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Zero tolerance, meet total tolerance

©Associated Press
November 9, 2002

MEXICO CITY -- When Rudolph Giuliani comes to Mexico City this month, he'll find a law enforcement system with an Alice in Wonderland quality where police sometimes are not police, and it's often better to avoid them than ask for protection.

The former New York mayor, who championed a zero tolerance policy credited with drastically reducing crime, was hired in October as an anticrime consultant for North America's largest city. His first visit on Nov. 18 will probably include a tour of some of Mexico City's rougher areas.

But in this megalopolis of 18-million, Giuliani's idea of zero tolerance may clash with a practice of total tolerance, in which the current mayor once ordered police to overlook violations like parking on crosswalks in an effort to reduce corruption.

"Rudy is entering the Twilight Zone of crime," wrote columnist Carlos Toledo.

Police officers have been arrested for holding up other officers, using their patrol cars to kidnap people and taking bribes to let offenders walk. They have fled from armed suspects, yet killed unarmed detainees.

In Mexico City's system of antiquated laws and spotty enforcement, it's all "by the book" -- literally. Police carry bound versions of traffic laws because the small books are a good place to stash bribes.

Sometimes, what looks like a police officer actually is not: Cops occasionally make extra money by renting out their uniforms, badges and patrol cars to shakedown artists known as madrinas, or "godmothers."

"It's good that Giuliani is coming," said flower market vendor Ricardo Hernandez, 51, "but he should bring his own cops. How is he going to get anything done with ours, the way they are, all fat, lazy and crooked?"

The city's latest anticrime idea only fuels this kind of public scorn. Mexico City officials want mounted police to dress in Mexican cowboy outfits -- complete with mariachi hats and braid-trimmed pants.

"They can't possibly expect Mexicans to take this seriously," said detective novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

Corruption is so rampant that for several months in 1999, only female officers were allowed to issue citations, on the theory that they were less likely to seek bribes.

But why even bother with tickets? Officials estimate that 93 percent are never paid.

Police also are confounded by their own obsolete technology. In a city of nearly 3-million cars, there is no reliable registry of license plate numbers. In 1999, a motorist left his license plate embedded in the body of a woman he ran over. The motorist was never prosecuted.

Mexico City residents have developed survival strategies. Pedestrians hesitate to cross the street to accommodate the stream of motorists who routinely run red lights. At night, many drivers don't stop at lights because they fear carjackers.

On a trip here, former New York police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said there were many things Giuliani's team couldn't change. "We are going to take the tolerance that goes on in this society into consideration," he said.

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