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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 / August 14, 2008

Mourning: The parents of slain kidnap victim Fernando Martí attended a memorial service for their son this week.

Heriberto Rodriguez/Newscom


Mexico City

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.

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"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.

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.