Ignacio Gómez Villaseñor knew he was going to be asked for a bribe the moment he was stopped by the police in central Mexico. Earlier this month, police officers threatened to take away his license and fine him 8,200 pesos (about $450), but he was given the option of paying “at a discounted fee” in the form of a bribe, Gómez Villaseñor told Rest of World. “I told [the officer] I wasn’t carrying 4,100 pesos in cash, but he said I was able to pay with a card.” 

Fearing that he’d be taken to an ATM, he reluctantly agreed — only for the officers to produce a different payment method. “The other policeman grabbed a Mercado Pago card terminal, charged me, gave me no receipt, and let me go,” he said.

Gómez Villaseñor isn’t alone: Over the course of March, Rest of World spoke to six people who say they were forced to pay bribes to police through mobile payment apps. 

Yulz Conteras, like Gómez Villaseñor, told Rest of World she was also confronted by police in an outer borough of Mexico City. “We were surrounded by about 15 armed cops, who were there to intimidate us. Knowing that policemen in Mexico have been known to make you disappear for any reason, we gave in,” she said.

Paying bribes through mobile payment terminals shows just how common payment devices have become in Mexico. Between 2020 and 2022, payments grew fourfold on Mercado Pago, a payment system from the fintech arm of Argentine e-commerce giant MercadoLibre. Users can pay in a variety of ways: peer-to-peer transfers in the app, QR codes, or through a mobile terminal like Gómez Villaseñor and Contreras did. 

Registering for a mobile terminal that accepts payments from cards and phones is easy: Mercado Pago account holders only need to submit their address, an ID, and a selfie. Users are not required to use their real names for their terminals — they can use any name they want. 

Gómez Villaseñor discovered this the hard way: His record of the transaction shows that he paid an account named after the road where he was stopped. When Rest of World asked Mercado Pago about this incident, a spokesperson said the company had no record of any official accounts registered with the state police for that highway. Rest of World reached out to the State of Mexico police, and an operator said no official is allowed to charge fines, either in cash or through any electronic card terminal.

When questioned about the police’s use of Mercado Pago for taking bribes, the company’s spokesperson said Mercado Pago held no direct responsibility for cases of extortion or corruption conducted using their products and services. This was “unfortunately [something] all bank service providers in the country are exposed to,” they said, adding that Mercado Pago is open to collaboration with the authorities — but only once they’ve filed requests regarding specific cases of abuse.

“Knowing that policemen in Mexico have been known to make you disappear for any reason, we gave in.”

Gómez Villaseñor said he feels this is a dereliction of the company’s responsibility. “Mercado Pago never knew how to address my case,” he said. “They sent me to the bank, which asked me to file a police report, but even that doesn’t guarantee the refund will come through.” Since the card was not stolen but voluntarily used by its owner, according to Mercado Pago’s terms and conditions, the case for a refund is not simple. 

Mercado Pago operates as a payment facilitator, similar to Square, so users have to dispute transactions with their card issuer or bank — and proof of theft often involves a police report, something victims are hesitant to obtain. Another person told Rest of World their bank statement displayed the name of the officer to whom they had paid a bribe. But the person, who asked to remain anonymous, didn’t report it to the authorities.

“The entire experience was absolutely unpleasant, but what I fear the most is that [the police] could retaliate against me in some way, although I don’t think that would be convenient for them because I have the officer’s name,” they said.

Some of the victims told Rest of World they felt the payment terminals allowed police officers to extort them for more money than before, as carrying over 3,000 pesos ($165) in cash is rare in Mexico. Others said the use of payment devices has made them worry about different scams. Liz, who did not share her last name for fear of repercussions, told Rest of World she refused to pay a 3,600-peso ($165) bribe to an officer with her credit card because she was worried her card would be cloned.

“I wasn’t carrying that amount of cash, and then he — very helpfully — said I could transfer the money to a supposedly federal account through my bank’s app,” she said.