|Fred Metcalf, Pete Parry, Bill Kitto, Barbara Allen, David Eidell, Bob Wood, John Adams, Stephanie Alatorre, Spencer McMullen|
|Disclaimer: The information on this page does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice you must consult legal counsel. This page is provided solely as a guide for understanding potential legal problems.|
As a general rule, foreigners in Mexico are afforded the same rights as Mexican citizens (except for the right to vote and to own land in certain areas). Foreigners are also required to assume the same responsibilities as Mexican citizens when it comes to laws and regulations, at whatever level they may be encountered (local or national).
There is one area in which a foreigner has an additional responsibility, and that is in the matter of a "visa." With the exception of the border region for up to 72 hours (a few miles into Mexico, the corridor to San Felipe, and the Tijuana/Ensenada/Tecate triangle), any visitor must have a proper and current visa ("Tourist Card"). Click here to view the Tourist Card page.
A tourist does not, under normal circumstances, get any special privileges under Mexican law. A tourist from the U.S. may seek assistance from an American Consul, but there should be no expectation that such a person will be able to provide significant help.
Here is a quote from the U.S. State Department Consular Information Sheet:
Mexican law is still based upon both the Napoleonic Code and Roman Law. They refer to state judicial power as "Fuero Comun," or common law (not to be confused with American or British common law).
The American legal system is based upon case law. Court decisions made in previous cases can be used as the basis for arguing present cases before the court. Not so in Mexico, where each case must be argued anew. Appeals are known as Writs of Amparo, and it takes three separate instances of the same decision for it to assume the force of universal law.
There are no trials in Mexico. Neither is there open court. If a person is arrested, the district attorney "Ministerio Publico" has up to seventy-two hours to make a prosecutorial decision, and if the decision is made to prosecute, then the defendant is taken to prison, often referred to as the CERESO (CENTRO DE READAPTACION SOCIAL).
Within a few days, court is held at the prison. "Court" is a closed-door hearing in a small room with a window separating the defendant from his attorney, the prosecutors, the witnesses, stenographer, etc.. Missing is the judge, whom the defendant does not see. At this point the defendant is given the opportunity to tell his or her side of the story.
Depositions from witnesses/complainants have already been transcribed and are read to the defendant. The defendant will be informed if the offense is bailable. Generally bails are very low by American standards, and often the defendant wins Conditional Release after paying less than one-hundred dollars.
The depositions will be reviewed by the judge very quickly, and a decision will be rendered as to whether or not there is sufficient evidence to proceed. In some states this decision is made by a panel of judges, while in others it's made by only one judge. In many cases the amount posted as bail can be used to pay a "fine" in lieu of imprisonment upon conviction. This decision is up to the judge, and decisions can take as much as a couple of years. When the defendant is being detained in prison, this delay can be quite upsetting, for in Mexico there is no such thing as a right to a speedy trial. In fact, in Mexico, a "trial" is a process extending from the time the judge orders the defendant to be "tried" until the verdict. There's no oral testimony, no "Perry Mason" stuff, no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. All "testimony" comes in the form of depositions that are slipped into the case folder for the judge to review, and what gets slipped in, and what gets slipped out, is a matter for your imagination.
Not-Guilty verdicts are appealable by the state.
In the Mexican legal system there are "Public Offenses" and "Private Offenses." Private Offenses are some offenses against private individuals that the state has no interest in pursuing absent a cooperating complainant. Minor assaults, property damage, simple thefts from individuals, statutory rape, generally fall under this catagory. If the "victim" in such cases withdraws the charges, even after the defendant is convicted and sent to prison, then a judge can order the defendant freed and the entire case extinguished as though it had never happened.
The thing to keep in mind is that Mexico is a republic consisting of thirty-one states and, as in the United States, each state has its own criminal and civil code. Mexican federal law applies in Mexico City, on government land and facilities, in customs and immigration, as well as to certain crimes regardless of where in Mexico they occur. For example, all drug offenses in Mexico now fall under federal law.
I live in the state of Sonora, and Sonora has what is called administrative detention, which means that in lieu of prosecution a defendant can be detained up to thirty-six hours in jail as a summary punishment doled out by the police judge. It's not a criminal procedure, and is often meted out for relatively minor offenses.John Adams
- Legislación Federal de México: http://www.cddhcu.gob.mx/leyinfo/
From the website of the Mexican Consulate in New York City (http://www.consulmexny.org/eng/visas_fmt_us_canada.htm):
Minors (individuals under the age of 18) traveling alone, with only one parent or with someone other than his/her parents must have a notarized letter of consent, signed by both parents or the absent parent. If parents are divorced, a Parental Custody document is permissible in lieu of notarized letter.
