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"Most students and other tourists who come to Mexico enjoy their visits without incident," says Chris Bendsen of the United States Consulate office in Hermosillo. "But U.S. citizens in Mexico are subject to the laws of Mexico. There is no exception made because U.S. citizens are visitors or because they may not understand local laws."
That in itself may be difficult to understand for some Americans, who may assume that the heavy-handed approach the United States uses in its international dealings with Mexico imbues them with some kind of immunity or influence. Nope. That big wall we're building along the border? It's impenetrable from both sides.
Excessive alcohol consumption and unruly behavior can lead to serious problems with Mexican authorities. According to the U.S. Consulate, alcohol is involved in the vast majority of arrests, accidents, violent crimes, rapes and deaths suffered by American students on spring break. Disturbing the peace, lewd or indecent behavior, littering, driving under the influence, drinking on the street or on public transportation, using public transportation without payment, or making obscene or insulting remarks are all considered criminal activities by Mexican authorities. All individuals 16 years of age or older are tried as adults.
It's true that Mexican authorities sometimes look the other way when they encounter law-breaking spring-breakers. But as tour companies have increasingly marketed Mexico as a place where anything goes—and as offenses have become more flagrant—there is a growing sense of offense and outrage by Mexicans sick of public intoxication, nudity, sex and urination.
This year the resort city of Mazatlan is distributing English-language fliers to American and Canadian spring breakers, reminding them that "drug use, public nudity and immoral acts are prohibited by Mexican laws" and advising them that "anyone caught breaking the law will be taken into custody."
"It's a way of telling them that, just as there are laws in your country, so there are laws here," said Mazatlan mayor Alejandro Higuera Osuna, "and you need to know them."
So what are your rights if you are arrested in Mexico?
You have the right to contact the U.S. Consulate, and it will send a representative to provide you with an overview of the law and a list of Mexican lawyers, and, at your request, it will contact relatives or friends back home. The rep may also be good for a little sympathy. But the U.S. Consulate can't get you out of jail or interfere in any way in the proceedings.
If you're arrested for one of those serious crimes—again, including drug possession, driving under the influence, corruption of a minor, assault—the police will turn you over to an agente, or district attorney. The agente can hold you for 48 hours (unless he gets an extension) while investigating and deciding whether to prosecute, set bail, or drop charges and release you. During that time you will be asked to make a statement, and you can have an attorney and an interpreter. A tip: don't sign anything you don't understand.
If the agente decides to prosecute, a judge has 72 hours to determine "probable responsibility" (like probable cause). During this period, your defense attorney has the opportunity to present your side. After 72 hours, the judge may release you, set bail (called fianza), or keep you in custody and continue proceedings.
All those legal shows you've seen on TV won't help you in Mexico, where trials consist of many separate meetings and where evidence and arguments are written, rather than presented live. There are no juries. A judge decides on innocence or guilt and imposes sentence . . . eventually. Justice isn't any swifter here than it is back home. If the maximum potential sentence is less than two years, judges have four months to decide. If it is more than two years, judges have up to a year. But this is theoretical. It often takes much longer for verdicts to be reached.
Guilty? Look at the bright side: Mexico doesn't have the death penalty.
But Mexican jails often provide only the minimum of basic necessities. Prisoners sometimes have to purchase food, clothing, bedding and even rent on their cell. It's a good idea to arrange with friends to provide money, food, medicine and such.
Those U.S. Consulate reps will try to keep visiting too, and keep the advice coming. But if the sample advice they offer on their official website is any indication, you're pretty much on your own. They suggest you "learn the written and unwritten rules of your prison and the psychology of your guards and fellow inmates." They suggest you "learn Spanish." They suggest that if jobs are available, you should "try to get one to stay busy and possibly reduce your sentence." They suggest you "make friends with compatible inmates to reduce loneliness and create a support network." They suggest you "eat as well as you can" and "try to guard your health" and "exercise when you can."
But just when you think a picture can't get any darker, there's this: virtually all Mexican prisons allow inmates regular conjugal visits. Just another reason we love Mexico!