TOPICS > Politics

Taming Mexico City

January 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLES KRAUSE: When Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was sworn in a year ago as Mexico City’s mayor, it was an important milestone in Mexico’s political history. Not only was Cardenas the city’s first elected mayor, he also became the odds-on favorite to become Mexico’s first opposition party president in the year 2000. But one year later, those odds have been sharply reduced, diminished by the overwhelming problems Cardenas has faced attempting to govern Mexico’s huge and unruly capital. Ricardo Pascoe is on the front lines. He’s one of Mexico City’s deputy mayors and also a Cardenas ally who says the growing perception that Cardenas has been ineffective is unfair.

RICARDO PASCOE: People awaken after the long night of an authoritarian rule to the day of democratic rule, and suddenly we discovered that it is difficult to democratize a city. It’s difficult to build and fortify a culture of political participation in a democratic culture at the same time that we’re trying to solve excruciating urban problems.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The city that Cardenas inherited is larger than any city in the United States. Indeed, with a population estimated at more than 20 million, it’s one of the largest urban centers in the world. What was once a beautiful colonial city has in many ways become an urban nightmare. The city’s air is so polluted, it’s unfit to breathe. Mexico City’s streets are so choked with traffic, they’re virtually impassable. and millions of Mexico city’s poor live in vast slums, often without sewage and running water.

But, without question, the city’s most serious problem is the general breakdown of law and order: Assaults, bank robberies, car-jackings, taxi-jackings, kidnappings — and policemen on the take –make living here, and traveling from one part of the city to another an often dangerous and terrifying experience.

Cardenas won last year’s election by promising to clean up the city. Rampant street crime and police corruption, he said, would be at the top of the list. But one year later, instead of getting better, crime seems to be getting worse, and increasingly Mexico City’s residents blame their new mayor. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, demanding increased security, while opinion polls show that fully 55 percent of those polled now disapprove of the way Cardenas is running the city. Aware that his own future as a presidential candidate is at stake, Cardenas now says that crime is not only the city’s biggest problem, it’s also his own biggest political challenge.

CUAUHTEMOC CARDENAS: This administration will be measured, will be evaluated, on its results on–on our fighting of crime.

CHARLES KRAUSE: You recognize that, that, that this –

CUAUHTEMOC CARDENAS: I recognize that, and we — I am very well aware that people is expecting that we get results.

CHARLES KRAUSE: There are no good crime statistics in Mexico City. But there’s general agreement that serious crime has at least doubled over the past three to four years. Indeed, crime has become so much a part of daily life that one recent poll found that an alarming 18 per cent of the city’s residents have been the victim of a crime in the last three months alone. Today, no one — not even Mayor Cardenas — disputes the awful fear that accompanies most of the city’s law-abiding citizens when they venture onto the city’s streets.

SERGIO SARMINENTO: I have been kidnapped once and I’ve been held up twice over the past, ever since 1995, in three years, three and a half years time.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Sergio Sarminento is one of Mexico’s leading political analysts, a newspaper columnist with his own nationally televised interview program that makes him well-known, and well-respected, throughout Mexico. Yet that did not stop five armed men from surrounding his car at a stoplight, kidnapping him, then holding him prisoner until they received a $50,000 ransom. The worst part, he says, was not losing the money. It was being held captive in the trunk of his car for nearly 48 hours.

SERGIO SARMIENTO: There were times that I felt that I really had to get out of there; I was getting desperate. I felt that I couldn’t breathe. And I felt that I didn’t really care anymore if I, you know, if I was shot. I just had to get out of the trunk of the car. And every time I thought about it, I thought of my children. I had one child of three years and another one of six — two boys. And then I started to think, come on Sergio, just because you can’t stay in the trunk of a car for a couple of hours, you’re going to get yourself killed. What’s going to happen when your children grow up and when they have their first girlfriends? And aren’t you going to be there to talk to them when someone offers them drugs for the first time? Aren’t you going to be there for them just because you couldn’t stay in the trunk of the car for a few hours. So I managed to survive. Not everyone has, I have friends who have been killed. I have a friend who was raped. And that’s when you really begin to feel that this crime wave is really putting tremendous pressure on everyone.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Terrified that what happened to Sarmiento could happen to them, many wealthy Mexicans now buy protection in the form of bodyguards and armored cars. Most of the cars are imported, then taken apart and armored in Mexico at an average cost of $50,000 apiece. At the Kroll-O’Gara Factory, business is booming. Manager Dan Bell says that over the past three years, his sales have increased 400 percent.

DAN BELL: In Mexico City there are more than 20 armoring companies. Anyone that manufactures armored vehicles in the world either has a production facility in Mexico or else they have a sales agent. So this is probably the most competitive armoring market in the world.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But armored cars are generally of little use unless their drivers are trained to react quickly in threatening situations. So, Pete Palmer has been able to build a thriving business providing just that kind of training. A former U.S. Government official in Mexico, he heads his own security firm called Problem Solvers and keeps an extensive database of what criminal statistics do exist.

PETE PALMER: We’re talking about 15 million and a half assaults a year here in Mexico City. The numbers are enormous. So, it’s everywhere. When we talk to a group of Mexicans, I always ask them how many people have been assaulted. Roughly 40 to 50 percent raise their hands. How many have an intimate friend or relative who’s been assaulted? Essentially, 100 percent.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The crime wave affects not just Mexicans, but also foreigners who live and work in Mexico City and tourists. Indeed, the situation has become so bad that the U.S. Embassy here warns Americans never to take street taxis and also to be careful near ATM machines. Still, an American businessman was killed not long ago, and any number of savvy Americans who live in Mexico City have been robbed.

