Nov. 15, 2003, by Gene Kira, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
Just about every time I give a “Baja fishing” slide talk for a non-Baja group--Kiwanis or some other club, or whatever--some old geezer way in the back raises his hand and yells something like, “The hell with you, Kira! There ain’t no way I’m ever going fishin’ down there! I know all about that mordida and them Baja banditos!”
This has happened so often, I can just about pick the guy out before he raises his hand (for some reason, he’s usually wearing a checkered shirt, bolo tie, and cowboy boots). I know that no matter what I say, there’s no way to change his mind, nor the calcium-encrusted minds of all his buddies, wisely nodding their heads to each other around the room. After all, Baja is filthy with mordida (bribe extortion) and banditos. It’s a known fact, ain’t it?
Usually, at that point, I’ll ask for a show of hands to determine how many people in the audience have actually been to Baja during their lifetimes. Usually, it’s considerably less than half, and that, mis amigos, one of the most amazing things I ever get to see. Whether or not they care to go fishing, it’s a true pity that a wildly-exaggerated fear of such things as mordida and banditos keeps so many people from crossing the border.
I really don’t know how many times I’ve driven down Mex 1 on my Baja fishing trips, but I do know that I stopped counting at 190 trips, and that was more than a decade ago, so I’ve probably driven a very conservatively estimated 400,000 miles in Baja, much of it alone, on dirt and pavement, sleeping in hundreds of unofficial “campgrounds,” everywhere from my secret beach front spots (three of them, eat your heart out) in downtown Cabo San Lucas, to a coyote-infested garbage dump in Turtle Bay, and many, many others along the way. In all that time, I can honestly remember paying a cumulative grand total of only $35 in mordida, and I’ve never, ever met a bandito--at least not while he was working.
Bad stuff happens in Baja, of course, just like any other place, but either it doesn’t happen very often, or I’ve been freakishly lucky. Take your pick.
Probably the worst case of mordida I ever personally heard of was a guy who was taken for $700 near Loreto, by some officials--he wasn’t sure exactly what kind--who persisted in detaching various pieces from his brand new 4WD Suburban and 25-foot muscle boat, “looking for drugs,” until he made the payoff. “How could they think I was smuggling drugs?” he hollered six inches into my ear. “I was driving south! And besides, why would someone who could afford a $50,000 truck and a $100,000 boat smuggle drugs? Why would they pick on me?”
Some guys just don’t get it.
As a super-tightwad Baja writer, and a naturally shabby dresser who travels in an older vehicle--basically with taco and Pemex money and precious little else--I present such a low-profit appearance to Baja cops that they usually just leave me alone, and if they do stop me accidentally, I almost always get off free or nearly free. (After searching me and my vehicle thoroughly, one kindhearted cop in La Paz became so concerned for my welfare that he actually offered to help with gas money to get me back to the border. Damn right. I took it, fifty pesos.)
It helps a lot to maintain a non-combative posture when dealing with cops bent on collecting mordida. Remember, they are not picking on you personally. It’s just part of the system, part of their compensation package. Yes, I know that it’s possible to make a stink, and demand to see the governor, etc., etc. But frankly, it’s never been that major an issue with me.
It’s also very helpful not to flash your money around, not to wear your wealth on your sleeve, as it were. When my current Baja truck was one day old, I took a can of black spray paint, and I dusted the bumpers lightly, to take the shine off. I also glued a light coating of sand to the rear bumper with epoxy cement, both for traction when stepping aboard, and to remove some of that “new car smell.” Today, with over 170,000 Baja miles on it, this kind of camouflage is no longer necessary for my truck, but I’m still convinced that not looking “too rich” is a major factor in reducing mordida cash flow.
For me, a typical mordida exchange goes something like this:
COP (looking me over): Your camper is too long.
ME (sincere, confused): But, señor, look. It doesn’t even stick out past my bumper.
COP (scratching head): Well, it’s too wide then.
ME (shocked, shocked!): Ah so! I didn’t know the law! What is the fine?
COP (checking printed list, reappraising my probable net worth): Well, let’s see. There’s this...and this...and this. Hmmm...looks like about $180.
ME (gasping): Hola! Is that right? I don’t have that much cash. We’ll have to stop at a bank on our way to the police station.
COP (smiling tentatively): Of course, if you’re in a big hurry, you could just pay a tip right now instead.
ME (ingenuously): Me? I’m not in any hurry. I have all day.
COP (crestfallen): Aren’t you even in a little hurry?
ME (brightening): Ah! Of course! I’m in a very big hurry! How much of a tip is appropriate?
COP (hugely relieved): Anything you wish, señor!
ME (opening nearly empty wallet): I have just enough money for gas to the border. I can only afford a couple of dollars. Is that enough?
COP (almost bowing): Anything you wish.
ME (folding dollar bills into a piece of paper and handing it over): Thank you for the favor, señor. And how is your family?
COP (swelling with pride): My son is in college, and my daughter has a new job at a department store. I will escort you through town, so nobody else will bother you. Que le vaya bien.
As for banditos. Yes, that has definitely happened. Two of the most important cases I can recall were the highway murders that occurred some years back in the drug infested border area around Ojos Negros, and of course, the spectacular fishing tournament armed robbery in Cabo San Lucas last year.
But I think overall you’re probably just as safe in Baja as in most parts of the U.S. Most violent crimes involving foreigners in Baja are connected to drug deals gone bad, so unless you happen to be in that line of business, you’re pretty safe.
I’ve gotten along, so far anyway, by taking the standard precautions to safeguard myself and my stuff, exactly as I would when home, and I count myself fortunate to be among those people who feel safe when traveling and fishing south of the border. It’s a big, never-ending adventure I really wouldn’t want to miss.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")