Where Do You Go When Things Go Wrong in Mexico?
You have been renting in Mexico and your landlord hasn't been keeping the terms of your lease in spite of your contract (in Spanish and notarized of course). You go to the hospital and are presented a ridiculous bill. A restaurant has reneged on a promotional offer. Who you gonna call?
Well, just like with anything else that goes wrong in Mexico, it's doubtful you'll want to go to the police. In Mexico everything is wonderful... until it goes wrong... because the country doesn't have much of a justice system.
What Mexico does have that can be worth the trip de vez en cuando, is a visit with PROFECO (Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor). PROFECO is the agency where consumers, any consumer, can make a complaint in Mexico if they have been ripped off. Common miscreants are
- retail stores
- time-share companies
- utility companies
- hospitals or clinics
Remember when Americans used to use the threat "I'm going to call the Better Business Bureau!" thinking, "That'll-scare-'em"? By now, most people know that he BBB doesn't do anything for consumers. The BBB works in the interest of its due-paying business members. In the last few years, it hasn't even received high marks from them.
If you come to Mexico, it would be a mistake to ignore PROFECO as "Mexico's Better Business Bureau." PROFECO really does work for the consumer, including tourists. Once in awhile, like a taunted mongoose, it bares its teeth and is surprisingly effective.
PROFECO in Mexico is more akin to small claims court in the U.S., including the delays and paperwork. Filing a claim is free (unlike our small claims court).
Ultimately, on a scale of 1-10 as far as a just outcome, PROFECO would probably rank an impressive five, the highest rating ever received by any agency in Mexico having to anything do with punishing criminal activity.
Almost anything that you might turn to a lawyer and the court system in the United States, you would probably be directed to PROFECO instead in Mexico. You do need to go prepared.
Lawyers don't have any power in Mexico - but just like our lawyers, they write well
Lawyers in Mexico don't have the authority or power they do in the United States. That's why a session with a Mexican attorney will cost you 400-500 pesos ($30 dollars). Notaries are the more expensive service in Mexico because they serve the same function in commercial transactions as lawyers do in the U.S.
(Maybe the reason PROFECO can be more effective is that it doesn't have all those pesky attorneys in the way if it decides it likes you.)
The one thing a lawyer in Mexico can do for you is to put your complaint in proper Spanish.
An attorney can write out a step-by-step detailed description of what transpired and why it's unfair. This is invaluable and well worth the pesos even if you have to find a translator to go to the meeting with you. Other things you will need in your travels are:
- Supplier's name, address, phone, e-mail or other contact information date of purchase, cost of the product or service, amount you are claiming, your name and signature.
- Copy of your ID (Passport or Driver´s License)
- Copy of your contract or payment invoice
- Copy of your bills, credit card slips or receipts as evidence of your payments
- Copy of all the documents available to support the complaint
Whether your complaint gets you directed to the Office of Tourism, PROFECO, City Hall or some other government agency, after you've butchered their Spanish and they've butchered your English, present this beautifully executed Spanish-language document ( I say do it with some flourish, saying "Todo que sucedió está en este documento!" (Everything that happened is in this document!).
After you hand them a copy of these documents, demonstrate the intention to wait patiently while they read them. (Usually, I try to find a book in Spanish with a high-brow title that I can barely understand, just to make them wary, then I sit down and immediately become engrossed in it).
Transactions and legal processes in Mexico take much longer
Sizing you up.
Great fun is poked at Mexican tramites (bureaucratic processes), specifically the high level of red tape, paperwork and ambiguity for a reason. Things take much longer to get accomplished.
Your results depend to a high degree on who you're talking to, and what kind of day they're having. You just have to be patient, do what you're told and still expect to be frustrated.
You draw !
When you do see people, try to get business cards and clearly written e-mail addresses from everyone you meet. It is much easier to at least try communicate via e-mail rather than over the phone.
With email, you can look Spanish words and phrases up that pertain to your complaint. At least you will acquire a good vocabulary list and maybe a few email communications you can refer back to when you to back the third and fourth time. They are a warm culture and prefer face-to-face.
One free tool that can come in extremely handy for these situations is Skitch. Skitch is one of a number of free online tools that enables you to make a screenshot, then make arrows and comments on it.
For example, in making complaint against a medical clinic in Mazatlán. I needed to provide proof to PROFECO of what was charged on my credit card. Skitch enabled me to take a screenshot of my online bank statement and make annotations and comments.
I confirmed my translation of the comments into Spanish on Lingee, a site that translates entire phrases, and made notes on the screenshots. I also made printed copies, in case the official wouldn't open the attachment.
With these documents, I made complaints against the Office of Tourism, American Consulate, PROFECO and one other agency dealing with specifically medical issues, the Comisión de Arbitraje Medico del Estado de Sinaloa.
Will any of these measures yield any results? I know better than get my hopes up.
Complaints are important more because multiple complaints are what gets action from PROFECO. You never know if you're the first or thirtieth complaint against a company or person but whole institutions, such as clinics, have been known to close down when these complaints pile up.
When things happen, my philosophy is to take action, a hold-over from being American that is hard to relinquish. I measure efforts like these not in terms of their ultimate effectiveness, but rather think of them as ways to root around the corners of a new culture when other people would rather go listen to mariachi. And who knows? My one petition could that last straw.
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of two books, the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online" a curation of links to the best free language site features on the web.
Don't be an expat who doesn't speak any Spanish! Use the book's lesson plans or create a unique plan every day using combinations of the interactive links included in the book. Study anywhere using your laptop, e-reader or tablet.
"If Only I Had a Place," the go-to book on renting luxuriously in Mexico for less than you ever dreamed. The book gives you a system to not just rent, but rather establish a foundation for the richest expat experience. The book also includes a listing of rental concierges who can be invaluable in previewing prospective homes or apartments.