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Mexico Gives Cops a Refresher Course on Ethics


MEXICO CITY -- Imagine a businessman in a black BMW convertible running a red light and being stopped by a motorcycle cop.

As the officer comes to the window, the driver, without even pausing from his cell phone conversation, hands over a 50-peso bill worth about $5.

"Your bribe is waiting for you," says police ethics instructor Miguel Alcartar, describing the all-too-common scenario to Marcos Perez of Mexico City's motorcycle patrol. "In the past you probably would have taken it. The driver expects you to now. What do you do?"

Perez doesn't hesitate. "As a motorcycle officer of the Federal District, I would brush off his money and write him an infraction," he yells triumphantly, stomping his foot for emphasis.

"Give him a hand!" Alcartar tells the class of 100 motorcycle police. "When you leave here that's the choice you will all make."

Officers have rarely exhibited such enthusiastic honesty on the chaotic streets of Mexico City, where police corruption is rampant and motorcycle officers are often viewed as the most corrupt of all.

Things are so bad that the city's Public Safety Department recently ordered its 815-strong motorcycle force off the streets, banishing officers for more than two months of training in ethics, human rights and public relations.

After more than 100 of Mexico City's finest failed city physicals, academy officials added two hours of daily calisthenics, as well as periodic drug tests.

"Many of them had become corrupt and overweight and were using cocaine, amphetamines and marijuana," said Juan Torres, the academy's director. "They had lost sight of their goals and had forgotten their self-respect."

The retraining program is the latest in a seemingly endless series of police cleanups that have seen thousands of officers across Mexico fired for corruption.

Mexico City officials have tried installing cameras at intersections to spy on police and bringing in soldiers to direct traffic. For several months in 1999, only female officers were allowed to write tickets, on the theory that they were more honest than men.

To little avail. In a recent newspaper poll, 95% of those surveyed said the word "corruption" best characterized Mexico City's motorcycle force. In another survey, for the Mexico branch of the watchdog group Transparency International, more than 60% said they had paid at least one bribe to police officers last year.

"You are driving and suddenly there are four officers on motorcycles behind you," said Gloria Jimenez, a 41-year-old convenience store owner who said police target her because she drives a new SUV. "They stop you and all of them demand a bribe even though you haven't done anything."

Alcartar has taught police ethics for 23 years. His classes feature chanting, slogans and inspirational anecdotes.

"Corruption begins simply: 20 pesos here, 100 pesos there," he says, sketching a mountain labeled "Corruption" on the blackboard and then tracing a path straight up its face, to a summit labeled "Pride."

"You never know where it's going to end," he continues. "A corrupt police officer loses his honor but he also costs his family their honor."

Outside the classroom, many officers say having to feed families on salaries averaging $440 a month fosters corruption.

Perez, 25, has spent three years on the force. Away from Alcartar's watchful eyes, he says he isn't sure he would turn down a real-life bribe.

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