Mexico's New Kind Of Rainy Season

The State's few umbrellas have giant holes

IFIRST visited Mexico City in the fall of 1968, at the tail end of the rainy season. The weather was predictable: Each morning had sunny blue skies, the dark clouds rolled in at about 4 in the afternoon, and a torrential rain started around 5 and lasted an hour or so. It poured so hard, no one even bothered to carry an umbrella. Everyone just went indoors. There was certainty.

In Mexico we have only two seasons, rainy and dry. It's rainy now, but no longer with a schedule. Some say it's the pollution. Since the timing is off, people never know when they'll be caught. Umbrellas are now essential.

Unfortunately, umbrellas aren't the only protection Mexicans need right now. Last week, we learned definitively what we all suspected - that the Federal Judicial Police (PJF), the Mexican FBI, can't be trusted.

There was a big bust in the country's second-largest city, Guadalajara. The private plane of Mexico's most violent drug lord had crashed; he was injured and in hiding. The authorities knew where, and normally the PJF would handle the capture. There was just one small problem: The hideout was the home of the top PJF official in Guadalajara! Mexico's attorney general, who's not a member of the ruling political party, called out the Army and arrested the narco, his host, and 32 other members of that supposedly elite police force. Later, the attorney general indicated that up to 90 percent of the PJF in the northern states will have to be purged for their corrupt dealings with the drug trade.

YES, police protection is a cruel joke in Mexico. A couple of months ago, President Ernesto Zedillo's son was the subject of a typical kidnapping attempt. By whom? Local cops, of course, who were caught red-handed by the young man's bodyguards. Few potential victims have the luxury of bodyguards in a trailing car, and most kidnappings are settled quickly, privately, and expensively with no publicity.

Some Americans living in Mexico actually like the petty police corruption they encounter. It's much easier, they say, to pay 50 pesos (about $6) to a cop after a traffic violation than to go through the usual bureaucracy of paying a ticket. And, of course, since the offending officers' salaries are never equal to a living wage, society has accepted the practice.

What isn't generally realized is that these small dishonesties lead to larger violations, especially since the chiefs want their cut.

In the Mexican police business, protection seems a secondary consideration. Is the national Army, however, the proper entity to provide a local umbrella of public safety? Isn't Mexico now a partner, a peer, of the United States and Canada - and supposedly beyond the banana republic stage?

There are other umbrellas missing, too. Ones that Americans usually take for granted, like official safety nets.

There is no welfare in Mexico. Nor is there government unemployment insurance. By law, severance pay is a generous three month's salary, but it doesn't apply if a business goes under - as has happened to approximately half of Mexico's 2 million small businesses in the first five months of this year.

Traditionally, Mexican society has been static. People don't move around much. Families stay together, and that's been the safety net. With an extended family, if four or five out of 20 work, there are enough beans to go around. But not if the tortilla-winners lose their jobs, as an estimated 1.5 million will this year.

When Mexico was quick to embrace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the social consequences, including social mobility, were overlooked. When the extended family breaks up, as it usually does in industrialized countries, the present safety net will vanish, too.

When that happens, stability - law and order - will be threatened. Long-term solutions, like a decent education for all, are needed. But in the meantime, alternate safety nets and reliable police protection should be priorities.

With both the rainy season and the economic crisis, Mexicans need all the umbrellas they can get. When it rains, it pours.

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