Big Bite

When your ATM card doesn't work to pay a bribe to Tijuana cops

"Instead of following them, I took off straight ahead toward the border, which was only three quarters of a mile away. They whipped around, threw on their lights and sirens, and came after me."
  • "Instead of following them, I took off straight ahead toward the border, which was only three quarters of a mile away. They whipped around, threw on their lights and sirens, and came after me."
  • Image by Joe Klein

Gary Sehnert works as the United States representative and distributor for several wineries in the Guadalupe Valley -- the Napa Valley of Mexico -- ten miles inland from Ensenada. Though he operates from his home in Little Italy, his job takes him to Tijuana and Ensenada three times a week. On Sunday, April 21, Sehnert was alone in his house, doing a few chores and sipping red wine. In his pocket he carried a .22 caliber short-barreled revolver that he says he bought a few weeks earlier for home security. At 10:00 p.m., knowing he had to meet with a client Monday morning in Ensenada, he decided to drive down that night instead of fighting traffic in the morning. He never made it to Ensenada.

"I go to the next bank on the row, which is Banco Santander, but I couldn't get anything out of the machine."

"I go to the next bank on the row, which is Banco Santander, but I couldn't get anything out of the machine."

Just before 11:00 p.m., Sehnert steered his truck through downtown Tijuana on Benito Juárez, also known as Calle Segunda, or Second Street. Intending to stop at the house of a friend in that neighborhood, he turned left off of Benito Juárez and immediately realized he was heading the wrong way up a one-way street. Then he saw flashing red lights in his rear-view mirror. A pair of Tijuana municipal police officers patrolling the area had seen him make the wrong-way turn.

This wasn't the first time Sehnert, 51, had been pulled over in Mexico. "In the last three years," he says, "I have been pulled over probably 20 or 25 times. I'm down there a lot, often driving at night, often trying to find places I'm not familiar with. Signage is horrible. So I've been pulled over for making illegal U-turns, inadvertently turning down one-way streets, and speeding. Of course, you're always over the speed limit down there. Everyone speeds. But I can honestly say I've never been stopped when it was not legitimate, when I had not done something wrong."

Sehnert knew what to expect as the two officers approached his window: la mordida, "The Bite, as they call it."

The slang term la mordida refers to the technically illegal yet accepted practice of paying police officers at the scene to be let off of a traffic ticket. "They almost always start at $50," Sehnert explains, "and you tell them, 'I don't have that much.' They'll usually accept $20. There's an etiquette to it. They'll never ask you for money. You have to suggest the idea. And you shouldn't lift the money up and hand it to them. When they hand you your I.D. back, you have the money in your hand. They don't want anything seen.

"Of course," Sehnert adds, "it has always been an option to follow them to the police station instead. I've done that three or four times. The fines are ridiculously low; seven, eight, nine dollars." But Sehnert knew that to go to the station would be an hourlong process at the shortest. Not wanting the delay, he decided to submit to the bite. "I said, 'I don't want any problems. Can I take care of the fine now?' They said, 'Well, maybe.' I said, 'I've got $20.' But they said that wasn't going to be enough for them. I said, 'In that case, let's just go to the police station.'"

The officers didn't agree to that. "They knew that I was willing to pay them some mordida, and I'm sure they thought that if they held me up long enough that they would get $40 or $50. Ten, 12 minutes longer go by, and I'm still saying, 'No problem, let's just go. I'll go to the station whenever you're ready.' They say, 'Okay, get out of the car. Come back to the police car...put your hands on the hood.' And they start to frisk me. Finally, it dawns on me."

Sehnert says he had forgotten to remove the .22 revolver from his pocket before he left his house. "It's a tiny, little five-shot revolver. You can hardly feel it in your pocket," he explains. "So they find the gun, take it out, and all of a sudden it's a whole new ballgame. At this point, my attitude obviously changes quite a bit. I know that this is very serious, and I'm ready to do just about anything to get out of this situation. And they know that. They see the change in my demeanor. And at this point there wasn't any pretense about mordida. It was, 'What are you willing to pay.' I said, 'Listen, I've got about $100 on me. I don't know how much I can get from ATMs, but I'll get as much as I can. I should be able to get at least another $400 or $500. Whatever I can get I will.' They agreed to do that, and there were ATMs all over the area. But they wanted to get away from the area so they said, 'Okay, we'll follow you to the Banamex down in Zona Rio.' So I drive the two or three miles to Zona Rio with them following behind me and pull up in front of Banamex on Paseo de los Héroes. They park around the corner where they can watch me but not be right by me. So I go and try both my ATM and my credit card, but I could not get my cards to work. I went next door to BanNorte and the same thing happened. At this point I'm getting worried that they're thinking I'm trying to screw them. So, we go to the next one in the row -- there's a whole row of banks right there in Zona Rio -- which is BanCrecer. Thank God, I was able to get out 2000 pesos on one of the cards. So I go out to the car and say, 'I've got 2000 pesos. Do you want this plus the $100 I already have?' But they wouldn't take any money at this point at all. So I go to the next bank on the row, which is Banco Santander, but I couldn't get anything out of the machine. Normally it's about 50/50 whether I can get money out of the machines in Mexico, but I was having really bad luck that night. So we go around the corner onto Sanchez Taboada, and there are two banks right next to each other. I go to one and I'm able to get another 1000 pesos. I go to the next and I'm able to get another 1000 pesos. Now I've got 4000 pesos plus $100, all told about $550. But that was still not enough for them. They wanted to go to a seventh ATM."

