Mexico City's Battle to Beat Crime

Mayor-turned-consultant Rudy Giuliani urges the zero-tolerance model he used to clean up New York, but that prescription may defy translation

By Geri Smith

Perhaps former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani truly believes that, as the song goes, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." His "zero tolerance" crime-busting program certainly worked wonders for the Big Apple. But Giuliani's policies face their sternest test yet in the Big Enchilada -- Mexico City.

On Aug. 7, Giuliani Partners, the consulting firm he formed after leaving Gracie Mansion, delivered an ambitious, 146-point plan to Mexico City Police Chief Marcelo Ebrard that calls for a top-to-bottom revamping of the city's police force, long plagued by charges of poor training, low pay, and corruption.

The plan proposes the creation of a sophisticated crime database, similar to the one Giuliani created in Gotham, to pinpoint crime hotspots and measure police performance. And it calls for Mexican officials to clamp down on the small armies of windshield-washers, parked-car-watchers, and street urchins that are ubiquitous in this sprawling city of 8.5 million.


  For the nine-month study, Giuliani Partners received a tidy sum of $4.3 million, paid by wealthy Mexican businesspeople fed up with the city's chronic crime. "We think we can reduce the rates of serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and kidnapping by 10% a year," says Ebrard. But the total cost to implement the plan could reach an estimated $60 million over the next three years, he cautions.

Then again, any reduction in crime would be welcomed by all the city's beleaguered citizens. According to polls, 62% of the residents in Mexico's capital say they have been crime victims at least once, and two-thirds of assaults involved handguns, according to the police.

Actually, there are about the same number of homicides per capita in Mexico City as in New York City, and the number of reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants is just one-tenth the number reported in Washington, D.C.

The real problem may be that people are almost as afraid of reporting crimes to the cops as they are of encountering criminals on the streets. "The reason Mexico City feels like such a dangerous place is because, if something happens to you, you don't feel you can turn to the police for help," says criminologist Rafael Ruiz Harrell. "People feel defenseless, unprotected."


  Even Ebrard acknowledges his police force faces an uphill battle. "This is going to be a very tough fight against corruption," he said when unveiling the Giuliani plan. One of Giuliani's proposals calls for raising the average police officer's pay from about $700 to $1,100 a month and throwing in the uniforms for free. That's a good start.

Giuliani's call for beat cops to be deputized as detectives who can investigate crimes -- another idea he implemented in New York -- is probably a non-starter, however. It clashes with Mexico's constitution, which follows the French system of separating maintenance of public order from investigation and prosecution, rather than the Scotland Yard model of law enforcement that is followed in the U.S.

Besides, it's difficult to imagine that Mexicans, who already distrust the police, would accept the notion that the same officers should don plainclothes and conduct investigations. Says Ruiz Harrell: "It would just increase the possibility of corruption."

Still, any start toward addressing long-standing crime problems in Mexico City is a good sign. Only 7% of reported crimes are ever resolved, vs. 17% to 24% of crimes in the U.S., according to Ruiz Harrell. Part of the reason: Police are poorly trained to preserve crime scenes, interrogate witnesses, and hunt down leads.


  Some link the low incidence of crime-resolution in Mexico City with a rise in truly audacious behavior by criminals. So-called "express kidnapping" started in Mexico City and is now spreading to other Latin American capitals and some U.S. cities. Thieves will stake out a traffic light or stop sign. When a car or taxi stops, a couple of armed men will jump in the vehicle. The victim will be roughed up and driven around to a series of banks to withdraw money from ATM machines. If they're lucky, they'll be dumped out with a few scrapes and bruises. Women are sometimes raped.

Even passengers aboard public transportation have been subjected to such assaults: In recent weeks, thugs have boarded Mexico City buses and ordered the driver to leave the route. Then, passengers were relieved of their wallets and watches. Some victims were also forced to empty their bank accounts at ATM machines.

