THE MORDIDA:
MEXICO AND CORRUPTION
By: Christina Johns

I spent several years of my life writing a book about law in Ancient Mexico and while I was doing so, traveled widely throughout the country. I spent some more years of my life researching and writing a book about the war on drugs.

So, it was no surprise, when I read last week that an army general who headed Mexico's national drug agency was being detained and awaiting arrest on charges that he accepted huge payments from a Mexican drug baron.

The extent and pervasiveness of official corruption in Mexico is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't lived there. Corruption is everywhere and widely accepted as a fact of life.

Early on in my travels in Mexico I learned what the word "mordida" meant. Literally, it means "bite" but figuratively and the way it is most frequently used, it means a bribe.

For a lot of things you do in Mexico, especially if they involve a public official, you have to pay the "mordida", the bite.

Want your tourist card stamped? You pay the mordida. Want the dates on your tourist card extended? You pay the mordida. Want your car registered? You pay the mordida.

And, there's no point in protesting it. The question is not whether you'll pay. The question is how much.

During the time I was traveling in Mexico, I was married to a historian. We got so used to paying the "mordida" we worked out a routine which was pretty effective at getting the price down.

Whenever we were going into a situation where we knew we'd be asked to pay, we acted as if I couldn't speak Spanish. The inevitable request for money would be made to my husband, of course, and after a few seconds of feigned shock, he would translate for me.

I would then fly off into a tirade, peppering my shouting with generous repetitions of "No. No, absolutely not. No" which translates into any language.

Tom would shrug and try to look henpecked, and appeal to the official, his palms turned upward toward the heavens in supplication. The official, then, seeing what Tom was faced with, usually lowered the mordida a bit. Tom would translate the new amount and I would respond again with: "No, no, no. We'll go to Tourista (the government tourist office)." This little farce would go on and on and on until the mordida reached an acceptable level and we would pay.

I figured it worked for two reasons. First, they felt sorry for Tom this poor harassed man, cursed with what they saw as an out-of-control wife. Second, after a while, they just wanted to get rid of us because if there is anything a Latin American man hates, it's a highly verbal, angry and yelling gringa woman. I know this, by the way, because it almost got us shot by a police captain in Chiapas, but that's another story.

Our little routine decreased the amount of the mordida, the playacting was fun and it made paying the bribe a little less galling. But, we still had to pay the bribe.

We even had to pay a bribe in Mexico City to get a telephone installed. And, even with the mordida, it took so long to get a listing and a telephone that the Mexico City phone book was widely referred to as the "Book of the Dead."

Like I said, it's difficult to explain the pervasiveness of the corruption in Mexico and the degree to which the population takes it for granted. I'll give you a good example. A lot of people in Mexico just couldn't understand Watergate. We were in Mexico at the time and Mexican friends and colleagues would ask me: What is everybody so upset about? What do they think politicians do but lie and steal and cheat and break the law? That's why they become politicians - so they can lie and steal and cheat and break the law.

You have to admit, it's something to think about.

I miss Mexico. C. J. Johns


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