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Criminal Laws — México

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Most travelers' enjoy a presumption of innocence back home if accused of a crime. In México, it is the opposite. México's justice system is based on the Napoleonic Code and the accused are presumed guilty until they prove otherwise. This is not a system you want to get ensnared in and by all accounts Méxican prisons are grim places. Travelers are well-advised to comply with Méxican law or risk severe penalties.

Listed below are some of the most common reasons travelers get entangled in the Méxican legal system and how to avoid it.

Illegal Drugs

México has an abundance of naturally occurring psychoactive plants that indigenous people have used in ritual for thousands of years. The two most common are Peyote cactus and Psilocybin mushrooms. Both are powerful hallucinogens. Peyote has been used for at least five thousands years in central and northern México and the Desert Southwest of the US. Psilocybin mushroom use has been dated as far back as 200 AD, mostly in the south and central regions of the country. Possession of either plant is illegal. The police generally tolerate traditional use by indigenous Méxicans, non-indigenous Méxicans and foreigners are prosecuted.

Marijuana (mota) is not native to México and has no ritual use in any indigenous cultures. Used widely by Méxicans as a recreational drug, it is illegal and penalties are severe for possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use. Even though it is not native plant, marijuana thrives in México, and is grown mainly in the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Michoacán, Guerrero, and Oaxaca and in the Yucatán peninsula. The primary growers are well organized and heavily armed crime syndicates looking to export to the US. As an illegal cash crop marijuana is highly lucrative. This has made México a major battleground for the US government in its ill-conceived War on Drugs.

Cocaine use and smuggling are a huge national problem in México. Use of powder cocaine is widespread and growing. Crack has taken hold in México City and northern border cities. Both forms are illegal and penalties are severe for possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use. Partnering with Méxican crime syndicates, Colombian cocaine cartels have made México a major transshipment point in moving their product to US markets. This is a serious problem for the Méxican government. As the crime syndicates become more powerful they pose a challenge to the authority of local governments, especially in Guadalajara and the border cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

In August 2009 México decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The new law sets out maximum amounts for personal use: marijuana, 5 grams — about four joints; cocaine, 0.5 grams — about 4 "lines"; LSD, 0.015 milligrams; methamphetamine, 40 milligrams; and heroin, 50 milligrams. Anyone caught with drug amounts under those limits no longer faces criminal prosecution. For the first two possession charges users are encouraged to seek drug treatment. After a third charge drug treatment is mandatory.

This new approach represents a significant change from the zero tolerance policy and harsh sentences for personal use México has pursued at the insistence of the US government. Rather than act as a deterrent, the previous harsh sentences enabled corrupt police to shake down casual users and addicts for bribes by threatening long prison sentences if they didn't pay up. Decriminalizing personal use should give the accused greater legal protection.

Illegal drug use is the main reason foreigners have serious trouble with the police and possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use are aggressively prosecuted and penalties are severe. Méxican law does not distinguish between the possession of marijuana and harder drugs like cocaine and the same harsh penalties apply. Persons convicted of smuggling drugs face long prison sentences. Claiming ignorance of Méxican law will get you nowhere. There is little your embassy or consulate can or will do beyond helping find an English speaking lawyer and acting as a intermediary with family or friends back home.

Because they pose a flight risk foreigners are never released on bail, even for minor possession charges. If you are eventually found innocent you could still find yourself in a Méxican jail for a long time until your case is heard and a verdict is reached.

The bottom line — it's not worth it.

Prescription Drugs

Be careful bringing large amounts of prescription drugs in or out of México. If the Méxican police believe the amount is excessive or the medications are being abused they can make an arrest. To avoid questions about the legality of prescription drugs carry them in the original container wrapped with the prescription.

Any medication classified as a controlled substance by the Méxican government must, by law, be purchased with a prescription written by a physician licensed to do so in México. There are many medications in travelers' home countries that are not consider controlled substances in México. To find out if a medication is considered controlled in México consult with a Méxican pharmacist or a physician.

By Méxican law, foreign prescriptions cannot be honored by a pharmacist in México. Getting a pharmacist to sell a controlled substance without a Méxican prescription is still illegal. Méxican police can arrest the purchaser and the pharmacist and charge them with possession and sale of a controlled substance. Purchasing a controlled substance without a legal prescription in México is a serious crime for both the purchaser and the pharmacist. The sentence for possession of a controlled substance is steep, ten months to fifteen years in a Méxican prison. That said, this is rarely enforced. Most pharmacies will dispense most medications without a prescription.

Americans take millions of trips annually to Méxican border-cities to purchase cheap medications. Be aware that the quality of the medications dispensed in Méxican pharmacies is suspect; studies show that 25% of medications are substandard or counterfeit. Be especially careful when buying medications from pharmacies along the border. There are news reports of Méxican police in cahoots with pharmacies extorting money from customers who purchased medications legally.

Every countries' laws differ for bringing prescription medications purchased while abroad in to the country. Travelers should check with their customs office for specifics.

American citizens need to present valid US and Méxican prescriptions at the Port of Entry to prove they are legally entitled to possess the medication in the US and the medication was purchased legally in México. Check the US Customs and Border Protection website: www.cbp.gov for more details.


The legal drinking age in México is 18, but it is rarely enforced. Excessive drinking and public drunkenness by tourists is a significant problem, particularly in border cities and resort areas like Cancún during spring break. Méxicans do not find public drunkenness by foreigners amusing. It is also against the law and could land you in jail. Drinking to excess, particularly when you are alone, leaves you vulnerable to violent crime. Be especially careful in border cities where there have been numerous cases of drunk foreigners being attacked, robbed, or raped.


Bringing firearms, ammunition, or any instrument considered a weapon by the Méxican government in to México is illegal without a permit previously issued by the Méxican authorities. Violations may result in a stiff prison sentence. Accidental violations or being unaware of this prohibition will not spare you from penalties.

Most violations involve US citizens with illegal weapons driving automobiles or piloting private yachts south of the border on vacation. The prohibition extends to Méxican territorial waters. A sea vessel passing through Méxican territorial water, but not planning on putting in to port, is not exempt. Because of media reports in the U.S. the incidences of violations are way down. To inquire about getting a permit contact the nearest Méxican embassy or consulate.

According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms 90% of the weapons used by the Méxican drug cartels are bought in the US legally and then smuggled illegally in to México. Given the government's recent hard-line stance with the cartels and the concomitant increase in violence, the Méxican army and police have been even more diligent in trying to stifle the flow of illegal weapons from the US.

Wildlife Protection

México prohibits the possession or export of most species of wildlife and any products made from them. Products made with protected wildlife are prevelent in México's markets. Tourists, unaware of their illegal contents, often buy them as souvenirs only to have them confiscated when leaving México or entering their home country. For minor transgressions the penalty is usually confiscation while in severe cases a stiff fine may be levied from Méxican authorities or the authorities back home.

Be suspicious of products that include:

  • sea turtles
  • fur from spotted cats
  • native birds
  • black coral jewelry
  • stuffed animals
  • crocodile, caiman, or iguana leather
  • animal skeletal remains.

Pre-Colombian Artifacts

México considers all pre-Colombian artifacts to be part of its historical heritage and the property of the state. The possession or export of these objects is a crime. Anyone possessing or attempting to take these objects out of the country could get stiff fine or a stay in a Méxican prison. Most travelers' home countries respect international conventions on trafficking in antiquities and will confiscate these objects and may prosecute the offenders as well.

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