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Surprise ending at Mexico City crime scene

Mexicans are so cynical about their police, all too often involved in shady activity, that they are loath to report crimes. What took place under a reporter's window showed another possibility.

October 14, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — The first gunshot drew me racing to the window. The second sent me ducking to the floor.

A crime scene was unfolding below my second-floor apartment, and it took a few moments to make sense of its moving parts: the two burly men sprinting toward a taxi; the red-and-white cab trying to maneuver out of traffic; a uniformed bank guard pointing his revolver; the second pop of gunfire.

No one was hurt. But the taxi, trapped in lunch-hour traffic, was surrounded as the guard and two police officers approached slowly on foot, guns drawn. Sidewalk gawkers froze. The taxi driver thrust his hands out the window in surrender. His two beefy passengers also gave up at the sight of more police hurrying from a substation down the block.

Our picture window, which normally offers a balcony-seat vantage on a parade of candy sellers, roving musicians, tamale hawkers and hipsters, on this day looked out on a drearier reality of life in Mexico City: crime. To be sure, this was a tiny incident, a jot of trouble in a city plagued by kidnappings, stickups and, as the crime pages track, ample gunplay.

The ruckus began with an attempted carjacking, it turned out, by thieves with the poor sense -- or bad luck -- to try to steal a Mercedes-Benz sedan in front of a bank with an armed police guard. Their getaway was also foiled by circumstance: too many cars on a cramped restaurant row.

But perhaps the most intriguing moment came when the handcuffed suspects were hustled toward waiting police cruisers. The looky-loos, numbering in the dozens as people poured from eateries, shops, and the bank, did something extraordinary for Mexico.

They cheered the police.

It started as polite claps, and then swelled to a throaty roar and whistles. People gathered around the guard, a member of the bank-protection division of the Mexico City police, to shake his hand and slap his back in congratulations and thanks.

Other officers grinned at the applause, which surprised them. For a few glorious moments, they were heroes and seemed to swell inside their standard-issue flak jackets.

People are normally cynical about the police in Mexico, where it's often hard to tell the criminals from the crime-fighters. Some Mexicans would rather cross paths with a rattlesnake than a cop, who they expect will view the most minor offense as an opportunity to collect a bribe.

Kidnapping rings often turn out to include officers or former officers. So many moonlight for drug-trafficking cartels that roundups of suspect police around the country have become routine.

Surveys of attitudes on public security show significant concerns about crime and low confidence in Mexican law enforcement -- the main reason why only 1 in 5 crimes is reported, according to a recent study. (A Mexican neighbor whose apartment was burglarized last month said there was no way she'd summon the cops. "And let them into my house?" she said.)

But just when people are ready to write off the whole lot of Mexican police as crooked or lame, an officer does something truly worthy of high praise.

Last month, a police officer lost his life while trying to approach an apparently deranged man writing on a wall in the busy Balderas subway station. The gunman fatally shot the officer, as well as an unarmed construction worker who tried to tackle him.

Video from a surveillance camera shows the man reloading and hopping onto a subway car, peering out like a bank robber in a Wild West movie. Just then, two plainclothes agents and a uniformed officer arrive on the platform. Amid the bloodshed and uncertainty, they charge the subway car, disarm the suspect and place him in custody.

The scene under my window ended without such bloody chaos. The police cars rolled away and spectators scattered. The bank guard, his gun holstered, savored a free cup of ice cream delivered by the parlor next door.

Law and order had triumphed, at least this time, and the taste was sweet.

--

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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