Mexico’s Bright Light

Even as the country around it sinks into a morass of drug-fueled crime, Mexico City has remained surprisingly safe.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Let’s say you’ve just been burgled in Mexico City. These days, you’d be wise to call the "Citizens Council for Public Security and the Prosecution of Justice in the Federal District." Located in a modest colonial-style building downtown, the Citizens Council will dispatch a legal expert to your home. He or she will file the crime report on the spot, using a laptop connected by teleconference with the prosecutor’s office, at no cost to you. As a result, the authorities know that you have an influential middleman on your side. And you avoid a trip to the prosecutor’s office, sparing you wasted hours begging for attention, shakedowns for bribes, and possibly even charges that you committed a crime yourself — common hassles that render most crimes in Mexico unreported.

The Citizens Council initiative sprang from the chaos that existed in the late 1990s, when the Mexican capital was known as the nation’s criminal epicenter. Mexico City was infamous for ransom, murder, and "express kidnappings" in which cabbies and accomplices hijacked clients and drained their ATMs. "It was ungovernable," says Fernando Schutte, a real estate executive who led a movement against crime that helped create the council.

Yet over the past decade, even as the country around it has descended into drug-fueled bloodshed, Mexico City has transformed itself into an unlikely crime-fighting success story. And what’s more, that achievement has come amid a transition to democracy — a process that has often been accompanied by a rise in lawlessness in many other parts of the world. It was just 12 years ago that Mexico, a historically divided and restive country, ended 71 years of one-party rule sustained by rigged elections and brutal repression. In the years since then, Mexicans have watched rival mafias capitalize on weak domestic institutions as they fight each other and prey on the innocent for access to the booming U.S. drug market. Some 50,000 citizens have lost their lives in the resulting violence.

But Mexico City has managed to escape the carnage. According to the United Nations, the capital’s murder rate in 2009 was 8.4 homicides per 100,000 residents (approaching New York’s 5.6). That contrasts starkly with a national rate of 14.6 nationwide the same year; last year that figure soared to 19.4. From 2002 to 2011, the capital’s murder rate increased by a mere 2 percent; nationwide it was up about 47 percent over the same period, according to government figures. Where 163 cars were stolen daily in Mexico City in 1998, police say, 53 are stolen today. There’s a feeling of comparative safety in the capital. "It’s relative, but it’s real," says Pablo Piccato, director of Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies, who researches the history of crime in Mexico City. People and businesses now move there from areas dominated by violent gangs. Once-ubiquitous pirate taxis were impounded and you can now hail a cab off the street. People use their iPads on the crowded subways.

The capital has achieved its success through a mix of creative coping strategies (like the privately funded Citizens Council) and political will. Unlike many other parts of the country, Mexico City has made a point of collecting taxes and investing the money in public safety. Unlike puny local security forces around the country, Mexico City has muscle. The city of 8.8 million people has three times more police — about 1,061 cops per 100,000 population — than the national average, according to watchdog group Mexico Evalua. You see them on foot, motorcycles, bicycles, or in cars every few minutes. Around 11,600 security cameras have been installed in the last few years. Court procedures now allow video evidence, reducing the need for witnesses, who can be scared off by crooks. The city has written procedures for police to follow, like how to arrest or use handcuffs, which are lacking in many municipalities. It has trained law enforcement staff to collect and analyze crime stats, which were an afterthought in the past, and made commanders answer for them.

The city’s use of breathalyzers, which experts say have curbed drunk driving, typifies its aptitude for pragmatic, if not ideal, solutions. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s consulting firm, hired by business leaders, recommended that all police carry them. Local city officials knew that that would be too expensive – and also that the devices could be manipulated by cops to extract graft from innocents. So they deploy them specifically at organized checkpoints with a doctor and human rights monitor on hand to verify the results. It’s not as good as having one in every squad car, operated by honest cops, but it helps.

The focus now is on building trust in the police who, as in so many countries, served in the past mainly to protect elites from the people, and often bent the law accordingly. In police headquarters, amid screens showing incoming reports and video of key intersections, Mexico City’s Undersecretary for Intelligence and Information Pedro Ibarra describes how cops started patrolling beats of just a few city blocks last year instead of the much wider areas they roamed before. The cops went door to door, giving residents the photos and cell phone numbers of district police chiefs. The program, says Ibarra, cuts reaction times, enables better analysis of trends, and reaps intelligence. He says police making their introductions recently encountered a baker who immediately complained about a local protection racket — a scourge in much of Mexico. Police arrested the extortionists when they came to collect.

The private sector, meanwhile, has helped to refurbish streets, businesses, and housing in the once-frightening historic downtown, a focal point for people from around the city. A series of mayors, including incumbent Marcelo Ebrard (who hosted the Giuliani mission when he was security chief in a previous administration), have stressed the "recuperation of public spaces" by improving parks and other meeting areas to foster a sense of security. Mexico City also benefits from having a better welfare safety net than in other cities.

There are shortfalls obvious to any resident. The police emphasis is on preventing disruptive violence while other crime is tolerated or even abetted, like the drug sales at subway stops, ubiquitous black markets in counterfeit goods, and even the self-appointed attendants who control curbside parking for obligatory tips. "Crime is fought, but also managed," concedes Edna Jaime, Mexico Evalua general director. Police settle traffic infractions with streetside bribes. At other times they do nothing. "The thieves steal and the police are right next to them," fumes Victor Gomez, a clothes vendor in a working class neighborhood. Three cruisers were nearby but he said he wouldn’t bother calling police and didn’t when he received a common "extortion" call from people threatening his family. He just hung up.

Like many other places struggling in the wake of dictatorship, the rule of law remains weak. Mexico Evalua says the capital has twice as many prisoners awaiting trial and three times the number of reported rights abuses as the national average. (Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have both recently faulted human rights abuse on the national level.) People pay bribes to get out of jail even when they have completed their sentences. It’s hardly encouraging that, according Gustavo Fondevila, a justice specialist at the capital’s CIDE research institute, the use of torture to extract confessions has gone from "systematic" a decade ago to "sporadic" now. Last year police were videoed holding a suspect’s head under water.

The authorities allow scant transparency. Unlike in the United States, home of Miranda Rights, judges rarely review police actions. "There’s practically no jurisprudence," Fondevila says. Police cliques, he says, divide up graft and "mafias," in a prosecutor’s office infamous for abuse still confound reform efforts. But new investigators, brought in under tighter screening, often blow the whistle on what they see. Fondevila recommends broad purges. Others recommend outside inspectors with powers to cleanse the force. A grim reminder came this week amid reports that three federal police were shot and killed in the capital’s airport while trying to apprehend fellow police suspected of ties to narcos.

The city clearly needs better cops. A couple years ago the city required police to have high school diplomas, but some 14,000 still don’t. Again, that compares favorably with the dreadful picture around the country, where studies a few years ago showed that 70 percent of the country’s local police had less than an 8th-grade education.

Yet despite all this Mexico City has managed to hold off the wave of massacre and mutilation afflicting much of Mexico. One theory holds that there’s little incentive for gangsters to inflame the capital because it’s not on strategic trafficking routes along the coasts or the U.S. border. That calculation could change. But experts say the criminals know too that they would pay a price for upsetting the capital’s normalcy because of the concentration of law enforcement. And that has helped the capital to become a model, however imperfect, as the country weathers a perilous time.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola