U.S. Drivers Owe $10 Million In Fines To Mexican City

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Miguel Angel Rodriguez had just parked his car when a Ciudad Juarez traffic officer wrote him a ticket and then unscrewed one of his license plates.

The truck driver from El Paso argued with the officer, but soon gave up. That didn’t mean he was going to pay the 165 peso ($12.50) fine.

He is one of thousands of people with U.S. cars who find it quicker and easier to just replace the plates or driving licenses that Juarez police routinely confiscate to guarantee payment.

U.S.-plated cars are common on Juarez’s streets due to cross-border commuters, not to mention locals who buy cars or pickups across the border because they are cheaper.

The city says it is owed about $10 million in fines on tens of thousands of unpaid traffic citations against U.S. drivers or vehicles. More than 74,000 seized U.S. plates and drivers’ licenses sit in Juarez city government warehouses and most will never be retrieved.

“The amount of plates is so big that they won’t fit here anymore,” said Mario Hernandez, an employee of the city’s traffic department. “We had to take them to another warehouse, and we are thinking about destroying those taken before 2007.”

Rodriguez argues that he should not have been cited in the first place because the no-parking zone was unmarked

“It was an unfair ticket,” Rodriguez said. “The cop was waiting for me: The second I stepped out of the car he approached me.”

So Rodriguez picked up new set of plates, his sixth in the last few years, at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles office in El Paso, a city of 800,000 inhabitants just across the border from Juarez.

“It took longer to argue with that traffic cop in Juarez than the time the DMV took to give me a new set of plates,” Rodriguez said.

Many cities in Mexico have banned officers from seizing plates, licenses or registrations because it gives corrupt police a potent form of pressure to extract bribes. Juarez still allows the practice, meant to force drivers to pay fines, but it doesn’t seem to work very well with U.S. drivers.

It costs just $7 to replace a license plate in Texas, $11 for a new drivers’ license.

In this city of 1.3 million inhabitants, a fine for running a red light is about $45 and speeding is about $40, Hernandez said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers allow cars to enter the United States with missing plates as long as drivers can prove they own the vehicles, spokesman Roger Maier said. Drivers simply report their plates or licenses stolen as they head home to the U.S. side.

Other border cities have tried different approaches.

Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, police take driver’s licenses and levy cheap fines to retrieve them.

“To them (American drivers) is almost the same price to pay the fine here or get a new license,” said Federico Soleci, revenue director in Matamoros.

Officials in Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, have issued an unwritten order to “bother Americans as little as possible,” said city spokesman Agustin Garcia. The goal is to keep from pushing even more tourists away from a city whose economy had been hurt by drug gang violence.

Ciudad Juarez has considered hiring a collection agency in El Paso to pester debtors, but Mexico’s laws do not permit Mexican cities to contract with U.S.-based companies for such activities. Even if the city could, it would have no legal leverage to collect debts owed in Mexico from someone living in the U.S.

“There (in the U.S.), you get a ticket and if you don’t pay you might end up in jail. Here, we take the license plates and they just get new ones,” said Ciudad Juarez’s treasurer, Antonio Salgado.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All rights reserved.)

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