When Cops Are Thugs

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

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.

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.

The thin line between officer and criminal helps explain why just one in four arrest warrants gets filled. Too frequently, when police do bring in a suspect, the arrest is accompanied by a beating. Mexico City's human rights commission received over 200 complaints in 2002 of injuries at the hands of police, and 90 allegations of torture. Hundreds also complained of arbitrary detentions, a serious problem in a judicial system that averages three to six months to sentence those in custody.

"The Giuliani program might not be very viable if the police are not first adequately trained," says Pilar Noriega, top counsel for Mexico City's human rights commission.

Currently police are not allowed to take fingerprints, access criminal records, or interrogate suspects. The Giuliani group suggests that laws be changed to give police these powers. The firm also advocates tougher sentences, despite acknowledging that Mexico City's justice and penal systems need a serious overhaul. Public defenders are overworked, prisons are beyond full, and corruption is the rule.

The Giuliani report notes that Mexico City police typically detain people for disorderly public conduct, such as urinating and drinking in the streets. The report then goes on to say that the punishments for such behavior—fines of $4.50 to $135, or up to 36 hours in jail—are too lax. "The individuals cited in these types of processes neither respect authority nor the law due to a lack of sufficiently coercive tools to effectively penalize them," the report says.

Mexico City police chief Ebrard has begun implementing what recommendations he can, aiming for a 10 percent reduction in crime for 2004.

Inspired by the concept of zero tolerance, Mexico City's legislative assembly already toughened penalties on a series of infractions in April. The new measures give small-time thieves, including shoplifters and people who munch on store food while strolling through the supermarket, at least six months in prison.

Peter Thottam, a 32-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, found himself in the midst of the new crackdown in June when his tourist guidebook disappeared inside a Sanborns store. Thottam set about looking for it, opened a door to the street, and was nabbed for almost stepping out with a pair of the store's socks in his hand. Unable to convince the staff in his broken Spanish that he had planned to buy the socks, Thottam was carted off for a four-night stay in the city's overcrowded prisons.

Thottam was crammed into a cold, damp cell designed for four with 13 others, who slept on the floor back to back. Guards and inmates were constantly hitting him up for cash because everything in the jail—access to the bathroom, mess hall, and visitors—cost money. "I couldn't get over how surreal it was," Thottam says, "all over a pair of socks."

Luckily he had a friend in the city to front his $1,100 bail so he could hightail it out of Mexico.

Meanwhile, penalties for the convicted are often grossly disproportionate to the crime. Raul Rios, a 24-year-old who has lived on the street for most of his life, has been in jail for over a year, accused of stealing the equivalent of 10 cents. Rios became aggressive while asking for a handout of one peso, prompting a woman to declare that she was being robbed. Rios expects to spend the rest of his two-year sentence in a rehabilitation program sponsored by the Catholic Church.

"You could say that these sentences are exaggerated, but they're not. They're real," says Tlacaelel Paredes, a psychologist who works with the church program.

Another offender Paredes counseled, 30-year-old Victor Nonato, served more than four years for stealing a bottle of milk. The sentence was lengthened because Nonato had previously been convicted of stealing auto parts. Paredes traces Nonato's choices to a life of extreme poverty, a condition shared by one-third of the Mexican population. "His little sister was crying out for milk, and they didn't have any. He felt desperate," says Paredes.

Many chilangos have mixed feelings about zero tolerance. They sympathize somewhat with those who commit crimes out of desperation, and marvel at the ingenuity of "nuisance" services provided by the franeleros. They also benefit from the order in the disorder, as they can pay off police when caught driving drunk or buying recreational drugs.  

Yet capital dwellers are exasperated by the high level of crime and anxiety. According to a survey conducted by the ICESI think tank, each year one in every three households in the city had a member who was victimized.

"Maybe some of these measures appear to be very drastic, and maybe they are, but something has to be done," says Raul Ceron, director of a justice program funded by phone carrier Telmex.

Since 1996, Telmex's nationwide justice program has shelled out bail for more than 30,000 first-time offenders, some of whom can't even come up with $10 to await sentencing at home. The new laws in Mexico City, though, have pushed bail for many offenders above the foundation's limit of $1,000 per person.

Telmex chairman Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America, contributed to Giuliani Partners' multimillion-dollar fee. Slim has also undertaken the rehabilitation of Mexico City's colonial center, where closed-circuit cameras have been installed in a nod to Giuliani's Big Brother program in Washington Square.

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