MEXICO CITY — Thousands of Mexico City residents from every social class and political persuasion marched in silence through the capital Saturday to protest the soaring crime and corruption that have generated a climate of helplessness and impunity.
In a country where demonstrations have normally been the tools of political parties, the march studiously avoided any political message--except to send a warning to all the parties through the march slogan: "Ya Basta!" ("Enough's Enough!")
The organizers, explaining the marchers' silence, said they wanted to avoid any political rhetoric and rather let the sheer presence of so many citizens send the message.
The throng of marchers, estimated by organizers at between 10,000 and 20,000, streamed along a 3-mile-long route that ended at the Zocalo, Mexico City's vast central square. The protest had a disproportionately high turnout of well-dressed middle- and upper-class marchers, and some chatted on cellular phones as they walked.
Once at the Zocalo, the marchers dispersed without hearing a single speech. The only public presentation was a taped version of a letter to President Ernesto Zedillo from the 100 civic groups that had organized the march demanding better policing, enforcement of existing laws and harsher punishment of criminals.
Crime levels have risen steadily over the past decade, particularly since the economic crisis of 1994-95. Reported crimes jumped 36% in 1995 and an additional 14% in 1996. Despite recent public statements that crime in Mexico City has stopped increasing, public fears of violent crime remain at a fever pitch.
The march came just a week before the inauguration of Mexico City's first elected mayor, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who has declared that reducing crime will be his priority.
Cardenas is the leader of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and is widely seen as the likely presidential candidate in 2000, when his party hopes to unseat the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has dominated Mexican politics since 1929.
One banner declared: "Cuauh: Don't be tempted--No pity for the criminals; get them."
Sergio Aguayo, leader of the Civic Alliance activist group, said the march was a spontaneous response by community organizations to popular anger over crime levels.
"What's important is the diversity of the people here--people who normally wouldn't demonstrate," he said. "Public life has been controlled by the government and its party, and civil society has not demonstrated very often. This is only the second time that such a broad cross-section has come together like this. The first was the peace march of January 1994."
In that march, tens of thousands demonstrated for a peaceful negotiated solution to the Zapatista rebel uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. Two days later, the government agreed to a cease-fire.
Jose Antonio Rodriguez, 68, came on his own Saturday and walked haltingly with a cane. He said he wanted to take part because "last week they killed a friend of mine who was a bus driver. To take from him a few pesos, they shot him four times. We buried him last Sunday.
"All of Mexico is totally fed up with the corrupt authorities who, instead of protecting the people, protect the criminals." He recalled that he was assaulted and his car was stolen in 1991 and that he had to pay bribes to several policemen to get it back.
Maria Eugenia Lopez Brun, marching with the Women for Democracy organization, said: "It is not only the popular classes but also the middle and upper classes who have been so ravaged by crime. Each day there are more people who have had a child kidnapped or a child killed, a truck assaulted, a woman raped, a house robbed. This has permeated the whole society."
Given the absence of speeches and songs, protesters expressed their views through banners and placards. The range of proposed solutions reflected the political spectrum, from support for instituting the death penalty to a call to remove the army from police-support roles. The outrage, however, was uniform and unequivocal.
"My daughter and son-in-law were murdered, and now I have two orphaned grandchildren," declared one poster.
Another read: "More police--to kill citizens?"
Being in a position of authority hasn't meant immunity from the crime wave.
On Friday, just a day before the march, a car belonging to Cardenas' son was stolen from his driver at gunpoint. It apparently didn't matter that the emblem of his father's political party was on the car door.