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Mexico launches high-profile crackdown on lower-grade crime

The eight-day push by state and local police targets car thefts, muggings and other offenses. It makes for great PR, but Mexicans are skeptical.

June 19, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood and Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times
  • Police check scooter riders in Mexico City as part of a coordinated national effort against crime.
Police check scooter riders in Mexico City as part of a coordinated national… (Jorge Dan Lopez, Reuters )

Reporting from Mexico City — Police across Mexico have awakened in recent days to a bold new assignment: enforcing the law.

The country's 31 governors and the mayor of Mexico City are leading an eight-day offensive aimed at lower-grade offenses that most irk ordinary Mexicans, like car thefts and muggings.

The high-profile crackdown, which began Monday, is being touted as an unprecedented bid by state authorities across Mexico to join hands, if temporarily, against the nation's crime epidemic. The drive, named after the acronym of the governors' association, is called CONAGO 1, sounding more like a deep-space probe than a splashy hunt for bad guys.

But it comes wrapped in pretty bows and ribbons. There have been photo opportunities of police in pressed uniforms posing next to rows of freshly buffed cruisers. Officials have held regular press briefings to explain how big a bite they've taken out of crime.

State and local police in convoys have set up roadblocks, checked motorists' papers and swapped information with one another across state lines through electronic databases. The push is paying off, they say. By Saturday, authorities had arrested 3,305 suspects, seized 116 guns and recovered 1,122 stolen cars, including a Hummer from Miami.

The government of Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who heads the governors' group this year, said the sweep marked the first effort by the states to fight crime together. Mexico City is formally a federal district and is treated like a state.

Ebrard said the chief goal is combating crimes such as car theft, robberies of bus and subway passengers and kidnappings, as well as seizing weapons and breaking up gangs. In Mexico City, 22,000 officers have taken part in CONAGO 1, at times creating a conspicuous presence on street corners and parks.

That may sound like welcome news. But although many Mexicans long for safer streets — especially amid a bloody drug war that has killed nearly 40,000 people — the governors' vaunted rollout has been met with skepticism.

After all, many residents wondered aloud, isn't fighting crime what cops are supposed to do?

"Why should something surprise us or make news when it should be the everyday work of our police?" wrote Alejandro Marti, a sporting goods magnate whose son was kidnapped and slain three years ago in a crime that gripped the country.

Another commentator groused on Twitter: "This week, yes, the police will do their jobs, later it's the same impunity."

At a tree-shaded park in downtown Mexico City, a higher-than-usual number of police officers in flak vests and baseball caps were on patrol Friday. At newsstands, headlines told of a spate of recent killings in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

Jesus Alfredo Vallejo, a 45-year-old magazine vendor, said he had been pulled over and searched twice on the city's east side during the crackdown.

"They get you out of your car, pat you down," Vallejo said. "It's OK. Well, sometimes it can be bad, because sometimes there are bad cops."

Police graft is rampant in Mexico, and so is public mistrust.

A 58-year-old ice cream vendor who gave his name only as Roberto said police had stopped him and demanded to search his cart, asking: "What you got there? What drugs you got?"

High-profile sweeps such as CONAGO 1 mean little in the long run, said Roberto, wearing a tucked-in golf shirt.

"This just comes when it's in season," he said.

And what season is it?

For one, the 2012 election campaign to be Mexico's next president is starting to take shape. Ebrard plans to vie for the nomination of his leftist Democratic Revolution Party and would love the chance to win points on public safety.

In addition, politicians all over Mexico are grasping to answer growing discontent over drug-related violence, which has soared since President Felipe Calderon launched the war against trafficking groups more than four years ago.

In the latest reminder of the extreme violence, the dismembered bodies of two bodyguards of Nuevo Leon's governor, Rodrigo Medina, turned up Tuesday outside the industrial city of Monterrey. Ebrard said the slayings probably came as retribution for the states' crackdown.

Federal officials are happy to see Mexican governors step up. Drug trafficking — a federal crime — yields the most headlines in Mexico. Yet the vast majority of crimes, including most homicides, are under the jurisdiction of state authorities, long a weak reed in Mexican law enforcement.

Although final tallies aren't yet known, there is already talk of CONAGO: The Sequel. Encouraged by early results, the governors are discussing making the operation permanent — meaning they will fight crime next week too.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.

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