As soon as English teacher Hugo Ceron saw the police lights flashing in his rearview mirror, he knew what was about to happen. It was the "bite."
The police officer walked up to the car window and coolly informed Ceron that he was getting tickets for illegally talking on a cell phone while driving and for not wearing a seat belt. Ceron would have to go down to the police station, plead guilty and pay a fine. But there was a way out.
"The ticket was 500 pesos ($46), but he offered to let me be on my way for 100 pesos ($9.25)," Ceron said.
Like thousands of Mexicans every day, Ceron paid up.
In Mexico, they call these little bribes mordidas, or "bites," the little payoffs and kickbacks that people give to police officers, teachers and bureaucrats just to get on with their lives.
Alarmed by the millions of pesos disappearing annually in bribes, civic groups have launched ad campaigns urging people to denounce corruption, some Mexican states are overhauling their legal systems to eliminate the bureaucracy that leads to bribery and schools are trying to teach children not to offer bribes.
Still, the "bite" continues because many prefer this deep-rooted, traditional way of getting around and through the system.
Mexicans start paying bribes as children to get good grades from their teachers. At 18, many pay a 200-peso ($19) bribe to be excused from their required military service. By the time they die, 87% of Mexicans will have paid some sort of bribe, according to a study by CEI Consulting and Research.
When you add up all the little payoffs, about 12% of Mexico's gross domestic product is lost to corruption, CEI estimates. That's enough money to cover all Mexico's health care needs.
"On the local, state and municipal level, there continues to be high rates of corruption," President Vicente Fox said in a recent interview. "As far as the mordida, the payoff to the policeman or to the clerk at the counter, we have to continue creating a strong culture to end that."
The mordida system dates back through centuries of weak colonial governments. But it became more ingrained under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico virtually unopposed from 1929 to 2000, according to Irma Sandoval, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
"When the PRI was in government, it generated a lack of oversight of public life," Sandoval said. "It created a kind of monopolistic network associated with bad government and poor civic life."
Why They Bribe
The top 10 reasons Mexicans pay bribes, according to Transparency International:
1. To keep traffic police from towing cars.
2. As "rent" to someone who claimed control of public parking spaces.
3. To avoid being ticketed or detained by a traffic cop.
4. To get goods past a customs agent, police roadblock, etc.
5. To recover a stolen car from police.
6. To file a complaint, get authorities to continue investigating a case, or to avoid arrest.
7. To work or sell in a public right-of-way, such as a sidewalk.
8. To get city garbage collectors to collect trash.
9. To get a judge to hear a legal case.
10. To get a construction, zoning or demolition permit, or a postal address.