When Cops Are Thugs

Zero Tolerance Comes to Mexico City, Courtesy of Rudy Giuliani

Imagine sitting in jail for three years awaiting judgment for a bar fight, only to be sentenced to one month in prison. Or imagine serving 12 months for stealing a bicycle. Cases like these are all too common in Mexico City, a sprawling concrete jungle of 8 million people and the first international testing ground for the Rudolph Giuliani way of taming the streets.

Having brought the five boroughs to heel, the former mayor of New York is now unloading his crime-fighting secret here. Those secrets, of course, start with cracking down on "quality of life" violations, nuisance infractions like graffiti. Last year, a group of business executives paid Giuliani's consulting firm $4.3 million for advice, and many are hoping for miraculous results. But some experts warn that applying the "broken windows" theory made famous by Giuliani to a society that largely lacks law and order could be a recipe for disaster.

After nearly 12 months of analysis, and one hasty visit by Rudy himself, Giuliani Partners presented its findings this August. Mexico City police chief Marcelo Ebrard says he will adopt all 146 recommendations in an attempt to whittle down the 600 crimes reported daily in the metropolis. It's estimated another 2,400 crimes go unreported each day.

Juan Manuel Gutierrez, 11, makes $7 a day.
photo: Claudio Troncoso
Juan Manuel Gutierrez, 11, makes $7 a day.

The success of Giuliani's methods back home, however, is debatable. Crime rates fell in several U.S. cities during the same period that they dropped 50 percent in New York, aided by an economy in overdrive. By contrast, economies in most countries right now are stumbling, making a hardscrabble place like Mexico City a dangerous place to experiment.

The Mexico City project doesn't amount to fixing a system that's broken, but rather to creating a new police force and developing a sense of civic responsibility—a concept that simply doesn't exist. "It's the city where everything is possible. We have to start to lay down the foundation of a new society," says Reverend Jose Luis Tellez, a Catholic priest who works to rehabilitate ex-prisoners.

The position of law enforcement is so weak that authorities won't be able to crack down on sales of drugs, stolen auto parts, or prostitution without new legal measures or constitutional amendments. But following Giuliani's example, they have already set their sights on the city's thousands of street children, its squeegee men, and the franeleros, who cordon off sections of street and then collect small fees for parking privileges.

"It would be a tragedy to implement broken windows," says Rafael Ruiz, a Mexican criminologist. "If you prosecute these people, then you could force all of them into crime." Juan Manuel Gutierrez, an 11-year-old who earns $7 a day washing windshields at a busy intersection, agrees. "If they take this away from us, they're going to have a lot more people stealing," he says. The minimum wage in Mexico City is $4.50 a day, but you can make more by setting up shop in the street.

If Giuliani's methods prompted New Yorkers to complain of a rise in police brutality and infringements on civil liberties, then the damage that could arise in Mexico City is incalculable. The city's notoriously corrupt police force already abuses its power. "Zero tolerance encourages police to act on their instincts, including their discriminatory instincts," says Ignacio Saiz, deputy director of the Americas program for Amnesty International. "Any marginalized population would become vulnerable under this type of policy."

Almost every driver in Mexico City has witnessed the priorities of the traffic police, who would rather be paid off than write a ticket. But tales of extortion and kidnappings at the hands of the law are also common enough that, when in trouble, only a small fraction of chilangos, as capital dwellers are known, would consider calling the police.

"In Mexico City, many crimes are committed in conjunction with the police," says Luis de la Barreda, director of the ICESI think tank, which analyzes public issues like safety and crime.

Manuel Caliz, a 29-year-old marketing manager for a major tequila company, knows all about the dark side of the Mexico City police force.

Caliz was stopped well after midnight last year for driving his New Beetle in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Afraid to roll down his window, he pressed his driver's license against the glass, enraging one of the officers. The officer lifted his gun from its holster and demanded that Caliz roll the window down.

The agitated officer then slid into the passenger seat and pointed his pistol at Caliz's chest, demanding everything in his possession. "He told me I had really screwed up and that I would die if I didn't do what they said," Caliz recalls.

Since he only had about $50 in cash, the officers suggested a trip to a nearby ATM. The policemen, about four in all, retrieved the remaining $300 in Caliz's account before letting him go with a warning not to report the incident. Caliz recovered the cash under an insurance policy, but never considered reporting the officers.

"How can you ask for help when the police are the ones holding you up?" says Caliz.

While the police are chasing ways to pad their meager paychecks, serious criminals run amok. Mexico City has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world. Often victims are held only until their bank accounts have been emptied, a practice that has been dubbed "express kidnappings" because the robberies usually last less than a few hours and take place in taxi cabs. When bands of kidnappers are brought in, they often turn out to have ties to the police.

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