Bang! Bang! Welcome To Mexico

As the income gap widens, a crime wave spreads

Riding to work in his bulletproof Mercedes-Benz, Antonio Gutierrez Cortina was cut off by three cars in a narrow street near his house in southern Mexico City. Armed men jumped out and yelled at the wealthy financier to get out. As his chauffeur tried to maneuver the Mercedes out of the trap, 11 shots fired by the would-be kidnappers bounced off the car's armor. Gutierrez Cortina and his driver escaped unharmed, and the police gave chase to the kidnappers, who fled.

The close escape last month astounded even the jaded residents of the Mexican capital, now resigned to living with levels of crime unthinkable just two years ago. Crime has emerged as one of the city's most important issues in the runup to next year's mayoral elections, the first ever in a city governed by Presidential appointees up to now. Already, the opposition National Action Party (PAN) is erecting billboards promising "Security in 1997," while charging President Ernesto Zedillo's government with ignoring the root causes of crime.

Along with the sharp rise in everything from muggings to delivery-truck hijackings comes a chilling new round of drug-related violence. Two top Tijuana law enforcement officials were found murdered in Mexico City within one week last month. One had been tortured, in what likely was a message from brutal cartels based on the U.S. border. Recent lynchings of suspected murderers in the countryside suggest that peasants are even more desperate than city residents about crime.

TRICKLE DOWN. In the capital, where a recent poll found that half of all households had been victims of crimes, the government has responded by reorganizing its police force. In June, President Zedillo put Army General Enrique Salgado Cordero in charge of Mexico City's law enforcement. Salgado promptly filled the top slots with other military men and assigned thousands of cops to walk and cycle the city streets.

But until Mexico's nascent economic recovery begins to trickle down, there seems to be little prospect for much improvement in crime rates. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, while criminals grow increasingly bold. Teenagers board buses and rob the passengers. Criminals driving stolen taxis hijack people who hail them, forcing the victims to withdraw cash at automated teller machines.

Such desperate crimes are changing the habits of wealthy Mexicans. They are barricading themselves in high-walled compounds and hiring former policemen to stand guard. Private patrol cars cruise Mexico City's hilly western suburbs, where high-voltage wires grace the garden walls of even modest houses. Bodyguards trail the sons and daughters of the country's megarich during Saturday nights out. Some Mexican billionaires travel by helicopter to work.

Fearful of kidnapping, many businesspeople are buying armored cars. Those who had been wavering were convinced by the foiled Gutierrez Cortina abduction attempt, says Enrique Palomo, owner of Executive Armoring Corp. in San Antonio, Tex., who sold Gutierrez his 1992 Mercedes 300E. He sells about 100 armored cars a year in Mexico. Spotting a niche, BMW has begun installing armor in its 328 model at its plant in Lerma, Mexico. The sporty car goes for just under $100,000. BMW also offers customers a defensive driving course.

SAFEST RESTAURANTS. Until recently, foreign executives working in Mexico faced little risk of kidnapping. The typical target, in a country where at least 1,000 kidnappings occur each year, is still a prominent provincial businessperson or rancher. But the August abduction in Tijuana of a Sanyo Electric Co. executive, released after the company paid a $2 million ransom, prompted many multinationals to reassess security for their top officers. To assist these companies, Vance International, a company in Oakton, Va., takes charge of a visiting executive at the Mexico City airport, chauffeurs him in an armored car, and plans his trip, choosing the safest restaurants and the most discreet hotel exits.

Kidnapping and other crimes show no sign of abating anytime soon. That's as worrisome to politicians as it is to every victim of the wave of lawlessness--from businessmen such as Gutierrez Cortina to the maid walking to the bus stop with a week's pay in her pocket.

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