There is always room to doubt that a country as rooted in its past, and as disorganized as Mexico, can do anything to change its ways. But looking back over the past two decades, that's not what I see. Mexico may put off taking action, but it doesn't leave things undone.
It wasn't always that way. The 1968 student massacre by soldiers in one of Mexico City's main squares made it plain that the country's government was neither representative nor benign. Yet opposition was puny. Mexicans accepted tyranny and venality as part of the order of things.
Then came the earthquake of 1985, arguably the worst moment in the lives of Mexico City residents who are older than 30 today. The terremoto, like the crime wave, frightened the city and caught its municipal and federal governments unprepared, unable to protect or provide.
When chilangos discovered that their rulers couldn't cope with the totality of the damage, they concluded that Mexico's traditional political class had to go. Mexico City took the lead in casting votes against the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the uniquely Mexican legion that had held a monopoly on national office since 1929. Voters in La Capital began electing non-PRI leaders, and the country finally followed suit with the 2000 victory of the upstart Fox (of the National Action Party).
Mexico and its capital worked this miracle even while hobbled by corruption that to this day hinders police reform. As Mexico City politician Aleida Alavez Ruiz, 30, observes, corruption is "not all up to the police--that would be too simple to say. It is part of our culture as Mexicans, but it's something that, the people are beginning to see, is of no help with things." Chilangos can put life into their criminal justice system whenever they make up their minds, she says--and they may have done just that.
Polls by two major Mexican newspapers indicate that a majority of voters, not merely the upper and middle classes, are convinced that reducing crime is the most urgent task confronting the Lopez Obrador administration. Though only 40% believe that the mayor has made any headway, skepticism is on the mend: One year ago, only a quarter of them bought into his claim.
Raul Samano has retired his '82 Grand Marquis, though it's not because he's relying on the mayor, a new program or a political change. Instead it's because he spent hard-earned money with Carlos Nader's firm, which now also sells used armored cars. Samano, his wife and son are now driving armored Jeep Grand Cherokees--of mid-'90s vintage, to be sure. But if the Giuliani reforms put a brake on Mexico City's crime, all that could change. Samano can afford a new car, and he deserves to drive one someday.