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.
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."