'America's mayor' tries to clean up Mexico's crime

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is about to face what observers say is his biggest crime-fighting challenge yet: bringing law and order to a place where its disregard is a way of life.

Mr. Giuliani's consulting firm signed a $4.3 million contract with Mexico City earlier this month to advise local police on his acclaimed crime-fighting techniques.

Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policy has been credited for reducing New York City crime by 57 percent. Mayors are eagerly adopting similar policies in cities such as Baltimore and Los Angeles, and Giuliani's firm is talking with several European cities about consultation.

But as his team starts work tomorrow (Giuliani will fly in next month), the Giuliani vision will be tested for the first time in the developing world and in a city where the police, not just the criminals, can be the biggest obstacle to safe streets.

Giuliani argues that Mexico City and the Big Apple aren't so far apart when it comes to fighting crime. "There are differences ... but I'm not sure those differences are relevant to crime reduction," Mr. Giuliani said last week.

Mexico City residents disagree.

Take the case of Matt Blackburn, a journalist who moved from Idaho to Mexico City earlier this year. Within weeks, he was flying back home, stunned from two successive muggings. But Mr. Blackburn was assaulted by the cops, not the robbers. Policemen abducted him in their patrol car, he says, and robbed and dumped him in one of Mexico City's many slums.

Only 3 percent of Mexicans have confidence in the police. "The difference is, in the US, people aspire to be law-abiding citizens," says Mario Arroyo, a researcher at the International Center for Safety Studies in Mexico City. "Here in Mexico, respect goes to those who evade the law."

At red lights, cars edge forward seeking gaps in the traffic. Few people pay their taxes, giving Mexico one of the lowest collection rates in the world.

This lawlessness clashes with Giuliani's law-and-order gospel, which holds that the smallest disorder, such as a broken window, can stain society and lead to a downward spiral of antisocial behavior. Zero tolerance has police cracking down on graffiti and traffic violations.

Jose Antonio Ortega, secretary for crime issues at COPARMEX, an organization that represents businesses, takes an optimistic view. "If we can change our mentality to one of 'the perpetrator pays,' " he says, "that will be a huge gain for the country." Likewise, police chief Marcelo Ebrard says he wants to make crime "more expensive" for perpetrators.

Echoing Giuliani, Mr. Ortega argues that Mexico's worst menace today – its kidnappers – could have been stopped back when they were small-time crooks. Today, Mexico is second only to war-torn Colombia in number of kidnappings.

Zero tolerance also includes environmental actions like cleaning the city and creating venues where people feel safe after dark. A foundation led by billionaire Carlos Slim is cleaning up the decrepit historical city center, which becomes dark and crime-ridden at night.

But social trends in Mexico are not favorable. While Giuliani benefited from the Wall Street boom and an aging New York City population, Mexico's economy is struggling. And those under age 21 make up over half of the population.

Ortega has little patience for this "economic fatalism." He says crime can be defeated with a mix of cultural and organizational changes. For several years he has espoused Giuliani's policies as the key, especially to reforming the police department.

Ortega hopes Giuliani's advice will professionalize the management of the police department. "We need commitment, accountability, crime-fighting objectives, and an ongoing evaluation," he says. "What we have now is complete disorder."

Others go further, warning that unless the police department is revamped first, zero tolerance will only increase opportunities for crooked policemen to abuse and shake down citizens. "The police is the biggest offender," says Arroyo.

In changing the New York police, Commissioner William Bratton held his district heads accountable for their success in fighting crime, querying them regularly on performance. He relied heavily on statistics, using computers to analyze crime data and send forces where they were most needed.

The trouble in Mexico is that crime statistics are incomplete. Most crimes go unreported, because victims dread the hours of waiting and the endless paperwork involved. With little prospect of justice being done, only 7 percent of assault victims bother to report the crime to the police.

Still, even a flawed system of accountability could be crucial to free the Mexican police force from the grip of a tightly knit group of officers known as the "brotherhood."

It is this brotherhood which for the past 20 years has stood in the way of modern crime fighting. It controls most of the department's operations and takes a cut of policemen's bribes.

Ordinary policemen spend up to $40 a week on various favors that are controlled by the brotherhood. They pay to avoid dangerous assignments and bear expenses for uniforms, weapons, vehicle repairs, and even for official paperwork.

"If I don't pay, they'll still give me a uniform," explains "Chris," a motorcycle agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But it'll be two sizes too small."

With an income of just $280 per month, agents seek bribes to supplement their pay. Chris says with an embarrassed grin that he reaches $1,000 per month.

Whereas Giuliani was able to release many older, possibly corrupt officers, Mexican regulations require proof of violations. But a system of performance-based promotions could do the same job, albeit more slowly.

Giuliani will most likely recommend a salary raise, and improved recruitment, and training practices. Currently, entry requirements are flimsy, attracting recruits with no more than primary education. "The police is seen as the profession of last resort," says Carlos Tornero, police chief in the town of Queretaro.

"When I walk down the street, people swear or make jokes about me," says Chris. Raising salaries would send a message that policemen are valued, regaining respect and attracting better recruits.

Better education is another necessity. During his police academy training, Chris didn't even learn how to shoot. In a recent, highly publicized retraining of his motorcycle unit, "all we did was play football for four months," he says.

"The higher officers don't want better-trained subordinates, because they're harder to abuse," he says.

It would be impossible to apply zero tolerance overnight, but Mr. Ebrard has already started little by little. His policemen now enforce traffic rules on the main thoroughfare of Insurgentes – no small feat in Mexico City. The program has reduced traffic jams, and some hope it could show people the benefits of driving by the rules.

Ortega defies the naysayers who say it can't be done.

"Either we make a drastic change," he says. "or else we're fried."

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