When Lima policewoman Roselyne Zavaleta pulls over a motorist for a routine traffic violation, she often gets a routine response: The driver is ready with a small bribe in hand, an exchange for dropping the ticket.
But as the driver approaches and gets close enough to see her pearl earrings and lipstick, part of the women's required uniform, "They throw their hands up in the air and turn around to head back to their car," Ms. Zavaleta says. "They always say 'Oh forget it, it's a woman. I can't bribe you, you're all so honest," she reports with pride.
It is a perception also shared by the government. In an attempt to give a badly needed face lift to the corrupt image of Lima cops, President Alberto Fujimori recently announced that as of July 1999, Lima's traffic-police force will be 100 percent female. The policy is a first worldwide, according to the Chicago-based International Association of Women Police.
The reputation of the police force has been declining with increased media attention focused on corruption. Police say that out of a force of 3,000 traffic cops, three to four per month are fired on charges of corruption. No case yet has involved women.
Fifty-five percent of the Lima residents polled in May disapproved of the job police were doing, while 68.7 percent believed police corruption was on the rise.
Many believe the cause of the culture of bribery lies in police salaries. Officers make no more than $200 per month, far below the poverty level of $300 for a family of five. Traffic police have been known to step up traffic stops around the Christmas holidays, when gift-giving puts them under even greater financial pressure.
But the highest-ranking officers in the police have fixed their attention on another constant in the bribery equation: "Since women began working in the police 15 years ago, there have been no complaints against them," says Cmdr. Pedro Montoya, who trains women in the city's elite motorcycle corps. "We are not aware of any misconduct or dishonest acts among the women. Our best resource to show that the police are honest is our women," Commander Montoya says.
Many partly attribute policewomen's honesty to the fact that they do not have the same financial pressures as men. The women cops are often single or the second wage earner in a family. And since women are newer to the force, they may be more reluctant to risk their jobs.
Currently only 800 of the 3,000 traffic police are women. But for the first time this year, more women than men were accepted into the police academy. By July 1999, 1,500 women police should graduate. Women will also be transferred from other police posts to fill out the ranks.
The news has many women's groups smiling. Until now, women have mostly worked in administrative positions and with minors and domestic violence.
"The fact that women will be working in the streets directing traffic means that people are recognizing different qualities in women that weren't recognized before - that they are intelligent, that they are capable of doing the job, and that they are honest," says Lucia Acuna, who works for the Manuela Ramos Movement, a local women's rights group.
BUT others, like Eduardo Castillo, an expert in security issues at the Andean Commission of Jurists, a local human rights group, believes this plan is based on a "sexist" and "false" premise and is an attempt to find an easy way out of the corruption problem. "The most recommended response to corruption would be to establish stronger internal controls or execute a more complete police reform," says Mr. Castillo.
Ms. Acuna sees a broader aim. "We want this to be a process where women have the opportunity to advance to other posts, work in other areas, and not stagnate as traffic police," she says, noting that the an all-women's police station devoted to domestic violence control is still run by a man.
Whether women will rise in ranks and diversify duties remains to be seen. The police academy for women officers, a separate training program, has been in existence for only four years, graduating 70 women. None has advanced yet beyond the lowest officer rank.
In the short term, the women have their work cut out for them. Lima traffic is a free-for-all. But the women feel ready.
"The men had their chance," says Zavaleta, sitting astride one of the new Harley-Davidson motorcycles reserved for the most elite of the traffic police. "Now it's our turn."