that as getting away was not too hard for us.
But if they insist on the bribe and don’t let you go, we were told to take a photo of their badge and ask for their names. It should scare them and make them give up.
6. Stay calm and take your time
If you are nervous and are in a hurry, they will have more confidence that they can get something from you by wasting your time. Never mention you are going to an activity or, even worse, to the airport. For example, we said we were going to a particular town, to do something on the next day. Telling them you’re going back to your hotel can work as well. You have all the time in the world, but do they?
Of course, if you are pulled over while driving to Cancun airport, it’s harder to make up a lie and not to stress about your flight. I could help to go there in advance. Again, if you can hide that you’re in a rental car, you’ll lower your risks of being pulled over.
And if you’re really stressed about that particular road to Cancun airport but still want to drive in Cancun to visit the Yucatan Peninsula, maybe you could catch a cab from the airport and rent a car from downtown or another city in the Yucatan.
7. If you actually did something wrong, don’t pay the corrupted police officer directly
Locals advise us just to say you want the ticket, take it and follow the standard procedure. If what you did wasn’t bad, they often will forget about the bribe, and let you go. If you have to pay a fine, at least it will support the state and not the police corruption.
Edit: If you scroll down this page to read the comments, a traveller reported a more complicated experience doing it this way when he was taken to the police station. As far as I understood, it wasn’t related to a diving in Cancun experience.
I don’t have first-hand experience to share personal advice in such a situation. But I would prefer giving my money to the state and pay for my mistake than to a corrupted individual, although it would mean taking the risk of wasting time and money if the situation gets more complicated. Of course, the best choice is not to do anything wrong to stay out of trouble as much as possible.
Should you be driving in Cancun?
If you are hesitating about driving in Cancun and renting a car to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, I recommend you do hire one.
We drove a lot during our trip in the Cancun region, and it was an overall good experience. I am happy we decided to rent a car in Cancun as it gave us a lot more freedom to explore remote areas and to manage our days easily. We did a lot more than what we would have been able to do using public transports or tourist tours. Check out our 2-week itinerary to learn more.
Please note we have only travelled in the Yucatan Peninsula so I cannot advise for the rest of the country.
Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer who wanted a bribe? Have you driven in Cancun? Please share your experience in the comments below!
Where is Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula?
The Yucatan Peninsula is on the eastern coast of Mexico. The most famous city there is Cancun.
During our trip, we rented a car to cover a large area of the peninsula, from Rio Lagartos in the north to Xcalac in the south – at the border with Belize; and the famous Mexican ruins of Chichen Itza and Coba in the middle. If it’s easy to find buses and colectivos to reach the beach towns like Playa del Carmen and Cancun, you’ll save time by having your own car to go to more natural places like the cenotes in Tulum or the Sian Ka’an Reserve. Our time driving in Cancun City itself was limited, as we only dived the Cancun Underwater Museum and left the city.
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Eloise lives in Brisbane (Australia), but you won’t find her often in the city. When she is not disconnected underwater or in a national park, she loves sharing her travel tips and inspiring her readers to take care of our beautiful planet. She considers every weekend as a two-day holiday break. Her approach: you don’t always need to go far to travel. Still, she also enjoys exploring the world and discovering new cultures. Eloise is originally from France and, before moving to Brisbane, she lived in Sydney, Istanbul and England.