Ask most Mexicans, and they'll tell you the only thing they fear more than the criminals running amok in many neighborhoods are the crime fighters themselves.
The mothers of the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Mexico City would count themselves among such Mexicans after six of their sons disappeared during a police raid early last month. Three of the young men were found the next day, having been shot at close range.
The others were found on a secluded hillside in southern Mexico City last week. Then on Thursday, 19 members of two elite, heavily armed police units were arrested in connection with the first three deaths. Authorities say it will take weeks to identify the others, but the mothers say they don't need so much time: The clothing they saw matches what their sons were wearing when they last saw them.
The Buenos Aires case focuses renewed attention on the crime wave striking Mexico City, and the increasingly violent and militaristic methods being employed by the police to combat it. What has many rights specialists worried is that the uproar over high crime is creating a climate for the trampling of basic civil rights.
Crime in Mexico has taken off since late 1994 with the country's devastating economic downturn. Three years later, drug-related violence, robberies, and carjackings are up and signs of police involvement in crime reach new and more chilling heights.
Last month, a professor and president of the national association of actuaries was killed as he tried to pay ransom to the kidnappers of his son. The kidnappers were allegedly a gang from the Attorney General's Office who recognized the plainclothes cops accompanying the ransom payer and started a shootout - leaving the father dead.
Mexico City averages more than 500 violent crimes each day, including five or six registered murders. The police themselves are frequent victims of the rising violence. Last week a sector commander of the much-feared Judicial Police was found dead in the trunk of a car.
Army replaces police
As one response to public concerns, the military has been called in. In May 1996, President Ernesto Zedillo sacked Mexico City's top cop and replaced him with an Army general, Enrique Salgado Cordero. In some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, soldiers have replaced civilian police.
But as the military has been drawn into the antidrug battle and law enforcement, it has also come under growing scrutiny for alleged involvement in cases of drug trafficking and for flagrant abuse of civil rights.
The city has witnessed a growing number of flashy, heavily armed police raids such as the one that shook the Buenos Aires neighborhood last month. Hundreds of police from elite squads called the "Jaguars" and the "Foxes" move in, kicking in doors, entering homes and businesses, and making arrests without warrants. In the case of Buenos Aires, the raid turned into a shootout that left one policeman dead.
Many citizens and rights groups contend innocent bystanders are swept up in the raids - as the Buenos Aires mothers insist in the case of their sons. One theory is that, in their fury over the killing of one of their comrades, the police retaliated by executing six young men scooped up in the raid.
In September, the police carried out 2,413 operations including the Buenos Aires raid, arresting more than 2,300 suspected criminals. General Salgado recently said the neighborhood operations would continue.
Mireille Roccatti, president of the National Human Rights Commission - a federal post appointed by the president - condemns the Buenos Aires-style police raids for "violating every sense of respect for the rule of law." Commenting on the raids during a public event last week, she said, "Someone who commits a crime, who robs or assaults as these young men had presumably been accused, should be subject to the penal process ... but never to an extrajudicial execution."
Some residents support the summary execution of suspected delinquents. Jorge Gonzlez, who recently moved out of Buenos Aires, says he doesn't believe the dead men were innocent bystanders. "I know that neighborhood. If you were out on the street, you were involved in something - drugs or car theft or robbing," he says, adding, "but of course your mama is going to say you were innocent."