If you are flying to Mexico, inquire with your carrier in advance about their policies.
Remark (ftm): This last is very important. Don't get caught at the airport without any necessary documentation! In some cases, major airlines have been known to refuse the flight to a minor without the required notarized document.
This section is under construction.
Provide link with separate page with printable list of phone numbers of Polica, Tourist Agencies, ...
Information collected so far:
Military Hospital (Calle Revolución - Open to tourists): (612) 122-3488, 125-3561
Mexican Red Cross (Cruz Roja Mexicana) La Paz Address ??? (612) 122-1111, 122-7828
Highway Patrol La Paz Address ??? (612) 122-0369, 122-5735, 125-3684
Immigration (Instituto Nacional de Migración - INM) Guerrero Negro Blvd. Emiliano Zapata (615) 157-0303 Santa Rosalia Edificio Fed. de Hacienda (615) 152-0313 Loreto Calle Paseo Tamaral (613) 135-1266 La Paz Alvaro Obregón No. 2140 (612) 125-3493, 122-0429 Cabo San Lucas Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas (624) 143-0135, 143-4001
While this has traditionally been a difficult matter for non-Mexicans to deal with, the situation is slowly changing to reflect a better ethic on the part of police officers. However, if you're in Mexico long enough, you'll eventually encounter a threatened citation with the hint that it can all be taken care of by slipping some money to the officer.
Here's one hint (suggested by the late Fred Hoctor) on dealing with an unjustified citation threat:
Should you be charged with a traffic infraction and would like to discuss the matter (probably in Spanish), the person to speak with at the Police Station is the Juez Calificador (an office judge who makes "on the spot" determinations of justice and often sets the fine). The correct approach with the "Juez" (pronounced "Whez") would be to act as politely as possible. The Juez is the person in control in this situation - don't make the Juez an adversary!
Here's a list of some Mexican laws which are commonly broken by visitors to the country. Since ignorance is no excuse for breaking a law, it's probably best to be forearmed by being forewarned.
- Visiting without bothering to obtain a tourist card. Contrary to most people's understanding, aliens must have a tourist card if they remain in Mexico longer than 72 hours -- even if you venture no deeper than ten feet from the border fence. Favorite weekend destinations as far south as Ensenada on the west coast, and San Felipe on the east coast, do not require a tourist card unless a visitor remains for 72 hours or longer. Points further south than an imaginary line drawn between the two cities, require a tourist card regardless of length of stay.
- Smuggling contraband without declaration at the border. Be aware that things have tightened up considerably in the last few years. If a substantial amount (volume or value) of contraband is discovered during a routine secondary inspection, your motor vehicle, and all of it's possessions, including towed vehicle and contents can be impounded. The Aduana (Mexican Customs) is allowed to set it's own figure on the worth of the contraband if a receipt is nowhere to be found. A fine of up to three times the worth of the sized contraband is levied which must be paid on the spot. The confiscated contraband is not returned once the fine has been satisfied.
- Flying an Americal flag is illegal in Mexico unless it is on a flagstaff at the stern of a cruising yacht that has been legally registered for passage into Mexican waters (a boat permit). Signs, decals, and photographs of foreign flags are not banned. Also, the flying of a Mexican flag is illegal unless written permission is obtained from the office of the Secretería de Gobernación.
- Driving with expired license tags will be treated as if the vehicle were a Mexican vehicle being driving with expired tags. Only the registered owner is allowed to drive a motor vehicle in Mexico, unless the registered owner has supplied the driver with a notarized letter of permission - unless of course the owner is physically present when another is driving. However, if someone not listed on an insurance policy as a co-driver happens to be driving at the time of an accident, the insurance policy may be considered invalid.
- Fishing from a boat with no license is very illegal. Shore fishing on the ocean or sea is permitted sans license, but many inland fisheries require a license (check with the local office of PESCA).
- Gathering mariscos (seafood) is prohibited period, and, is not licensable. This includes gathering clams, lobster, shrimp, caracol, mussels, scallops, abalone, squid, and octopus. Technically, possession of seafood requires possession of a valid receipt from a federally registered retail foods outlet (the burden of proof is on the possessor).
- Cutting of some firewood is a more serious crime than most people realize. Tourists are allowed to gather loose firewood, but are not allowed to fell standing trees, either living or dead, by means of a powered saw, axe or other instrument.
