My father had turned the driving over to my brother, Dale, and they conversed freely as they motored along on the divided federal highway just outside Mexico City on a lovely Saturday morning. They traveled a beautiful new four-lane freeway with a well-trimmed hedge down the median. All was well until Dale began to negotiate what should have been an easy curve. The hedge concealed a group of workers and their heavy equipment. There were no warning signs in place to suggest that there was anything amiss.
Dale quickly surveyed the scene, hit the brake, and opted to side-swipe a dump truck rather than run over the workers. As the car scraped by the truck they were spun around and came to rest facing in the opposite direction. The front bumper was bent precariously and had scraped a thin line in the pavement—the only visible damage to the highway. The car’s coolant was puddled on the road making it impossible to continue.
The road workers quickly mobilized and put out the warning signs which they had neglected to do earlier. Dad suggested to Dale that they quietly trade places. He figured it would go better for them if the police found a licensed Mexican citizen driving the Mexican car. Dale had just returned from two years in Columbia and at the time didn’t have a driver license in his possession.
The Mexican highway patrol arrived, surveyed the scene, ordered the car impounded and remanded my father to the nearest jail to await a hearing before a judge the following Monday morning. When Dad told the officer that there had been no warning signs, the latter pointed to them right where they should have been and told my father that he must be blind.
The Tlalnepantla jail was a miserable place. It was dark and dank and dirty. It was filled with drunks, derelicts and prostitutes. The men in charge were largely unshaven and didn’t look much better than those over whom they presided. My brothers and I dutifully took Dad some food and blankets and tried to look somber but it was all we could do to keep from chuckling at our once dignified father confined to such a place.
We contacted a lawyer by the name of Agricol Lozano who was reputed to be one of the best legal minds in Mexico. We were pleased when he agreed to take the case. Since Father couldn’t get out of jail until after seeing the judge, he decided to see what he could do to better his own situation.
“My son has just returned from two years of missionary service in South America,” he told the weekend jailer. “He will be reporting on his missionary activities tomorrow in Church. Isn’t there something we can arrange so that I can attend that church service?” A price was agreed upon and my father was quietly released from his confinement on the condition that he be back at the jail before dawn on Monday morning. “If you are not here,” said the jailer, “it will be very bad for both of us!”
True to his word, Dad was back in jail Monday morning and, at the designated time, he and Senor Lozano appeared before the judge. “You have been accused of driving a motor vehicle at an unsafe speed, knocking over three warning signs, tearing up seventeen meters of median hedge, damaging highway equipment and disfiguring twenty meters of pavement. What do you plead?” Senor Lozano replied simply, “My client pleads guilty.”
My father started to go ballistic because most of the accusations were either untrue or exaggerated. Lozano quieted him down with a wave of his hand. The magistrate levied a substantial fine, gave Dad a warning and released him into the custody of his counsel. Outside the courtroom my father let Senor Lozano have it. “How could you plead me guilty to all those charges? We both know that most of that was a bunch of baloney!”
“Senor McClellan,” he said calmly. “You are not in the United States where you are innocent until proven guilty. Here you are guilty until proven innocent. If you challenged the accusations, because the incident took place on a federal highway, you would be remanded to the federal penitentiary at Toluca. Your case could come to trial in six weeks or in six months—and when it did, you would be found guilty. You can pay the fine now or you can go to prison and pay the fine later. Which do you prefer?”
My brothers and I often found great pleasure in reminding our father of his history of delinquency, imprisonment and bribery. He would give us a knowing smile comforted in the knowledge that it was not HIS doing that had landed him in trouble.
So what is the moral to the story? I think it must have something to do with gratitude that we live in a country that at least espouses the concept of innocence until proven guilty. We are greatly blessed.