Sunday, January 28, 2018

And now, a short suspense story: How we liberated our pickup from the San Miguel auto pound

On Dec. 10, our trusty 2000 Nissan Frontier pickup was in a head-on collision with another pickup. On a scale of one to ten, this mishap scored a four or about the equivalent of a broken nose.  It's all fixable and fortunately there were no serious injuries thanks to the sturdy burro bumper on the Nissan and its airbags which, surprisingly given its age, performed flawlessly.

In fact, the damage itself was the least of our headaches compared to the six weeks of bureaucratic gyrations it took to "liberate"—that's what the process is called—our poor pickup from the San Miguel's auto pound.

Waiting to be liberated since ca.1981
If there were a special circle of hell reserved for cars it would resemble this facility, known as the corralón—or the "big corral"—and tucked away behind a remarkably large, unmarked and ugly building with crenellated walls and turrets that looks like either a penitentiary or a crude imitation of a castle.

Strange backdrop to a strange operation. 
There are few signs of order at the corralón. Rather it's one chaotic acre after another in which hundreds of rusted, mashed-up remains of vehicles of all types—from bicycles to cars, motorcycles and semis and tanker trucks, Pepsi trucks and what-have-you—have come to rest, each one marked with a date of arrival. It was sobering to think of what happened to the people inside some of these vehicles. 

This is no temporary holding facility. One car had a 1981 license plate and most of the vehicles were covered by years of rust, dirt and assorted junk that suggested indefinite prison sentences. Think of it as a roach motel for cars, where they check in but likely will never drive out, or not any time soon. We know two people who had their cars impounded, one for six months the other for two years.

Did your motorcycle turn up missing?
The corralón is owned by a man named Chucho who also owns a towing company called El Mercadillo. Whenever there is an accident, the transit police will summon one or more of Chucho's trucks to haul the damaged vehicles to Chucho's corralón, no questions asked or choices offered. Chucho is your man, like it or not. 

In the U.S. the owners of the vehicles involved in relatively minor accidents will curse and scream, and then exchange drivers licenses, registrations and insurance information, receive a police report and arrange for a tow to the mechanic or body shop of their choice.

But this is Mexico, where most drivers don't have insurance, which is not required, or a way to pay for damages. In our case we hit the jackpot: The other driver had no insurance, money, Mexico plates or even a valid registration. His only documentation for his late-model Chevrolet Aztec pickup was a faded photocopy of a bill of sale from a dealership somewhere in Texas.

Nothing to fear: Chucho is here. 
He was also hauling ten passengers including himself, three in the cab and seven more al fresco on the bed of the truck. Two ambulances arrived to take the injured, none of whom showed visible injuries but who nevertheless clutched  different parts of their bodies in what looked ominously like the Whiplash Mambo.

Both vehicles would be held at the corralón—effectively as ransom—as the incident worked its way through the bowels of the local State Attorney's Office, located in a new, bright- blue building on one of the entrances to San Miguel.

We realized there's a certain logic to the corralón: Given the general lack of auto insurance or cash to cover damages—and Mexicans' aversion to pay for anything or obey traffic laws—the only way to force settlement of claims is to impound the vehicles.

Even then, many owners just surrender their vehicles rather than pay for damages. Though mostly wrecks, there were also dozens of relatively new vehicles whose owners had figured it was cheaper to just walk away. 

If one or both of the parties involved in an accident has the ready cash, the matter might settled on the spot to avoid the corralón. Or someone might quietly negotiate a mordida, a little contribution to the police officer's private retirement fund, to help him forget the whole thing. In case of serious injuries, of course, there are no quick outs.

Abandoned by their owners?
Unfortunately for us, the usually torpid wheels of Mexican justice were grinding even more slowly following the accident because of the approaching Christmas holiday, which runs from Dec. 24 to January 6, plus a few more days before and afterward, during which hardly any activity transpires at any level of government.

Our insurance company assigned us a stocky, gruff woman attorney to negotiate the payouts to the other driver. Our truck was on the wrong lane, so in fact we were at fault. Part of this lawyer's negotiating strategy, though, must have been not returning our insistent phone calls to find out the date of the hearing, which we had to ascertain on our own.

When the day arrived, the aggrieved passengers in the other vehicle showed up, each claiming fifteen hundred pesos (about eighty dollars) in medical expenses which our lawyer promptly conceded. But two of the injured weren't there and the case was postponed two more times.

We finally received our "liberation notice" for our truck which we had to take to the state police office from which we got another document, and go to another state office to pay a fine (about eighty dollars), and back to the state police with the receipt, before finally driving to the corralón to liberate our Frontier.
The caretaker's home and guard cat. 

In all fairness, we were impressed by the efficiency and speed of the State Attorney's Office in handling this matter once they got to it. Or maybe we were just relieved to get out of there at all.

The corralón was guarded by a friendly, middle-aged man who lived in a very modest dwelling, borderline shack, with his wife, a cat  and a wiggly young puppy. They were most accommodating but seemed surprised that we had come to claim our pickup. They remembered our green Frontier but not where they'd put it.

After a half-hour walk around the pound they spotted it—in a corner of the lot, buried behind several rows of trucks and other victims.

Outta here. Hope to never see you again.
 "Do you still want it?" the man asked me, rather incredulously, indicating that he'd have to mobilize a tow truck to dig through the rubble to get to our pickup.

It took two and a half hours before our Nissan Frontier, bruised but still rolling, emerged from the corralón, its front end hoisted by a tow truck also owned by Chucho, who charged us for the towing to and from the pound plus a daily fee for the privilege of staying at his corralón, for a total of thirty-two  hundred pesos, or one hundred and seventy-five dollars.

The Frontier is now resting peacefully at a mechanic/body shop, curiously enough, right next to the other vehicle involved in the accident. Omar, the owner of the shop, was surprised as well that we had been able to extricate our vehicle from the clutches of the pound, which according to him, is a stop of no return for most of the cars that end up there.

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