When the $550 was rejected, Sehnert says he grew worried. "I just couldn't believe that that wasn't enough for them," he recalls. But he followed them in his pickup as they ordered, all the money still in his wallet. "We were driving along Sanchez Taboada, and they turned left toward downtown into a very dark area."

As he watched them turn, Sehnert says fear welled up in his heart, fear that he was being taken to some dark place to be killed so that he couldn't bear witness to the shark-sized bite they had put on him. "What I did next may be the stupidest thing I've ever done," Sehnert says. "Instead of following them, I took off straight ahead toward the border, which was only three quarters of a mile away. They whipped around, threw on their lights and sirens, and came after me. There was a big wait at the border, and they caught me there. This time they had called for backup, and about 30 cops showed up down there. Some of them are federal police. Everybody is looking me over, looking at the gun."

Handcuffed and sitting in the back of a squad car, Sehnert pleaded his case as vehemently as his limited Spanish allowed. "¡Mucha mordida!" he told the crowd of cops, pointing at the two police officers who had stopped him an hour and a half earlier. For another hour, the police on hand discussed the situation, and it was decided that, though possession of a firearm in Mexico is a federal offense, the original pair of cops would take him to a municipal substation downtown. "They have my truck towed away, and they take me downtown to a municipal police substation," Sehnert explains. "And I was there for about two hours. They had me alone in this holding tank, which was really a pit. It was about 12 by 12 feet, really filthy, with writing on the three concrete walls. The fourth side was all bars. There was a toilet, which was basically a hole in the concrete, no TP, no way to flush it. But I couldn't go anyway because my hands were cuffed behind me."

After taking a Breathalyzer test, the results of which he never found out, and having some photos taken of him, the same two municipal police officers brought Sehnert back to the Zona Rio. But this time it wasn't to ATMs they were bringing him. It was to the local office of the federal police. The black glass building bore a sign over the entrance reading Procuraduría General de la República, which translates to the Attorney General of the Republic. There, Sehnert was put into a holding cell. "It was relatively clean," he recalls, "most of the cells had toilets in them. But the lights are on 24 hours a day. There's no music, no TV, nothing to read, and time seems to stand still. That was not fun."

Sehnert was fingerprinted -- four times, for some unexplained reason -- and had a mug shot taken of him. On Monday morning around 10:00 he was brought out of the holding tank and allowed to make a phone call. He reached his roommate, who agreed to make more calls on Sehnert's behalf. "Finally, I knew somebody on the U.S. side was doing something on my behalf. You have no idea how much of a comfort that is."

That afternoon, he was brought out of his cell to speak with a man and woman who had come from the American consulate at the request of the police. "They told me that this would be a minimum 5-year, maximum 12-year sentence if I were convicted."

The couple from the consulate handed Sehnert a list of attorneys three names long, though they made it clear they were not allowed to recommend any of them. Sehnert, an attorney himself, though not a practicing one, recognized the first name on the list. "It was Baker & McKenzie, which is a very large, very prestigious law firm with offices around the world. I knew they had an office in Tijuana. I'm thinking, I want the best possible representation, so I said, 'Let's use these guys.' So they call and no one answers. I think that they either didn't really call or they called a fake number. It just doesn't make sense that there would not even be a receptionist to answer the phone at Baker & McKenzie even if the attorneys weren't in. It's ludicrous. But I'm glad. I think that the couple from the consulate were very restrained in what they could say. They couldn't say, 'Use this guy,' but they wanted me to get the next guy on the list, Luis Estrada Sanchez. So they call him and he's there and he'll come and talk to me. I say, 'Okay, great.' They gave me the paper with the names of the attorneys, and I was reading it. Looking it over, I noticed that along with the names of the firms, they listed their specialties. And Baker & McKenzie doesn't do criminal law. The only guy on the list of three who does criminal law is Luis Estrada Sanchez. So I'm quite sure that they intentionally didn't connect me with Baker & McKenzie. Thank God."

