travelog 121

Mexican License Plates for Dummies

Mexico is not only a land of spectacular landscapes, beautiful plants, delicious food and very drinkable tequila, lovable people, interesting culture and history, but also a land with an impressive bureaucracy. To nationalize a car with foreign license plates and get Mexican license plates takes you into the deepest depths of this monstrous civil service machinery. Above all else you need a very Mexican gift: Patience! (a virtue for which Martin is very famous, in fact so famous that he earned himself a second Mexican first name: "Paciencio").

For us, all began very harmless and really pleasant because after so many years in Mexico where we had to make several pilgrimages to the immigration office in Guadalajara every year to renew our permits, something in the law changed. With a final payment and many photocopies and pictures, we were able to apply for a permit which made us (almost) real Mexicans - at least on paper. What we unfortunately didn't realize and what nobody communicated was that it was now suddenly illegal for us to own and drive a car with foreign license plates.

The solution for this problem:

1. Get the vehicle out of the country.

2. Nationalize the vehicle.

3. Total the vehicle risking life and limb.

1. Because the California license plates of our Dodge had expired a long time ago we would have had to get new plates and of course insurance. With its 18 years our truck is almost an antique and all this would have been extremely expensive. On top of that we would have had to sell the truck in the US.

2. To nationalize a truck with a diesel engine, from 1996 at that, costs a ton of money. More than the vehicle is worth actually. To do that one has to drive the vehicle to the border (1000 kms or 620 miles one way), get a customs agent, go through a lot of red tape, then drive back to pay some more money to finally get plates in Jalisco.

3. As a government official explained to us on the phone, the third option indeed meant that the vehicle needed to be written off to be considered junk and cancelled out of the register. Totalling the vehicle on purpose would most likely also seriously injure the passengers. That's why option three never really was an option.

Of course we also asked Mr. Google for his opinion. There were thousands of customs agents offering their services. Specialized lawyers wanted to advise you. The wildest rumours circulated in internet forums. And then there were the shady characters that promised a very easy solution. The most tempting about this solution was that you didn't need to drive the vehicle all the way to the border but that these agents somehow were able to arrange the nationalization in the country. If you started calling the Mexican authorities to inquire about nationalizing a vehicle they clearly informed that the ONLY way to do this was at the border and that everything else was illegal.

After deliberating back and forth we finally decided on nationalizing the truck with the help of the company DNS Aduanales y Logísticos in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Eric Medina was our contact and customs agent. After many phone calls and more emails we were ready to transfer the money but just at that moment the Mexican government decided that until further notice no used cars could be nationalized anymore. This decision was then abolished in typical Mexican style just after two days. So we started to roll the ball again. Of course this all sounds a lot easier than it really is. Since it was illegal to drive around with the vehicle in Mexico we had to obtain a special permit, the so-called "retorno seguro". For that we had to bring various papers and copies to an office in Guadalajara and within five working days we would get the permit to drive the vehicle out of the country within five working days. We were told on the phone that the permit was usually ready the next day. If you started to calculate everything and apply on the right day you can win two days, namely Saturday and Sunday, which are not counting. As if all that were not complicated enough, there was more to it. Once you paid for the nationalization you instantly needed to send the truck papers with an express service to the customs agent so that he could file the petition with the proper authorities. Once the authorities approved you had exactly two days to present the vehicle. All this required a cleverly thought-out plan and no breakdowns on the road.

When we had everything organized and it was time again to transfer the money, we asked our agent Eric for the company's banking data. We couldn't reach him right away but his secretary wrote down our number and promised he would call back in about 15 minutes. 10 minutes later we really got a phone call from Eric Medina. Martin had never personally talked to Eric but answered the call this time. The alleged Eric gave a bank account number but it was in the name of a woman. Then he gave him a new cell phone number because his old one was stolen. He also instructed that we needed to pay within the next two hours because that's when he was at the bank to arrange other things. When everything was paid he would call back to talk about the details. After the phone call Martin commented that the alleged Eric sounded really very young. It also seemed odd to us that the company uses a bank account that was in the name of a woman. Then we checked the cell phone number and it turned out to be registered in Tijuana and not in Nuevo Laredo. On top of all that the total sum we had to pay that the young man mentioned on the phone did not correspond exactly with the number Eric Medina had given us via email. Martin then called the US office of the same company from where he was directly put through to Eric Medina. Eric confirmed that he was indeed not the caller from before, that they had an account with a different bank, and that his old cell phone number was working perfectly fine. Martin then pointed out to him that in this case he had somebody sitting in his office, most likely his secretary, who was working together with crooks that just tried to do us out of a lot of money. During the next hours we got phone calls from that Tijuana number almost one a minute until we blocked the number and eventually unplugged the phone for the rest of the day. But as they say in America: "Nice try!"