- Motor vehicles remaining in Mexico longer than 180 days. Even though a "car permit" is not required in Baja California, a time limit exists for motor vehicles. The only exception is for FM-3 and FM-2 Immigrantes. Trailers also cannot remain in Mexico longer than 180 days unless a 20-year permit is obtained from the office of Hacienda.
- Selling a motor vehicle is expressly prohibited in Mexico. A motor vehicle with a "For Sale" sign on it can be immediately impounded if it did not display Mexican license plates. The ban includes motorbikes, ATV's, boats and trailers.
- Article 42 of the Mexican constitution forbids "tourists from engaging in any activity not commonly associated with a tourist." Read this somewhat ambiguous statement closely because it empowers Mexican immigration with a vast number of reasons to cite and detain individuals who may be engaged in activities that deviate, even slightly, from those of a pure tourist. Tourists are forbidden to engage in any activity, lucrative or not, that deviates from what a standard tourist would be expected to be doing.
This act is designed to stop people from "assisting" friends or acquaintences build a home, rebuild an engine, install plumbing or electrical, unless the worker possesses a valid Mexican Work Permit. Also, one especially sensitive area is that of foreigners entering Mexico to participate in political activities. Enforcement is spotty, but if a person is cited by immigration officials it can lead to permanent expulsion from Mexico.
This section is under construction.
Items to cover here:
- insurance coverage
- hospital vs jail while awaiting resolution
- who to contact
I've developed an Information Sheet which can be filled in with your particular auto insurance information. Copies can then be made so that one can be left with a home contact, and another kept in the vehicle to be provided to the investigating officer in the event of an accident. This consolidates the important information, and allows it to be in the hands of someone back home, as well as providing the investigating officer with a single source for much of the information he'll need. (Probably double checking with the legal documents - which this sheet is not!)
This sheet is under development - please email me any comments:
ftm @ math.ucr.edu
Due to difficulties in printing from web pages, there are several alternatives here. You'll just have to experiment.
Click here for a web page version (may not print well) Click here for a small size graphics image Click here for a medium size graphics image Click here for a large size graphics image
In each case, use your browser's "back" button to return to this page
Here is a quote from the U.S. State Department Consular Information Sheet:
It should be noted that the length of time mentioned above is 25 years (not days, weeks, or even months, but years). If you encounter someone taking an illegal substance into Mexico, the kindest thing you could do for them is to talk them out of placing themselves in a very dangerous situation.
Conditions in Mexican jails and prisons are not considered to be kind. For those who drive south past Santa Rosalia, the sight of the State Penitentiary is a sobering one. I would imagine the only air conditioning is in the warden's office.
While awaiting trial for a drug charge, there is no bail whatsoever! A trial may take many months to occur - with the defendant often waiting in prison, rather than the local jail.
Many Mexican Army drug personnel are considered incorruptible. Even when a "personal quantity" of narcotics is involved, and a bribe is successful, rumor has it that a successful bribe is thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. And if this isn't enough evidence to weigh against taking drugs to Mexico, consider this:
Over the last several months it has been rumored that the United States Department of Justice has been paying Mexican authorities for personal information about U.S. citizens arrested for possession of drugs. Names are supposedly entered into a national database, which is accessible by local law enforcement agencies (your hometown police). U.S. Customs is also supposed to get a copy of the information. Yet, despite an avalanche of awful penalties, a few tourists still insist on risking their freedom.
The possession of a gun, or even just ammunition, without a Mexican permit is a very serious offense. To bring a gun into Mexico requires that a Mexican permit be obtained before entering the country.
Violations are punishable by very severe prison sentences. This matter is treated much more seriously in Mexico then it would be in the United States.
Here's the statement issued by the U.S. Department of State relative to this issue:
While pellet guns are sold in Mexico, any traveler should view possession of such a gun from the point-of-view of a young soldier manning a check-point that is screening for drugs and guns. Will that young soldier know what the Mexican laws are? Probably not!
Another idea which is sometimes put forth is to carry a marine flare pistol. If you are not on board a boat, or towing a boat behind your vehicle, this could also lead to mis-understanding. Further, it has been suggested by a few to carry shotgun shells which can be fit into the flare gun. Here is a posting from the Message Board on the subject (April, 2006). The poster spent 24 years in the US Coast Guard, and six years as a Merchant Marine Inspector.
The link below will bring up a 33 page PDF document prepared by Spencer McMullen. This guide is directed to driving issues in the state of Jalisco, but has much to say of a general nature about the legal issues of driving in Mexico.Jalisco Drivers Guide (PDF document)
This section collects reports of travelers' experiences involving legal questions.
