Crime wave swamps Mexico City Economy: As the populace suffers under the dual burden of inflation and unemployment, Mexico City has seen crime increase sharply, in numbers and in level of desperation.

Sun Journal

January 03, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY -- Minerva Guadalupe Ramirez was getting into her car after a quick stop in a posh suburb here when a gunman stuck a pistol to her head. He stole the 19-year-old woman's cash, purse and jewelry, then commandeered her 1993 Ford Topaz.

He sped off, never noticing that her son, Tomas, was inside. The 8-month-old child and the car are still missing.

On the same morning, three men robbed the Mexican Red Cross Hospital on the city's northwest side. They burst in and fatally shot Jeronimo Rivera, a policeman who had been assigned to guard the charity hospital after a burglary.

The bandits calmly drove off with the payroll and annual bonuses for the entire staff -- money that came from private donations.

In the heart of town, about the same time, police were proving their powerlessness against crime in a highly publicized way.

More than 600 officers in combat gear swooped down on a poor neighborhood in "Operation Gaucho," a push to capture leaders of armed robbery gangs. The result: Just three of 35 people arrested were wanted as suspects.

Residents said some of the police had robbed their homes during the sweep.

These incidents -- a small number of those recorded on this capital's police blotter on a single day in December -- offer more than portraits of crime and tragedy.

They are part of the astounding crime wave that Mexicans say has resulted from this nation's year-old economic crisis.

Inflation and unemployment have soared, as has consumer debt. Burglaries, auto thefts and street crimes are setting records -- levels so high that analysts say they threaten the nation's stability and security.

Mexico and its overpopulated capital, while never crime-free, have consistently had crime rates lower than those of major U.S. cities.

But the economic crisis single-handedly has generated crime rates rivaling those in urban America.

Car thefts have nearly tripled since the end of 1994, just before the economic crisis began.

Burglaries are up almost 30 percent.

The murder rate has risen 10 percent.

In the first 10 months of 1995, victims reported 111,317 major crimes in Mexico City -- almost double the total for all of 1994.

Law enforcement analysts say that several kinds of crimes occur more often in Mexico City than they do in U.S. cities -- particularly armed robberies and auto thefts.

Worse, the data indicate that the violence of Mexican crime also is increasing -- not merely in frequency but in desperation.

Thieves are targeting once-sacred institutions: schools, hospitals, single women, even the nation's Congress.

Compounding the insecurity this has spread throughout society is the rampant corruption among underpaid, poorly trained police.

Rather than enforcing the law, many police now routinely break it.

Officers have been arrested and charged with running gangs of kidnappers, murdering drivers who refused to pay bribes, extorting money from businesses and homeowners, and robbing pedestrians.

Those cases represent a fraction of the daily corruption that Mexican sociologists, clergy, opposition politicians and other citizens report has become a part of daily life.

Myra Perez Sandi Cuen tells of her brother-in-law, who was fatally shot by a Mexico City patrolman March 30 -- apparently because he refused to pay a bribe.

She has lobbied unsuccessfully for nine months to have the culprit put behind bars.

Three officers were arrested in the case. But the man accused of killing her brother-in-law, Mexicana Airlines pilot Eduardo Torres Garcicrespo, remains at large.

David Garay Maldonado, Mexico City's chief of security, says his police forces are attacking the crime wave and getting tough through raids like "Operation Gaucho."

But he cautions that he lacks the resources to combat soaring crime more effectively in this city of almost 20 million.

"Without a doubt we need more officers for three reasons: population, territory and the crime rate," he says.

"We have 8,000 policemen per shift in a city with this population, with an area that has grown on all sides and with a crime rate that has increased."

But for human rights groups and opposition politicians such as Maria Estrella Vazquez, who heads the City Council's civil protection commission, the security forces' attempt at a solution has made the problem worse.

Rather than cracking down on internal corruption, they say, the police are cracking down arbitrarily on the citizens who already feel most victimized by crime.

Rafael Alvarez Diaz, spokesman for the Miguel Augustine Human Rights Center, observes: "Institutions have lost legitimacy because they are no longer meeting people's needs.

"In response to the justified clamor against rising crime, there has been an increase in [police] equipment and arms -- greater violence -- and that, in turn, has led to greater social insecurity."

Ms. Estrella noted that authorities just increased the cost of riding the heavily used subway system 150 percent, from 40 centavos to one peso.

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