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Police confiscation of plates, licenses to force payment backfires
CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO — 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, Texas, argued with the officer, but soon gave up. That didn't mean he was going to pay the $12.50 fine.
He is one of thousands of people with U.S. cars who find it quicker and easier to 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."
Mr. 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," Mr. Rodriguez said. "The cop was waiting for me: The second I stepped out of the car he approached me."
So Mr. Rodriguez picked up a 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," Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
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