Accident Report (July 2004)
This report was posted on the Message Board by "Dug" on July 2, 2004.
Thursday we were driving from Mision San Javier to Loreto when a Toyota pickup came around a corner on our side of the road and hit us. We were going very slowly to conserve gas, the low fuel light had been on since we left San Javier. We had enough time to pull to the far right of the road and stop before we were hit. We were in a Ford F-150. The left bumper of the Toyota hit our left bumper. The Toyota suffered more damage than we did. We had seat belts on, the three men in the Toyota didn't. One hit and broke the windshield suffering a cut that stopped bleeding as soon as he put some tissue on it. That was the only injury.
I was a passenger and started taking photos immediately so we could document the situation. The Toyota driver immediately took some beer cans from the bed and threw them over the side of the road. I took photos of that. The Toyota driver started demanding that we pay because it was our fault. The driver and I pointed out that the evidence was clear. Our truck was against the rocks on our side of the road and he was 1.5 car widths from the right edge of his side. Our tire treads marks in the dirt showed we didn't skid. His showed his truck skidding into us.
We were out of cell range to Loreto so we used our Satellite phone to call the Loreto Police. They arrived promptly, in about 20 minutes. They asked for drivers license and insurance papers. The Toyota driver had neither. The police talked with each driver, took measurements and made notes, including a sketch of the road, the curve, the location of each vehicle and the tire marks. They told us that if we could agree on who would pay the damages, they would drop the matter and leave it to us. The Toyota driver insisted that we had to pay for his truck and we didn't agree to that so the matter went to the next level.
We were able to drive so they told us to meet them at the Police station. We asked if we could take the truck to the house to empty it first if it had to be impounded and they agreed. The Toyota needed to be towed. At the station we were told the vehicles would have to be kept overnight and the next morning (it was now about 9 pm) the Public Magistrate would read the report, hear arguments and make a decision of guilt. We went to the house where we were staying.
Friday morning we had several photos printed and we went to the station and the police commandant showed us the report that stated the Toyota driver was at fault. The commandant said the driver had no money and would have to sell everything he had to pay for our truck. We said we didn't think that was necessary and would take care of our truck as long as we were cleared of responsibility for the other truck. The commandant said that if we had made that known last night, they wouldn't have impounded our truck. Since we hadn't seen his report, we didn't know for sure that we would be cleared. With that decision, the case didn't have to go to the Public Magistrate. He attached our photos to his report, gave us a copy. and we drove the damaged truck back to the house. The police were professional and efficient.
The Ford was insured through Lewis & Lewis. We called the 800 number and they said they would contact their nearest adjustor who lived in Ciudad Constitucion. We told the adjustor were planning to leave Saturday morning and he said he needed to talk with the driver as well as see the truck which was staying in Loreto where the owner has a house. He promised to be at the house at 8 am. He arrived at 7:59, spent about an hour filling out forms, asking questions, and taking photos of the damage. He said that if the truck went to the US for repairs, it would have to be cleared with the Tijuana office. He was also efficient and professional. When we left, the owner of the Ford hadn't decided where to get it repaired since it was only body damage. I don't know yet how quickly the insurance will pay but everything was handled well up to the time we left. We, including the driver but not the owner, were planning to drive home in my pickup and left about 9:30 for home.
All three in the Toyota were friends of the Police Commandant in Loreto. The two passengers were park rangers for the marine and natural reserve area in Loreto. One passenger was a nephew of the commandant but none of that appeared to affect the outcome. I give the Loreto police high marks for the way they handled this.
Major Accident Report (February 2002)
This report, from Bill Kitto, chronicles the aftermath of an accident which, amongst other things, prompted the creation of this page. The report is quite long, and so is provided on a separate page.
Click here to access the Kitto Accident Report.
Yellow Light = Red Light in La Paz (November 2000)
From Fred Metcalf:At the cost of a $40 ticket I found out that, in La Paz, going through a yellow light is the same as running a red light. When I was stopped by the motorcycle officer often seen at the intersection of 5 de Febrero and Abasolo, I was doubtful of the officer's assertion of illegality. However, when I went to the police station and asked to speak to the Juez Calificador (the person who will sort out minor legal matters), I discovered that the law is indeed on the books! I believe the reasoning here relates to the common usage of a blinking green light to signal a pending change. This blinking green light would correspond to a yellow light north of the border, and the yellow light in La Paz has little or no legal role.
This section is under construction.
daño damage delito crime delitos cometidos committed crimes extranjero foreigner (el) juez ("whez") judge Ministerio Público Public Prosecutor recurso de incomformidad appeal (la) reparación repair