Sehnert thanks God because it was clear to him the moment Estrada arrived that he had some sort of in with the people at the PGR office, especially in comparison to another attorney who showed up on Sehnert's behalf before Estrada. "One of the people my roommate called is an attorney friend of mine named Tim," Sehnert explains. "Tim thought the best way to help me was to get me some good representation. And he did his level best to find someone he thought would be good. But the guy he ended up sending my way..." Sehnert pauses to laugh, "He was like a parody. He had a 1960s lime-green polyester suit. He was standing at the door to the holding area, and he wanted to talk to me personally. The district attorney in charge of my case said, 'No, it's not allowed.' But this lawyer started harassing the D.A. about this for about two minutes, saying, 'Oh, come on. Can't we talk for just a minute?' Of course, I'm freaking out. I'm thinking, 'What the hell are you doing, man? You're turning the D.A. against me. I'm screwed. He's going to charge me no matter what, now.' "

Sehnert returned to his cell, sure he was in for at least a five-year Mexican prison sentence. "At 9:00 at night," he continues, "they take me out again. And Luis Estrada is there. He says, in very good English, 'They're giving me just a minute to talk to you alone, though they're not supposed to. Here's what we're going to do. I've looked at the case report...' I asked about his fee, and he told me, 'Don't worry about that now. I'm on the consulate's list. I'm not going to screw you.' I asked him how much bail will be. He says, 'Well, I can't guarantee that you'll get bail, but it will probably be $5000 or $6000. It might be more, but hopefully we'll get it for that.'"

Sehnert was surprised at how accommodating the federal officials were to Estrada. They let them speak alone for 30 minutes when they hadn't even let the attorney in the lime-green suit in the door. He also noted that the attorney chatted with the district attorney and his executive secretary about all sorts of things in a very familiar manner. Before Sehnert returned to his cell, Estrada explained a point of Mexican gun law. "He said they had to wait for a ballistics expert to determine whether it was a .22 or not. Apparently, in Mexico you can have up to a .38 pistol and you still qualify for bail. Above a .38, or if you have any kind of special bullet even in a smaller caliber, you don't qualify for bail."

Sehnert was called back out of his cell at 11:00 p.m., Monday, the 22nd of April, to meet with Estrada again. "He told me the ballistics test had revealed that the bullets did have some kind of special head. I had no idea. I had bought the ones the guy at the gun store told me to get. Then he said, 'I'm not supposed to be able to because of the bullets you had in the gun, but I'm going to get you bail.' "

Through Estrada, Sehnert was able to contact a longtime friend in his home town of Redlands who said he would get the bail money together. The next order of business was a reading of the municipal police report with the executive secretary. "Well, the police report was completely falsified," he recalls. "They changed both the time and place. They had to, because the truth would have placed me somewhere very different from where this chase started and they would have to explain why they were in the Zona Rio in the first place. They said they saw me speeding in the Zona Rio at about 12:30. They put on their lights, but I took off for the border, where they finally stopped me. They falsified the time, they falsified the place, they falsified the reason. Then they said they searched me and they found the gun. Basically, that's their report."

Sehnert then gave his own version of the story to the secretary who typed it into her computer. "Then she helped my attorney make my story better.' "

Though he hoped the bail would be posted that evening, Sehnert had to spend another night incarcerated in Mexico. "As it turns out, my friend Henry wasn't able to wire the money until noon on Tuesday. So my attorney drove over to the San Ysidro Western Union, picked up the money, drove back, and paid the bail. They gave me my wallet and my stuff back. There was $40 in my wallet. They had taken $60 plus the 4000 pesos from it. And at this point, it's fairly late in the day. We can't even retrieve my truck. The attorney helped me with that. He said, 'I'll help you find it tomorrow,' which he did. I asked him, as we were leaving the place, how much the bail was. He said, 'It was $6000, plus I charged you $2000.' But I was never given a receipt, and I have no idea whether the bail was $6000 and he took $2000, or the bail was $2000 and he took $6000. I might never know. But even though I'm out $8000, I feel like I have a new lease on life. I can go to the bathroom anytime I want to, I can sleep in my own bed, I can walk outside if I want to. I'm relishing my freedom."

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