Mexican citizens asked to fight crime

As kidnapping rates soar, Mexico City's mayor is recruiting 300,000 residents to monitor – and turn in – corrupt cops.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mourning: The parents of slain kidnap victim Fernando Martí attended a memorial service for their son this week.
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Shopkeeper Mayra Bermejo would have a hard time turning in a corrupt police officer even though she – like so many other Mexicans – is exasperated by the growing number of killings and kidnappings that authorities are unable to prevent.

"Once he knows I've denounced him, I'm an open target," says Ms. Bermejo. "He may even send street thugs to harass me."

Seventy-two percent of city residents say they don't trust the police, according to a recent survey in the daily newspaper Reforma. And if Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has his way, a new corps of 300,000 residents will become watchdogs of sorts – monitoring and turning in police officials who operate outside the law.

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The anticrime measure, one of scores floated in the capital and by federal authorities in recent days, comes in the wake of a high-profile abduction and murder of a teenage boy, allegedly at the hands of corrupt cops. The incident sparked outrage among the public, kindling a chorus of demands for greater security and accountability, as well as raising hopes among anticrime advocates that average citizens will become more active in the country's fight against crime.

"The answer will only come from the bottom. If civil society doesn't move, the authorities won't move," says José Antonio Ortega, the head of the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, which will join massive anticrime protests later this month. "We have to wake up; the people must come on board if security is to return to Mexico."

438 reported kidnappings

With 438 reported kidnappings last year – and probably many more unreported – one more abduction typically would have fallen on ears deafened by the grim state of security in Mexico. But the case of Fernando Martí, the teenage son of a wealthy Mexican family, has resonated nationwide. His body was found Aug. 1, after he had been abducted at a fake police checkpoint two months earlier and after his family reportedly paid a ransom in full.

It comes as news of abductions along the US-Mexican border, including cases involving US citizens, has increasingly made headlines. Kidnapping increased from 278 victims in 2005 to 325 victims in 2006, according to government figures. In 2007, the number jumped by 35 percent. Fifty-nine kidnap victims, including Fernando, have been killed since Mexico President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

Most citizens have little faith in the police, says Arturo Alvarado, a sociologist at the College of Mexico. By some estimates, 1 in 4 crimes goes unreported, he says. Instead, residents find their own solutions, employing security guards or gating themselves in their neighborhoods.

That is why many residents say they would be unwilling to take on the role of citizen watchdog.

"The fear of reprisal is enough to keep anyone from denouncing police corruption. Even police chiefs are afraid to act, for fear that they will be killed," says Carlo Cuenca, a shopkeeper in Mexico City.

It is this fear that Ortega says must be defeated if the country is to move forward. "The answer is not with the police. They have demonstrated collusion with organized crime and kidnappings. For this reason we must break with the fear. Thousands of us must march to show that we are not afraid," he says.

Frustration comes as Mr. Calderón has sent tens of thousands of federal police and military personnel across the country to tamp down drug violence that has, nevertheless, persisted. Some 2,000 people have been killed this year in connection to the illegal drug trade, according to local media tallies.

Yet kidnapping terrorizes citizens more than drug-related violence, because victims are more often targeted randomly. And since several cops have been arrested in connection with the Martí case, a new sense of anger not seen in at least four years – the last time civil organizations staged a massive antikidnapping protest – has surfaced.

The government's new moves

The government has moved quickly to quell public anger. Mexican authorities announced they will open five national antikidnapping centers in five cities throughout the country, to be staffed with a new squad of 300 officers. Calderón also proposed life sentences for kidnappers under certain conditions, including if the perpetrator has been a police officer.

"Society demands that we succeed in this challenge, that we end police corruption," he said this week.

Mayor Ebrard, in addition to creating a corps of neighborhood watch groups, called for the overhaul of the city's detective agency and a new anti-kidnapping hot line.

But Mr. Alvarado says these responses are merely a way to "satisfy the customer" – a political tactic that does not show a long-term commitment to root out corruption. "It can create very bad, punitive policies without dealing with the real source of crime," he adds.

Seamstress Debora Ramirez agrees. "This program would be a step in the right direction, but the best use of resources would be in providing better training and accountability in the police force instead of just putting civilians in their place," she says.

"What do I gain from denouncing a corrupt cop?" Ms. Ramirez asks. "If I am persistent enough they may start an inquiry, and, if I'm very lucky, they would detain him. But in the end, they'd release him and it would all be forgotten. He'd be policing my neighborhood a week later. What kind of position would that put me in?"

María Elena Morera, the president of the leading civilian group Mexico United Against Crime, says that it is not just fear that fuels inaction. It is impunity that has fomented a culture of powerlessness here. "Citizens don't report [crimes] because they know nothing will happen," she says. "You have to go, wait in line, you don't get treated well, and most likely, it will be for nothing."

Civilian watchdogs, she says, can help change the status quo, but the concept can backfire. "If their function is to be vigilant, it can work. But the risk is that they are used by the government for political expression," she says. "They need to be serving the community, not the government."

Rafael Rivero contributed from Mexico City.

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