continued O'Malley never did find a suitable minivan and settled on a 1993 Ford Escort station wagon. When he went to register it he made a few discoveries. "The first thing I found out is that you cannot register a vehicle in your name unless you have a valid Baja California driver's license. And to get a driver's license [as a noncitizen] you have to have the equivalent of a resident visa issued by the Mexican government. I could have gotten one pretty easily, but I would have had to obtain an American passport, which would have meant that I had to have an address in the U.S., and, for tax purposes, I am not a resident of the U.S. and haven't been for ten years, and I don't want to screw that up by getting a U.S. passport. I just registered the vehicle in somebody else's name. And as far as the driver's license is concerned, I conceivably could get a California driver's license and drive legally down here; they honor them. But I'd need a California address for that. Besides, there is a joke here. A guy told a cop that he didn't have a driver's license. But the cop looked at his wallet and said, 'Yes you do,' and he pulled out a ten-dollar bill."
O'Malley adds, "Something I thought was amusing was, when you first have to wait in line before you actually go to register the vehicle, you have to go to a separate office, where they check to see if there are any outstanding tickets that you haven't paid. You have to pay all that before you can register the car. And then you go to another window, and it is for revisión mechánica, mechanical inspection. But they just ask you straight up, 'Do you want the inspection or do you want to pay the fine?' and the fine is like 100 pesos [around $11] or something. It is not much, and they don't even look at the car; you just pay the fine, and then they stamp the paper, and you go to the next office. And then at the next office it gets complicated because in Baja California they have several different types of license plates. One is the plate you most often see, they say FRONT on them. Those are special tags that only allow you to operate the vehicle in Baja California. If you were wanting to go to Mexico City or Guadalajara or somewhere in the interior of the country, you either have to pay a cash bond equal to the value of the car or get what they call placas nacionales, national plates. And you can tell the difference because the national plates are a different color, white without 'FRONT' on them. With those plates you can drive the car anywhere in Mexico. Of course, they are much more expensive."
O'Malley decided to stick to the local plates. "First of all," he continues, "you have to have the paper evidence that the vehicle has been legally imported into Mexico. Fortunately, the person that I had bought the car from had already done that, or it would have been another expense. The total importation fee on my car, in 2000, was 3285 pesos, which is like $365."
O'Malley was also charged a sort of luxury tax of 431 pesos (about $50) for owning a car less than ten years old. "It's called a 'tenencia federal.' It gets less each year. My '93 was cheaper than a '94 would have been. And ten years after the car's model year, it drops out of the category."
O'Malley found upon registering his car that, just as in California, the Mexican government uses automobile registration as another way to tax the citizenry. Sifting through the pile of paperwork he received upon registering his car, he explains, "The actual registration certificate, the tarjeta de circulación, was 146 pesos and 78 centavos, which is only like $15. But then there's the buy-and-sell fee, which is a fee to have the car officially signed over to me. That was 300 pesos [about $33]. Tax for maintaining public roadways was 79 pesos [around $9]. There was a 15 percent charge for public education, 22 pesos [about $2.50]. And the Mexican Red Cross automatically got 42 pesos and 15 cents [around $5]. The Red Cross in Mexico is a big deal. They run ambulances and free hospitals. The total fees altogether to register my car was 1020 pesos and 98 centavos, which is about $113. That's not bad for most Americans. But imagine how bad that would sound if you made 1000 pesos [$111] a week."