CHARLES KRAUSE: You came out of this doorway –

SAM QUINONES: I came out of this doorway, was having a dinner with some friends about that. A friend of mine was ahead of me. She held a cab right here.

CHARLES KRAUSE: American free-lance journalist Sam Quinones and his girlfriend were the victims in a taxi-jacking in the very heart of Mexico City.

SAM QUINONES: Then suddenly boom, two guys jump in on top of his. One’s armed with an ice pick about that long – about ten, twelve inches long. Another guy has a screw driver, and they kept on hitting me because they wanted me to tell them what my automatic teller number was, so I told them I don’t know the number and then there was silence, and then again they attacked me again several times – the guy in front of me, who was in the well of the Volkswagen, was hitting me with the handle of the screw driver from over my left eye.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Taxi-jackings have now become so common that few Americans—or Mexicans—feel safe taking a street taxi at night. According to experts, there are many different factors that explain the breakdown of law and order. Some blame Mexico’s powerful drug Mafia for creating a climate of lawlessness and violence that’s now infected the whole society. Others say it’s the juxtaposition of great wealth and great poverty in Mexico City and the desperation of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished city residents thrown out of work during the peso crisis of 1994-95. Still others say that as in Russia, the breakdown of one-party rule in Mexico has led to more freedom but also more crime and a breakdown of day to day authority and control. The debate is at times heated. Still, there’s one factor that virtually everyone agrees is fundamental.

ADOLFO AGUILAR ZINSER: You’ve got a lot of crimes committed straightforward by the police. They moonlight. In the morning, they’re a policeman. In the afternoon, they’re crooks.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, one of Mexico’s leading political scientists and a member of the Mexican senate, says the police in Mexico have been corrupt for decades.

ADOLFO AGUILAR ZINSER: And nobody did anything. So when the government starts to reduce the size, when wages for the police go down, when pressures within the police increase, then you have the policemen having to compensate more of their income with what they do in the moonlighting at night, robbing the people in the street, than what they do protecting people. So police corruption has skyrocketed.

CHARLES KRAUSE: In fact, most crimes in Mexico City go unreported because it’s generally assumed by average citizens victimized by crime that the police are either involved in the crime itself or providing protection for the criminals. According to Rafael Ruiz Harrel, Mexico’s leading criminologist, Mexico’s judges — and the whole judicial system — are also corrupt. So he says the odds that a criminal will be punished are extremely low, even in the unlikely event that he or she is caught.

RAFAEL RUIZ HARREL: Suppose you are betting on the lottery and it’s a lottery that has only 100 tickets, no more, and 97 of those tickets say “you win” and only three out of 100 say “you lose.” Who will not bet in that lottery? That is the game we are in. If you commit a crime you have 97 percent of possibilities that you will not be caught, and only 3 percent of possibilities that you will be caught. So it’s a very good game.

CHARLES KRAUSE: In an effort to show that he’s genuinely concerned about the issue, Cardenas has staged several well-publicized round-ups of allegedly corrupt policemen, most recently in November. He’s also appointed Alejandro Gertz, a well-respected lawyer, as Mexico city’s new director of public safety. Gertz said 91,000 police officers under his command, a force which he’s proud to point out is larger than the Canadian army. Faced with an almost insurmountable task, he says he’s decided to make robbery his top priority.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you have enough men to deal with the problem?

ALEJANDRO GERTZ: Of course, if they work, and if they are honest.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you have the resources to make them work and to keep them honest?

ALEJANDRO GERTZ: That’s — that’s my job, I have to do that, and I have to do it immediately.

CHARLES KRAUSE: As an attorney, as a lawyer, as someone who lives in this city, do you feel, yourself, secure?

ALEJANDRO GERTZ: Of course not, that’s the reason I’m here, to do something.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Have you ever been a victim of a crime, yourself?

ALEJANDRO GERTZ: Well, my family, in the university, work, everywhere.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Despite the many obstacles, Cardenas says he believes the war against crime can be won and the perception that he’s been a weak mayor — and would be a weak president — will be turned around.

CARDENAS: I think that we will be having results with these measures we are applying right now. We will–we have improved equipment, we have improved our methods of work in the police forces, and well, we are also working on other areas of the city. I mean, we are working in public works, we are improving the services, we are extending water services to those parts of the city where these services are insufficient. We have a good relationship with the population in the city, and I think that people is now, seeing that this government is working in important things.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Still, there are said to be factions within Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, that have no interest is allowing Cardenas to succeed. Authoritarian and traditionally corrupt, the PRI has governed Mexico for most of this century. Cardenas broke with the PRI a decade ago, formed his own political party and has since then run for president twice — once in 1988 and again in 1994. Cardenas is expected to run again next year, and as a result, many political observers like Sergio Sarmiento say the fight for law and order in Mexico City has become mired in presidential politics.

SERGIO SARMIENTO: There are people who benefit from the crime, the crime wave in the sense that they can always point fingers at their political enemies and say you haven’t been able to solve this problem. And I wish the political parties, the political groups, would get it together and would realize that this issue has no, should have no political boundaries, that we should all do something. But the point is that the fact that we are in a very, in the midst of a very difficult political and economic transition has made it far more difficult to solve the problem.

CHARLES KRAUSE: For Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, for Mexico City and for Mexico itself, the coming year will be critical — not only for the fight against crime but also for the political direction and future of the country.