Next we applied for the right papers in Guadalajara and the next day held the driving permit, the "retorno seguro", in our hands. We packed a few clothes and drove north. As mentioned above it was "only" a measly 1000 kilometers (620 miles) to Nuevo Laredo. We stayed the night in Monterrey and drove the last part of the trip early the next day. Of course we were never stopped on the entire trip and never had to show the special papers we got in Guadalajara. The customs agency in Nuevo Laredo was located almost at the American border and very easy to find. We had actually imagined a modern office building with parking space, but far from it! We drove into a narrow street and at the corresponding street number found a dubious entrance but no customs agency. A young man, obviously finding parking spots for people for a small tip, finally showed Martin to the other side of the street to a narrow parking completely blocked with vehicles and a run-down looking building. The offices of DNS Aduanales y Logísticos were located here. At the reception we were told that Eric Medina was still out and about but would be here "horita". After waiting quite some time we called Eric from our cell phone and lo and behold only minutes later he came strolling out of one of the offices announcing that he had only waited for us. First we had to drive to the border to return our temporary vehicle import permit. To do that you had to drive the vehicle up to a tiny building to hand over papers whereupon the windshield sticker was removed. After that the very Mexican virtue that we still haven't mastered completely was in demand: PATIENCE. Martin didn't want to leave the vehicle with the original papers with a complete stranger, therefore he accompanied an employee of the customs agency to another office with a huge parking where papers were collected, data was checked, and finally the "pedimento", some sort of vehicle permit, was handed over. This took a measly four hours because our couchpotato clerk had disappeared with the vehicle papers for his lunch break or a chat with a friend at the exact moment when the government officials came to collect and check these same papers. Meanwhile I was waiting patiently at the reception of our customs agency observing the hustle and bustle and playing, as the other people waiting, with my cell phone. At least it was warm inside. The hustle and bustle was impressive. There was a constant coming and going of people. It looked like at least one hundred men were working for the company and all of them had access to the offices. It was somehow less surprising that one of these guys had seen our home phone number on an office table and had tried to make some money with a side business. It was cold outside and rainy like in Switzerland. The tiny parking space in front of the building was packed with fully loaded vehicles (on their website the customs agency advertises "estacionamiento amplio", meaning "ample parking" - the picture is from Google Earth 2009). Many of the passengers had spent the night in their cars to save money. Most of them had not paid in advance and needed to go through the whole process here and therefore had to wait a lot longer than us. Martin finally came back late in the afternoon. The only thing that was left to do was to get yet another permit to drive the vehicle back to Jalisco in some other office. This permit allowed the holder to drive a vehicle back to his home state within five days. It was still gray and rainy outside and late in the afternoon, so we decided to spend the night in a hotel in Nuevo Laredo. First we drove to a pizza fast food restaurant where they fortunately also served cold beer. There was a car accessories business next door where we bought the bulb for one of the front lights. It was very convenient that at the door of this business there were a few men waiting for customers. One of them installed our bulb (or whatever the customer wanted) for a small (or sometimes bigger) obolus.

Early the next morning we left for Jalisco and of course never had to show our special permit on the road. Only at one check point in Aguascalientes the friendly police officer noticed that my drivers license had expired a few days ago. No problem, he said, I should just go to renew it some time or other. Which was done right away with a little detour to Arandas.

Back in Jalisco, we now "only" had to get license plates. This procedure could of course only be done in Guadalajara. To obtain license plates one had to get an appointment at one of the two corresponding offices. Our attempts to get an appointment through their website were all in vain. At least there was a phone number and with a little patience (again!) one could talk to a real person. We were told that one needed to log onto this website at 3PM sharp to get an appointment for the next morning at 7AM. It was impossible to get an appointment for a certain day or the next week. On top of that we found out that in practice we could only get an appointment at one of the centers, the one located in Tonalá. On a Wednesday afternoon it all worked out and we got an appointment for the next morning. Late in the afternoon we drove with our now illegal license plates to Guadalajara, always hoping that no police guy wanted to check us out. We spent the night at a friend's house on the other side of the city. The alarm rang at 4:30AM. We brewed some coffee and later woke up the entire neighbourhood with our loud diesel engine. In complete darkness we drove through the entire city to Tonalá where at 5:15AM 29 other vehicles were already waiting. We got number 30. People who arrived at 6AM got numbers in the nineties. Later additional cars were parked on an overflow parking next door. Just before 7AM the first inspectors came to check some papers and hand out forms that needed to be filled out. There were four different inspections in total. Then we had to sit in the waiting room until it was out turn to hand in our papers at the counter at 9AM. The official suggested we should go and have breakfast and be back in about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Thursday is the big market day in Tonalá so at least we had something to look at on our stroll through the streets. We were back at 11AM and sat again in the waiting room. There was hustle and bustle at the counters but nobody really knew what was going to happen next and more importantly when it was going to happen. When I inquired once I was told that their system had not worked Tuesday and Wednesday and that they first had to finish all these applications but that we should not worry at all because we would definitely return home with Jalisco license plates. Around noon the gossip factory started to work. Everybody knew something else or had heard something important. But we were never officially informed about anything, we were just sitting patiently and waiting for something to happen. And we waited some more, and then some more, and at the end we waited a little longer. And so on and so forth. Finally we decided to take another walk around the block, have a sandwich and stretch our legs. When we came back the situation was still the same, everybody was waiting. Around 2PM an official suddenly appeared from one of the offices and the crowd clapped their hands enthusiastically. The numbers of the people receiving plates today were read out. We were among them too! When the crowd was told that we now should go to the building next door to pay the fees, the pack started running immediately because everybody wanted to be the first at the counter to pay. Fortunately for us the paying was also organized the way that people who had arrived early were also the first to pay. As soon as the money for the licensing was paid the plates were handed over. At 3:30PM sharp, measly ten hours after we had arrived, we finally held the longed-for plates in our hands.

The moral of the story? Learning to be more patient to become real Mexicans, and never again personally nationalize a vehicle.

June 2014

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen