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Probably one of the most unsettling aspects of traveling to Mexico for some people is Mexico's system of Military Checkpoints. These checkpoints are located throughout the country, and the main purpose of these checkpoint is to stem the flow of illegal drugs north to the United States.
In general, the closer one is to the U.S. border the more likely they are to run into a Military Checkpoint. As en example in a 100 mile stretch of road on the Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun a traveler might encounter only one checkpoint. On that same day along a similar stretch of highway south of the U.S. border below Tijuana there might be two or three checkpoints. Your mileage may vary.
Checkpoints in and of themselves don't really bother most Mexico travelers. But the sight of a dozen soldiers holding AK-47 automatic weapons at these locations tends to stir up anxiety in some travelers who are not used to seeing weapons and these checkpoints.
In reality, one of the safest places the average Mexico traveler can be is at one of these checkpoints. Of the very few problems that ever happen to tourists on Mexico highways, none of them ever happen at or near these checkpoints. The bad guys in Mexico tend to stay clear of the good guys, so these checkpoints are often a great place to get out of the car and stretching their legs after a long drive.
Now...about those soldiers with machine guns. The vast majority of the soldiers manning Mexico Checkpoints are young men...very young men. As a matter of fact many of these men are under 18 years of age. And they mean no harm to you, unless you are a drug runner who is stupid enough to pull up to one of these checkpoints in a vehicle. Sometimes their guns have bullets in them, sometimes they do not.
The routine at most of Mexico's Checkpoints is very similar. For starters, most checkpoints in Mexico usually only stop cars in the northbound direction, although the military will expect you to slow down and be prepared to stop even as travelers head south. Usually, while driving down a highway in Mexico, a driver will notice orange flags informing the driver that a checkpoint is ahead. Fire pots are used at night. If you are a drug runner this would be a good time to do a 180 degree turn and head the other way. Everybody else just needs to slow down and be prepared to stop.
These checkpoints often have "spike strips" on the other end of the highway that are tied to a rope going to the side of the road (just like the once you see on TV when some idiot in a police chase refuses to stop after a high-speed chase). In theory if someone tries to run the checkpoint a young soldier on the side of the road can pull the rope and the spike strip will flatten his tires. In reality the ropes are rarely manned, so that aspect of the checkpoint is rarely used.
After waiting to get to the front of the line, the head honcho military man will usually ask the driver of the car (in Spanish) "where are you going" or "where are you coming from". In any case you will not be able to understand them so just smile and say "we are coming from ...and we are going to ...". Whatever your answer is he will tell you the same thing..."please get out of the car". But since he will say it in Spanish most drivers just sit there and look at him. This is the silent version of a Mexican Standoff. Eventually the driver understands that the soldier wants all passengers to get out of the car so it can be inspected.
The main job of these fine young men is to find drugs. Yes, they may ask you if you have guns or ammunition, which are also prohibited in Mexico, but drugs is the name of the game at these checkpoint. Usually two or three soldiers will check the car, including luggage inside the car and in the trunk. They will also check under the car (sometimes with mirrors on sticks) and knock on door panels. Assuming you have no drugs, guns or ammo, you are usually free to get back in the car after three or four minutes.
Some of these checkpoints have pictures on plywood next to the road showing some of the more successful drug finds from past inspections. It is amazing where some drug runners hide their drugs, and these photos can be very interesting. No you cannot take pictures of the pictures.
The important thing to remember at these Military Checkpoints is that these men are just doing their job and will not cause any harm to you or your fellow travelers. They are mearly cooperating with our government's request to help stop the flow of illegal drugs that the U.S. consumers are consuming north of the border. If it's a hot day and you have cold water or sodas these guys usually appreciate the gift.