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In crime-toughened Mexico City, cash-for-weapons exchange extended

January 03, 2013|By Daniel Hernandez
  • A member of the Mexican Army checks guns handed in as part of a an exchange program launched by government officials in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City.
A member of the Mexican Army checks guns handed in as part of a an exchange… (Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty…)

MEXICO CITY -- Promised that no questions would be asked, they've brought in handguns, pistols, rifles, grenades, bullets, and dozens of gun replicas that may or may not have been used to spook a robbery victim.

Hundreds of people have turned in nearly a thousand weapons and at least one grenade-launcher in nine days in exchange for gifts and cash -- as well as anonymity -- in a holiday pilot program that has exceeded government expectations in Mexico's populous capital.

The program, "For Your Family, Voluntary Disarming," was launched at the historic Santuario de la Cuevita church in the crime-toughened borough of Iztapalapa on Christmas Eve, with promises of tablet computers and bicycles for handing over any firearms.

By Dec. 31, when the pilot was supposed to end, about 900 weapons had been turned in, said Rodolfo Rivera, the Mexico City police department official in charge of the program. His team restarted the exchange on Wednesday.

The tablets and bikes have long run out, but steadily, men and women of all ages arrived with nervous expressions and a curious-looking bag or two. Because Mexico's strict gun laws are regulated by the Mexican military, uniformed soldiers examined each weapon to determine its worth, then tagged the firearms with tape and piled each with others waiting to be destroyed.

Alfonso Trejo, a 63-year-old from a nearby housing project, said he turned in two revolvers for cash and a despensa, a basic-food package in a cardboard box. "You know, kids can be curious. You don't want that fear, you want calm," he said.

Asked the cash amount he was given for the revolvers, Trejo responded, "Things being the way they are, it's a bit for the ride, for a soda pop."

In truth, cash awards started at 2,500 pesos -- or about $195 -- for a .22-caliber pistol, and up to $590 for a rifle. So far, the borough government and the police department have split a cost of $203,000 in cash and gifts. The program has been extended through Saturday and will move to the northern borough of Gustavo A. Madero next week.

Serious crime has dropped in recent years within the boundary of the Federal District, Mexico City's formal name, while drug-related violence has soared in other regions of the country. The Citizens Council on Public Safety and Justice said serious crimes in the capital dropped 11% this year over last year.

Yet wide regions of the sprawling metropolitan zone remain under the threat of gun crime. Iztapalapa, the city's most populous borough, has in particular drawn the attention of the tabloid news pages in the past year for spikes in drug and gang violence.

On Nov. 2, a 10-year-old boy named Hendrik Cuacuas was killed by a stray bullet as he sat in a cineplex theater in an Iztapalapa mall, in a case that brought attention to a growing local practice of firing rounds into the sky during parties and the borough's many prized festivals.

As young men carrying covered handguns and rifles kept arriving on Wednesday afternoon, Carlos Candelaria, the borough's public safety coordinator, said the gun exchange program will help. Authorities netted 43 more small guns, 12 big guns, six grenades, and 15 "war toys" such as tear-gas canisters.

"This is one less weapon on the streets, possibly one less life [lost], possibly one less injury," Candelaria said.

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