» Arturo on the law is a weekly column written by Raul Ramirez Riba with usual misconceptions on Mexican Law. Arturo was the driver of a client of Raul. He always claimed to "know" how to solve any issue, specially legal ones. The opinions given in this column come with no guarantee that Mexican or foreign authorities will concur with them. Specific cases should always be reviewed by a hired attorney.
— Arturo, this is a tax situation, just let me handle it.
— No, señor, this is a criminal issue and I know a guy.
“Chocolate cars” is the way we Mexicans refer to illegal vehicles brought to Mexico without paying importation taxes. For people from rural communities, it’s the only way they can afford a truck for their daily activities. Ilegal trucks in Mexico are about one fourth of the price of a same year/type of vehicle.
And it doesn’t matter if the car was brought to Mexico in a legal temporary way (like a tourist driving to Mexico), if the permit is expired then the vehicle is a “chocolate”. Permits for non imported foreign cars are usually only for six months.
So it happens, a co-worker of Arturo bought a chocolate truck with no license plates. Arturo, being the all knowing law fixer, gave to such co-worker a set of ilegal license plates taken from another truck found on a junk yard (don’t ask how). Little did they know, the junk yard truck was reported as stolen years before.
Fast forward to a nice afternoon, one of those where no lawyer has the time to deal with nonsense, but yet nonsense knocks on the door. The co-worker (let’s call him Juan) was calling me desperately, he had been detained and the truck was taken away from him. Arturo asked him for money to retrieve the car from a guy he knew on the local District Attorney’s office (where the car was going to be deposited).
Could Arturo save the day through a bribe with his contact? Sadly, no. Chocolate vehicles are taken to District Attorney’s warehouses because they are first scanned to know if the vehicle was stolen. In this case, the vehicle wasn’t stolen, it just had stolen license plates (which is not a felony, just a misconduct).
Once vehicles are determined not to be stolen, they are taken to the Tax Service Agency so that importation taxes and fines can be collected from the owner. You see, importation fees are a tax on foreign goods, so chocolate cars are a tax issue (not a criminal one).
Juan never got his truck back, neither did he got back his money for bribing a worker from the District Attorney’s office. For that bribe, they gave him the report showing the car was not stolen (something they had to do anyway) and told him he couldn’t get back the car unless he showed them it was legally imported (hence, a Tax issue).
Was there an alternative for Juan? Yes there was, two actually: i) before being detained, take the car to the border and make it legal by paying the importation fees, and ii) once the car was detained, requesting the Tax Service to auction the vehicle to pay for importation fees and fines.
About this last solution of requesting an auction, it would have given Juan two opportunities: a) buying his own truck on the auction (through a relative) and b) getting 40% of the value of the auction back, because in Mexican Tax Law there is a provision that states the authorities may never keep more than 60% of the selling value of your assets when they execute against you.
Epilogue: The car apparently was stolen before it was taken from the DA into the Tax Service. Most likely, it was stolen by the same officials who took the bribes. A sad but usual story in our dear Mexico.