Hard Times in Mexico

Published in 2004 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By William C. White on February 21, 2004


Time has come screeching to a complete standstill. I’m guessing it’s about 10 p.m. I have no way of telling since they took my watch, along with everything else, before locking me up in this four-star Mexican correctional facility. There’s nothing to mark the passage of time except the boozy and erratic breathing of my cellmate, who lies passed out in the corner. I wish I were as drunk as he is so I could pass out and get through the night.
There is something foul and angry in the air. I’m not sure how much my cellmate is to be blamed, but since his backside is pointed menacingly in my direction, I move as far away from him as possible and settle down on the cold, dirty cement for the evening. There is no pillow, no blanket. The night is turning chilly and all I have on are jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. I begin to shiver.
A cockroach appears at my feet. I shoo it away and it scurries off with surprising speed and hides beneath my cellmate. I get up and start pacing the cell.When will I be freed? How much will it cost to bribe my way out of jail — one, two or maybe five hundred dollars? Do they accept Visa or American Express?
I climb up to the window for a breath of air. There is a guard smoking outside. I ask him for a cigarette. I don’t smoke but I’ve seen enough prison movies to know that when you’re behind bars you’re supposed to smoke. Just as he is about to hand me a cigarette, the head federale comes out and yells at him and shines a flashlight in my face to keep me from the window.
I return to my corner and think back on the events that led to my incarceration. I’m quite sure I’m the first person in history to end up in a Mexican jail while pursuing continuing legal education credits. I am here in Cabo San Lucas with a group of lawyers.We have been attending seminars all week in the morning, then studying beach law in the afternoon.This being our last night in Mexico, a group of about eight of us go out to dinner. After dinner, we take a cab to a nightclub. Before we get in the cab, we negotiate a price with the cabbie. Upon our arrival at the nightclub, a member of our party pays the cabbie. The cabbie doesn’t give change. An argument between the lawyer and the cabbie ensues, and within minutes the policia arrive.
The three officers speak no English, so I, having mastered those lessons on the Berlitz language tapes dealing with asking for directions and ordering in restaurants, attempt to act as interpreter. I try to explain that we have already paid the fare and are owed change.
As I speak, I notice the two assistant officers, who have positioned themselves on either side of me, glaring at me like guard dogs waiting for the order to attack. But I’m not afraid. I have done nothing wrong.
Wrong.The order is given and the two officers grab me and throw me in the squad car. I wonder if I inadvertently said something about one of their mothers. One of the two joins me in the backseat. He has a rifle pointed at my ribs. The car speeds off into the night, through the crowded streets. I look back at the shocked members of our party. They disappear as we turn a corner and head down a dark street. It’s a nightmare. It’s a movie. I can’t believe this is happening.
“Adonde vamos?” I ask. For the first time, English is spoken.
“Foke you,” says the man with the gun in my ribs.
When we arrive at the jail, I am not charged with anything. I am just locked up. And now, here I sit.
I hear water slapping the cement outside my cell. Perhaps a pipe has burst. Then I see the man in the next cell relieving himself through the bars. A puddle forms in the hallway, then snakes its way like the Rio Grande toward the drain in our cell. I thank the man for sharing. He yells something at me but I can’t understand him. This is not surprising considering the fact that he is drunk and his bloodied lower lip is swollen to the size of a banana.
He continues to bellow incoherently. He’s making my comatose cellmate look like inmate of the year.
Then the door opens. A guard hops over the puddle and unlocks my cell. I am led to the front desk, where I am told to pay 40 dollars. Forty dollars! What a bargain! I feel like tipping. My friends — my brilliant, tenacious and wonderful friends whom I hardly knew six days ago — have not forgotten about me. They sprung me. God bless lawyers everywhere! God bless the United States and continuing legal education!
And what an invaluable seminar for the whole group. This was no law school hypothetical.This was the real thing:Your client is locked up in a Mexican jail. You speak no Spanish. They speak no English. How do you get him out before his return flight departs?
The answer:You call on the locals who have a financial interest in tourism — in this case, it was a nightclub owner who interceded on our behalf.Two brief phone calls from him to the policia and bingo, the gringo is sprung.Total jail time: about two hours.
Back home now it seems everyone is complaining how screwed up our legal system is — a system that seeks to avoid at all cost incarcerating the innocent, even if it means letting the guilty go free on occasion.
Presumed innocent. For anyone lacking an appreciation of this concept, go almost anywhere outside the U.S. and try holding a cabbie to his word.

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