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Mexican Cops Get Tough in Costume

A police force of 40 in the capital is garbed as charros -- cowboys -- and in a major park, they seem to be deterring lawbreakers.

January 13, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — On the mean streets of this capital that sees 500 crimes a day, law enforcement authorities have called in the cowboys.

As part of an urban renewal project to clean up dangerous parks and monuments so that visitors feel safer, 40 mounted charros now patrol with the century-old garb and weaponry of bygone rural desperados.

With their huge sombreros, silk cravats and leather-trimmed boleros, the costumed cops on poncho-covered horseback can hardly operate undercover. Rather, this latest crackdown on crime aims for a deterring presence -- placing the fanciful figures so squarely in view at Alameda Park that strollers and tourists have come back to what until recently was a no-go zone.

"People feel comfortable walking around here now," says charro Francisco Guerrero Martinez, a 37-year-old beat cop.

He says the change in uniforms has transformed the atmosphere of the central site, long lost to drug dealers, prostitutes and street kids.

The folkloric charm imparted by the charros has also boosted the image of the beleaguered capital police force, whose poor record of crime prevention is reflected in the sobering statistics of robberies, rapes and killings in this city of more than 18 million.

Marco Antonio Castillejas Lopez -- head of the charro force, which was deployed just a month ago -- says the cowboy cops were the most popular figures at an Alameda street fair this Christmas, upstaging Santa Claus and the three wise men among children wanting their pictures taken.

"Both national and foreign tourists come up to us, take photographs, pet the horses -- some of them even pet us," Castillejas says. He credits the charros for a drastic drop in muggings and assaults at the park last month, down from 25 a week on average to a rate of fewer than four.

"This is an important change for us too, not just for tourists," says Fabiola Reyes Espinosa, idling at Alameda with her 2-year-old daughter and her sister. "A lot of people like to come through here on their way to work but were too afraid to until now."

The Alameda operation has been a test run of the charro squad and, because the cowboys number only 40, cannot be extended to other crime-ridden areas yet, Guerrero says. But he speculates that the apparent success of the program will encourage authorities to expand the mounted force and patrol other areas that urban renewal managers want refurbished and reopened for the masses.

Much of the historical center of Mexico City was damaged during a 1985 earthquake, and property owners in the most crime-plagued areas, such as Alameda, were reluctant to rebuild. But an ambitious rescue effort launched by the city government in 1997 was bolstered last year with the opening of the first luxury hotel fronting the park, a Sheraton.

The cowboy patrols grew out of a proposal by merchants in the historical center who have banded together to contribute to the urban spruce-up, the capital's chief of public security, Manuel Mondragon, explained at the charros' inauguration.

"I think they're making a difference," camera store manager Miguel Nahuacatl says of the Alameda cowboys. "We were broken into four times last year. It's too soon to say if it's related to the charros, but we haven't had any problems since they arrived."

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