How We Beat The Mexican Bureaucrats

April 19, 2007

border-crossingMy wife and I have been traveling to various parts of Mexico for many years. We love Mexico, its people, its history and charm. But we, like most travelers, have also experienced our share of “petty bureaucrats.” You know the kind: the ones who have a little bit of power and let it all go straight to their heads.

My philosophy, when confronted with such people, is to remember the lyrics of the popular country and western song of a few years back, which goes something like this…”You have to know when to hold them, when to fold them, and when to walk away.”

On our last land border crossing at Laredo/Nuevo Laredo (from Texas into Mexico) in the summer of 1999, I used all three parts of the song’s instructions to successfully cross the border without paying an outrageously high fine. This fine, of course, as I later confirmed, was really a request for major “mordita” (or the little bite, a usually minor gratuity, or as some would say, a bribe, paid to a border official to do something he should do anyway).

In our case, we had inadvertently allowed our FM3 Mexican residency documents to expire by a few weeks.

I became aware of this just before our annual summer excursion to become Mexican residents for a few of the hottest summer months in Texas. I tried to renew the FM3 visas at the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, only to be told that I would to totally reapply.

This would mean that we would have to obtain and submit updated pension benefit letters, etc. etc. Besides the hassle this would be, there was just not time to do it all and leave on time. I asked if a tourist card obtained at the border would suffice, knowing that I would be able to do this, as long as I had two documents to prove U.S. citizenship in hand. And the tourist card is good up to 90 days (more time than we had planned to be in Mexico for this trip). The person on duty said, yes, this would be the easiest solution. So I opted to, as the song says, “Just walk away.”

Arriving at the border several days later, I was smart enough not to use our FM3 residency passport-like booklets as one of the forms of proof of U.S. citizenship in hopes of avoiding confusion.

No, instead, we used our U.S. passports and voter’s registration certificates. Handing our documents to the appropriate immigration official, all seemed to go well until she happened to notice the Mexican residency visas neatly pasted onto one of the back pages of our passports.

I had forgotten they were even there!

Why are you using tourist cards when you have a residency permit? I explained that they were expired and that the Mexican Consulate in Dallas said it would be OK just to enter the country on a tourist card.

WRONG! I would have to see another higher-up official at a different location to iron out the problem. It was time to fold them.

Arriving at the higher-up’s office, I learned that not having renewed my FM3 residency permit was a very serious matter.

“What could I do to remedy this serious matter?” I asked, fearing the worst.

After several minutes on the calculator (my fears were confirmed), the official determined that it would take over $400 US, payable in cash in pesos to remedy the matter.

I protested that this amount was too high for such a minor infraction. (Actually, it was no infraction at all since you don’t have to renew such documents if you don’t intend to use them again.)

I always thought that everything in Mexico was negotiable, but I was WRONG AGAIN!

After telling him that I would not pay such a high price for a fine, and that I would just have to go back to Texas and not spend all the money I had planned to spend in Mexico, it was time to “walk away”, at least from him.

Back at the hotel, considering our situation and knowing that since the border is open 24 hours a day a new shift of officials would be coming on duty at some point, we decided that for the moment it was just best to “hold them,” and see what the next cards we would be dealt would be like in the form of a new set of officials.

Sure enough, at around 10:45 pm, new officials were in place. We filled out the forms for tourist cards, but this time we used our certified copies of our birth certificates and our voter’s registration cards as proof of U.S. citizenship.

We sailed right through this set of officials without any problems whatsoever.

I thought of a phrase from one of the PT (Perpetual Travelers) books, written by W. G. Hill, who said about government clerks the world over, “Give them the papers they want and they will give you the papers you want.” He was right. It works!

Epilogue: Arriving several days later in beautiful Chapala, Jalisco, we visited our favorite free enterprise immigration expert and friend, Mago. She knows immigration law and rules better than most immigration officials, as well as the practical aspects of how to get them to work for you and she informed us of something we had already suspected.

The official we met was just an example of one of those power-to-the-head types, who, fortunately, are not any more numerous in Mexico than in the good old U.S.A.

Happy Ending! In a few days Margo had our FM3 residency papers renewed. Yes, you recall correctly, the Mexican Consulate in Dallas did say that they could not be renewed once expired.

I’ve found that talking to Mexican immigration officials is much like talking to IRS officials in the U.S.: you get as many different answers as the number of people you speak to.

This time we were right to “hold them,” because our residency papers were renewed at the regular fee (about $68.00US), plus a very small late fee of about $10.00 total for both documents.

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