Bureaucracy at its Best... Our Oaxaca

Sometimes it's best to just smile

They say that when you love someone you get the whole package. Loving Oaxaca is no different. Whether it’s getting your car license plates or paying a fine, going to the bank, Telmex or IMSS to see a doctor through the federally run health insurance plan, or simply trying to negotiate your way through traffic, you can’t help but be affected by the bureaucratic inefficiencies which seem to increase year after year.

Ten times waiting in line at six different wickets in four locations, two of which are at the other end of the city, all to get license plates for a new vehicle. Albeit in my case there was at least one “unnecessary” attendance because the government ran out of plates for trucks, requiring my return another day…and then there’s the constant running across the street to get further photocopies of the purchase documents and receipts just issued. Try it once if you like. However, I learned a lesson and decided next time I’d pay a designate to do the legwork…that came in November, 2004 when I bought my Jetta. I gave the salesman all the necessary documents and fees, happy to have extricated myself from the process. Then why was it that 12 months later thousands of us were still driving around without plates? I’m sure the unvehicled had queried why there seemed to be so many cars without them. Well, because of the autumn ‘04 state election and changes that came with it, for a year the government hadn’t gotten around to looking after purchasing raw material for producing the plates…too much red tape having to secure purchase orders, authorizing funds for release, and so on. Compound the problem with the then new state cash grab known as Programa Emplacamiento 2005. At the same time as plates for new vehicles were made available, the government decided that all vehicles must now purchase new plates, at 444 pesos per set. So coupled with lineups for those who had been awaiting plates for up to a year are lineups for everyone else who had to purchase another set of plates. All was explained in a flyer with charts explaining what you need for which purpose, and when you could go and get it, depending on the first letter of your surname.

The good thing for those of us who were awaiting plates for new vehicles was that if you parked illegally, transito couldn’t take your front plate as is its custom. The practice is for the officer to give you an infraction notice as well as remove your plate. One pays the fine downtown, at the transito office at the eastern end of Morelos, south side of the street beyond La Soledad where you always see policemen and vehicles creating traffic chaos. Generally there’s not much of a lineup. Unless you can get to the office to get your plate back within a day, you have to drive to Santa Rosa, along the highway towards Mexico City to get the plate back after paying the fine. Don’t rush to Santa Rosa since we don’t know how long it takes for transito get the paperwork filed in the one location, and take your plate to the other…just keep driving without that front plate for a while…if you have plates.

If you’re still considering becoming dependent upon private transit and prefer getting your new vehicle plates on your own, the first place you must go is in Colonia Reforma, on the south side of Esc. Naval Militar, a couple of blocks east of Manuel Ruiz, followed by Prolongacion de Yagul 107, near the Periferico behind Construrama and Rodi+Raban. Expect long lineups at the Reforma location, so get there early (i.e. 9AM). Take originals and duplicate copies of your photo ID, official proof of home address (i.e. electric bill) and tenencia, and factura, and anything else in your vehicle file. If you’re trading old for new plates, don’t forget the old ones. And of course, bring cash. You’ll be amazed at the categories of payments you’ll be making. I recommend keeping copies of all receipts. You’ll be asked to take your vehicle around the corner for calcas, and then return. The Reforma office closes around 2:30PM. At the Yagul address the lineup isn’t as long. There you’ll also need copies, and your permiso which in theory is taped to your car window. You’ll then be directed to a different building to complete matters. Take a book with you, and be patient.

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About 10% of the working population in Mexico is employed by government. Certainly to achieve the above inefficiencies you need a huge workforce. Transito, the state police, and the Federalis is each a significant presence in Oaxaca. A while back a patrol car with two officers, in addition to five motorcycles, descended upon my house shortly after I reported that my cleaning lady days earlier had stolen from me (don’t generalize from this…it happens worldwide). Seven officers in circumstances where one or two could have done the job. What they do is hard to understand…virtually nothing except take down particulars and tell you to go to the Ministerio Publico to have a warrant issued. At times in Mexico the line between civil and criminal proceedings becomes blurred. While within the Canadian and American Common Law traditions one must not threaten criminal proceedings to exact a civil remedy (“pay me or I’ll go to the police”), here in Oaxaca it is the recommended procedure. That is, enter into a payment agreement with the scoundrel with the strict understanding that if payments are not forthcoming you’ll go to the Ministerio, the likely result being a jail term for the offending party where there’s been a breach of trust. One can only imagine how many additional bureaucrats become involved at the “M.P.” level where there is actually something concrete to be done.
Perhaps a partial solution is to reduce the government workforce by 50%, and for those remaining add 30% to their modest wages, using the savings for betterment of our streets, sidewalks, gorgeous fountains and general maintenance. Two problems come to mind: firstly, how to re-employ the terminated workers, and secondly, how to motivate the remaining employees to increase their productivity. On the other hand, by simply improving efficiency of operations there may be no need to increase one’s work output.

