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How once-feared Mexico City has become the country's safest spot

Mexico City’s government chalks up its mended reputation to lower crime rates, saying kidnappings have come down 26 percent since 2009.

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Close to 300 students at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies – Mexico’s MIT – switched to campuses in Mexico City, as well as other calm spots like Guadalajara and Puebla, says Alberto Bustani Adem, outgoing rector of the Monterrey campus.

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“Many students have told me that they feel safe,” Mr. Bustani says. “But their parents…what they hear and see in the media, it worries them.”

Security make-over?

Mexico City’s government says it has avoided the worst of the violence thanks to a strong police presence, including over 70,000 beat cops.

Mexico’s highly centralized government converges in the capital city, where army, navy, and federal police headquarters help deter traffickers from engaging in street battles, said Miguel Angel Mancera, the city’s attorney general.

The capital also boasts a unified police force under one command. President Felipé Calderon has been pushing to bring such a model to states where scattered and underfunded municipal police are often outgunned by cartels and left vulnerable to bribes.

The city’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, told a crowd of police officer earlier this month that they must do all they can to keep drug violence from overrunning the capital.

Or a matter of geography?

But some security experts say the lack of mass murders and grenade attacks in Mexico City has more to do with geography than the police force, which is still grappling with corruption.

The landlocked city is nowhere near a border or a port, keeping Mexico City off the major drug routes, said Javier Oliva, security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. The cocaine smuggled through the capital’s international airport is insignificant compared to drugs flown into remote landing strips or shipped from secluded marijuana fields, he said.

The sheer number of residents also tends to mask the extent of the violence, analysts say. With the exception of Monterrey, the other major metropolitan areas in Mexico--Guadalajara and Puebla--are considered relatively safe.

Experts warn that isolated bloodshed – such as the murder of a family of five and a firefight that left six youths dead in the dicey Tepito neighborhood in October, could be signs of trouble ahead. And the greater metropolitan area surrounding Mexico City has been the site of brutal cartel murders and widespread protection rackets, where school teachers are forced to pay fines or risk attacks against their students.

For now, the newly paved streets of Mexico City’s historic center are crammed with holiday shoppers idling outside ice cream parlors and lining up at ATMs. Bars are full into the late hours. Back in Morelia, Maria Corinthia Alvarado, no longer goes out to clubs due to a self-imposed curfew.

“Unlike other places, we haven’t gotten to the point where we can no longer do what we want,” Mancera, Mexico City’s attorney general, said. “You can go to the movies any time you choose, even to a midnight show.”

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