Today the Obama administration lifted the travel restriction for Cubans traveling to Cuba from the U.S. This will have the effect of helping to cut bribe-taking in Mexican Immigration in Mexican cities with direct flights to Cuba.
Under the old rules Cubans who wished to travel from the U.S. to Cuba more often than they were allowed to under U.S. law would commonly try to bribe Mexican Immigration officials to prevent the officials from stamping their passports with a second (and to U.S. officials suspicious) entry stamp.
The typical scenario worked like this: A Cuban (or an American traveling illegally to Cuba) flies to Mexico from the U.S. In Mexico their passport is stamped showing an entrance to Mexico via air on a certain day. Then the passenger generally travels on to Cuba the same day, on a later flight, never leaving the airport.
Cuba is known to be ‘nice’ to people in this situation, so Immigration officials there do not stamp these passengers’ passports, leaving no record of their entry to Cuba.
Returning to the U.S. the passenger flies back to Mexico where the Mexican Immigration official is required by law to place another entry to Mexico stamp in the person’s passport. U.S. Immigration officials know to look for two Mexican Immigration entry stamps within a short time frame, this alerts them that the passenger may have traveled from Mexico to Cuba.
And so upon return to Mexico from Cuba it is very common for Cubans who reside in the U.S., and for Americans who have traveled to Cuba illegally, to try to convince the Mexican Immigration officials not to give their passports that second suspicious Mexican entry stamp. As you can imagine, the convincing part often involves money changing hands.
It’s hard to blame Mexican Immigration agents for taking these easy bribes. The passengers are often VERY interested in NOT getting that second stamp and are willing to pay well to avoid it. And Mexico doesn’t pay its Immigration agents a living wage. Currently the pay rate for most agents is something around $8000 MXP per month after tax (which is less than $500 USD at current exchange rates).
With the cost of living here and that salary you can’t maintain a vehicle, let alone a decent home. People living on less than $500 USD per month here in Mexico can forget about anything except meeting their basic needs and an occasional stop at a street vendor for cheap tacos. There is no extra money in that equation, none. So it’s very easy to see why these poorly paid agents would be willing to take easy money from someone desperate to avoid having their passport stamped.
Taking a bribe is not without risk for an Immigration agent in Mexico. Agents have gone to prison for taking just a $20 USD bribe. But travelers rushing through airports are almost universally not interested in taking the time to report their abuse at the hands of Immigration officials. And if you are guilty of giving the bribe you are not about to turn yourself and the agent in, because you’ve received a benefit. So while there is a risk to the agents for taking bribes they know that their chances of getting turned in for bribe-taking are very small.
The easing of the U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba will mean that the Cubans, at least, who travel through Mexico en route to Cuba, will have no reason to try to bribe Mexican Immigration agents. This is good. Other Americans, who are traveling to Cuba illegally will still have reason to avoid that second stamp, however. So the corruption will be reduced but will continue.
Until such time as Mexico sees fit to pay its Immigration agents a decent salary, a salary that represents a wage that allows more than just subsistence living, many agents will embrace the easy money that is a side-effect of illegal travel to Cuba by Americans.
For Mexico’s sake, it is my hope that the U.S. will completely remove the restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. This would completely eliminate a huge source of bribe money for Mexican Immigration agents. I also hope that the Mexican government will recognize that it can’t hope to fight corruption in Mexican Immigration until it pays those agents a decent wage.