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Another bureaucratic curiosity is “the lineup”, frequently encountered in front of Telmex on Garcia Vigil, or more often outside the banks. In both cases I believe this phenomenon stems from the same societal circumstances…the individual’s lack of funds to make ends meet on a continuous basis and the mañana mindset of the majority. If you don’t pay your utility bills by a stated deadline, service is temporarily cut off. Many people because of necessity and/or lifestyle therefore wait until the last moment to pay, or frequently miss the deadline and then scurry to get reconnected. When you make a call and are told that the line is out of service, you’ll have a good idea why, but don’t despair…try again in a day or two. In June, 2005, I spent three hours waiting to be served at the Telmex office on N. Heroes de Chapultepec (I actually scooted out to run another errand in the interim, with numbered ticket in hand) to ascertain the status of my August 2003 application for a phone. I was told in two minutes I’d have to wait at least a further six months. It’s not unusual to wait years for a phone line. In my colonia people had been waiting since 1999 for a phone. The Telmex office was in chaos that day because more than 100 ticket numbers had been given out within a short time-span, in several cases two people having the same number and arguing about who goes next and who has to wait for 100 people to first be served. Be vigilant while waiting in line so you’ll know with certainty who goes first. Abbott and Costello come to mind?

Two further Telmex inefficiencies: 1) When you apply for a phone, and anytime thereafter, Telmex will not accept a cellular phone number as a contact number…but you don’t have a land phone number to give or else you wouldn’t be applying; 2) To let you know that your time has arrived to go to their offices to sign a contract and pay the connection fee, they send FOUR men around to your house in a VW bug…and if no one’s home? In my case my neighbor Álvaro rang the bell and said “quick Alvin, I saw the Telmex car at the bottom of the hill, lets go find it”, so off we went and found it.

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Regarding banking, friends caution that you shouldn’t try going to el banco the beginning of the month, the end of the month, mid-month, Mondays, Fridays, and the days before and after holidays. A crude calculation indicates that there are perhaps 2 – 3 days per month when it’s “safe” to attend financial institutions. Lineups are frequently 1 – 2 hours. Banamex in Col. Reforma has finally arrived into the 21st century, with number taking for wickets providing different services, and seating. Otherwise, there are only so many times you can set out for the bank, see the queue, and give up. It’s similar attending IMSS, another multi-attendance institution, to see the doctor or for preventiva…and the lineup to pay the annual fee at the one bank branch of HSBC on 5 de Mayo where it’s accepted is significant as well. However, you’ll avoid a lot of wasted waiting time if you ask for the IMSS payment fila…if there is one that day.

A more general word of advice is this: while tolerance of delays and waiting comes with time, unless you have the patience of Job it sometimes helps, and is generally not deemed offensive, if you break into a line simply to inquire if your query will indeed be substantively addressed in due course. You may even get the answer to your specific question without having to wait further.

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Strikes and protests. The teachers do it on an annual basis, as the world has now come to know. As well, campesinos from the furthest reaches of the state descend upon the capital with great frequency. In both cases, and in others, the result is traffic jams and street closures. Without commenting on the alleged injustices faced by such groups and the legitimacy of their complaints, the extent to which grievances are resolved in this way, in this particular state, must be examined within the context of the number of police which address the problem frequently with riot squad equipment, and their effectiveness in terms of enabling the city to carry on its business. Perhaps the mere appearance of Federalis serves an important function, but transito blowing whistles and flailing arms does not appear to be effective. Their presence is similarly of little consequence in controlling double parking and day-to-day gridlocks.

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A final word of advice relates to attendances at the Mercado de Abastos. On Saturday, the general weekly market day, avoid all streets close to and including the Periférico as well as the southern access route which meanders alongside El Rio Atoyac, and on Tuesday and Friday, the commercial produce market days, keep clear of the latter roadway. Thursday, the clothing market day, can present problems along the Periférico.

The key to living here in peace and harmony is to simply soak up everything the city has to offer, accept what we experience as part of a society in transition, and remember to check our ethnocentrisms and frustrations because we love Oaxaca despite all of the foregoing..


Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association, its members providing an attractive alternative to lodging in a Oaxaca hotel. Our member Oaxaca bed and breakfasts are committed to providing value-added service in a quaint, personal touch environment, a contrast to traditional Oaxaca hotels. Casa Machaya co-owner Alvin, the Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international travel website, provides Oaxaca tours to his house guests as well as those staying in other Oaxaca accommodations.