Walmart did it, I was once pressured into doing it and I have spoken to and heard many accounts of foreigners paying bribes in Mexico. But does that make it right?
Very recently I met with some potential clients about assisting them with a development project here in Zihuatanejo. They had already selected an architect, one with whom they had previously worked with to complete a beautiful house in a gated community overlooking the bay. At the time of our initial meeting, their architect had created an overall design for their project which they were very pleased with and they had been told by the architect that both the environmental study and subsequent building permits were ready for them to break ground immediately.
As a precaution, they hired a Mexican attorney to review the paperwork and it was discovered that the architect intended to pay a mordida to one of his pals in the government in lieu of formally processing both the environmental study and subsequent building permits. In his mind, and in the minds of many Mexicans, he would be following standard operating procedures by paying a “mordida” or “little bite” to bypass lengthy bureaucratic procedures.
The architect went so far as to guarantee they would only have to pay a one time mordida and that if any additional mordidas were necessary he would take it upon himself to pay them off. The clients were skeptical but eager to believe they could start construction right away as there were multiple investors involved and deadlines to meet in order not to lose investor interest.
Their attorney as well as myself, advised them against allowing their architect to simply pay a bribe. The problem, especially at this level, is that once you start paying bribes, the open outstretched palms never close. They can also be used for extortion. Once you let them know you are willing to bribe them, they may use that against you. In this case, building without an environmental impact study or proper building permits is very risky business and one that could result in the complete shutdown of construction, multiple fines and even jail time and deportation. It would not be out of the question for an official to continue to demand a bribe during construction or even after to keep his or her lips sealed.
Paying a bribe to grease the track makes it a very slippery slope. Administrations change, people are demoted or let go of entirely and then you no longer have your “palanca” or lever operating on your behalf within the government institution. You expose yourself to further bribery from their successor or the potential for prosecution for having paid bribes in the first place.
Many people will tell you they have payed a mordida while in Mexico and yes, in many instances it is common practice, however that does not change the fact that bribery is illegal in Mexico. Should you choose to pay a bribe, whether it’s a bribe to avoid a traffic fine or facilitate a building project, you are committing a crime and perpetuating corruption. You must decide whether you want to take the moral high ground and say no or continue to support a system that on the whole has kept this country far behind, favoring those who can afford to pay while oppressing those who can’t.
Bribery is woven into the fabric of Mexican society, but we as foreigners should know better. We cannot claim that is the cost of doing business, knowing full well that we are contributing to the corruption of this country. Saying no may mean having to wait a little longer to build, or in the event of a traffic ticket, accepting the ticket and paying the fine, however in the long run our influence may just change the way the system works. Over time and especially with the number of Americans and Canadians flocking to Mexico for refuge from high cost of living back home, there just may be enough of us here to turn the tide.
There is only one way to know and that is to say no to the “little bite”.