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Big City, Huge Problem

Crime Has Become the Defining Characteristic of Mexico City, Causing a Mass Program of Behavior Modification. Now the City's Mayor Is Pushing an Anti-Crime Agenda That, if Successful, Could Propel Him to the Presidency.

March 14, 2004|Dick J. Reavis | Dick J. Reavis is a freelance writer based in San Antonio.

It's probably not a slogan that the Mexico City chamber of commerce would embrace for this grand metropolis, which has a rightful place among the great urban centers of the world. But there it was, in September's Vanity Fair magazine--a short feature extolling the city's nightlife, culture and cuisine, and concluding by blithely hailing the city's "exciting air of lawlessness."

That "exciting air" is, in fact, a crime wave that dates to the country's financial crisis of 1994 and that has become a defining characteristic of the capital. Crime and the countermeasures to it are leading topics in daily chitchat, much like politics, the weather and traffic jams.

When you visit Mexico City these days, you notice something: There are heavily armed guards everywhere--at the entries to restaurants, shopping centers and nightclubs, in the aisles of drugstores and music shops. These are not rent-a-cop security guards--though there are plenty of them as well--but municipal police whose weapons are always at the ready.

Preoccupation with personal security is, of course, nothing new in Mexico. The country's wealthiest families have had bodyguards and armored vehicles and have lived in walled, even turreted, homes since at least the 1970s, when kidnappings were a tactic of revolutionary groups.

But the kidnapping epidemic now affects the middle class, and there is a new type--the "express," or short-term, kidnapping, carried out for discount ransoms of withdrawals from ATM machines. It seems the entire city has undergone a mass behavior-modification program. Nightclub-goers have long discussed the availability of parking spaces when planning an outing; today they must plan for security as well. Drivers place their hands on the bottoms of their steering wheels so that watches, rings and bracelets are less visible at stoplights and congested intersections. Surveys show that about 70% of the city's people venture out less often at night.

It's not just the natives who are constantly wary. Tourism has been slightly down in recent years, and at least some of it can be attributed to fears of crime. People who haven't visited Mexico City for several years are usually startled by the changes that security worries have wrought. The nicer hotels and restaurants keep their front doors locked. Not many foreigners or prosperous Mexicans take "libre," or independent, cabs anymore. Today's style is to hire an "executive taxi"--an armored hack. And cabs leaving upscale hotels have to declare their destinations to transit police while concierges take note of their license plates.

Chauffeurs have always loitered outside major hotels and tony restaurants. But today they are armed, and they do not stray far from their SUVs, which show telltale signs of fortification--a booming business here. Mexican corporations order bulletproof vehicles by the fleet. Dealers for Volvo, BMW, Mercedes and Audi sell armored models from showroom floors.

"We were the second or third company to start armoring cars in Mexico," says Carlos Nader, sitting in his office at Protecto Glass de Mexico, a firm he started in 1993 after he and his family were victimized. "But now there are about 60."

I first visited Mexico City in 1953. as a child from a small Texas prairie town, the city swept me away with its pre-Hispanic ruins, murals and crowded streets. Even at a tender age I realized that this was a distinct, special place. Mexico City was, and remains, the capital, not of another country but of a different civilization--imperfect, perhaps, but whole and complete in its way of things.

From my college years onward, Mexico City has been my New York, a place I visit two or three times annually to keep in touch with new fads and ideas. Like any great human undertaking, the city is subject to trends, stages and moods. But over time, one learns not to get carried away by such vicissitudes.

Twenty years ago, for example, the city's chitchat was all about the Japanese, who had descended to study Mexico's economic prospects. Prestige hotels added signs in Japanese in their lobbies. Cabbies and prostitutes memorized Japanese phrases, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari, an ambitious bureaucrat who would become the nation's president, enrolled his children in a Japanese-Mexican school.

But the Japanese vanished as quickly as they came. The word on the street was that they had found the country and its capital too dicey, too difficult to predict, too corrupt, dangerous and insecure.

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