To thwart such attacks, Ebrard on Aug. 13 started placing panic buttons on city buses that are connected to a GPS (global positioning system) satellite. If an assault occurs, police squad cars should be able to respond within four minutes, he promises.

Wealthier citizens who drive their own cars face additional dangers and indignities: After commandeering the car and demanding the ATM withdrawal, thugs will call the victim's relatives and demand ransoms of as much as $10,000, sometimes holding the victim for days.


  That's why foreign companies posting employees in Mexico City provide heavy security. For example, a major international bank expanding its Mexico operations recently bought a half-dozen armored vehicles for its top executives, who were ordered to live in guarded compounds.

Some think that approach is overkill. "This isn't a war zone," says security consultant and former U.S. State Dept. official Jon French, of IPSA International, a San Francisco-based global provider of risk-reduction services. "By practicing prudent security measures, you can survive living or visiting here without a problem."

One prudent measure is staying off the streets as much as possible: that's why the posh Four Seasons Hotel is helping to fund construction of an underground tunnel that will connect the hotel to the newly inaugurated, 55-story luxury Torre Mayor office building built by Canadian real estate mogul Paul Reichmann across the city's main thoroughfare, Paseo de la Reforma.


  Probably the most controversial part of Giuliani's recommendations involve the elimination of the armies of squeegee men and street urchins that are as much a part of the Mexico City landscape as the smoke-belching buses and the corner taco stands. A poll published in Reforma newspaper on Aug. 14 indicates that 92% of Mexicans support the idea of putting all street children into city-run homes -- even though many of the children work side-by-side with their parents selling such things as chewing gum. And 70% support the idea of getting rid of the professional windshield-wipers and those who offer to watch your parked car for money.

Trouble is, more than half of Mexico's working-age population is underemployed, so eking out meager livings by doing odd jobs is part of the social fabric. Giovanni Javier Bret Cruz, 15, helps his two uncles watch parked cars outside the Social Security Administration building. Armed with just an elementary school education, he earns 150 pesos, around $15 a day.

That's about three times the Mexican minimum wage. Not bad for an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.job. His uncles had to pay a city employee 400 pesos ($40) for a working "permit," and they must also give the local street cop 50 pesos ($5) a day and the police tow-truck driver 100 pesos ($10) a day to turn a blind eye to illegally parked cars, Giovanni claims. "I've heard the government wants to get rid of us, but I doubt they can get rid of more than one-fourth of us."


  For two squeegee men, both high school graduates, the work they do on a street corner in a working class Mexico City neighborhood is the only honest way to make a peso. Ernesto Gamboa, 26, the father of a small child, spends 10 hours a day washing windshields and takes home about 130 pesos ($13) a day. It's tough work, but it beats the alternative. "They should go after the guys who steal," he says. "We prefer to earn our money honestly, and we ask people nicely if they want their windshield washed -- we don't insist. It's hard standing out here all day in the sun, the rain, the heat, the cold, thirsty, hungry."

His buddy, Juan Carlos Ramirez, 23, says he didn't believe it when a cop told him this week that the city was going to eliminate the army of windshield washers. "All I can say is, if they try to do that, it will just increase the corruption -- the cops will ask for more money to let fewer of us work. And those who can't work will probably just start stealing."

Nobody said beating crime in Mexico City would be easy. Giuliani might thank his lucky stars that his contract just called for a game plan -- not implementation. That task falls to Ebrard, who has been in office for 18 months and is said to harbor ambitions to become Mexico City's next mayor, in 2006.

What Ebrard probably needs more than anything else is money, to lift his cops' pay and train them to do a better job. On that score, the Giuliani report should serve him well. "It gives a seal of Good Housekeeping to the kind of costly initiatives that Ebrard wants to take," says security consultant French. "Having Giuliani's imprimatur should be helpful in prying loose the required funds from the city and the federal government." And that could put Mexico City in more of a New York state of mind.

Smith is Mexico City bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Rebeca Frangos in Mexico City also contributed to this story

Edited by Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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