Traffic cops that pesos can't buy

SUN JOURNAL

Mexico: Drivers get more than they bargained for when an all-women unit is formed to lessen police corruption.

October 13, 1999|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- Officer Erika Alcaraz walks up to cabbie Reynaldo Lazcano just as he is taking on a passenger on Avenida Tasquena.

On this 15-yard stretch of this major thoroughfare, no fewer than four signs prohibit the taking on and unloading of passengers. Yet somehow Lazcano finds it in himself to argue strenuously that he didn't know this was an infraction.

So, as Alcaraz writes up the ticket, an enraged Lazcano writes down Alcaraz's name and badge number, promising to report her behavior to her superiors.

Alcaraz is one of the 950 female police officers in Grupo Cisne, the Swan Group. Henceforth, only they will be allowed to write traffic tickets in Mexico City. The belief is that women are less corruptible than men.

"The people asked for us because there was extortion," says Alcaraz. "That's why they have us here. But they've seen they can't get away with anything with us, so there's reports to our superiors. We're just doing what people want."

Well, maybe not, now that Mexico City's drivers have had a chance to think about it.

Ending police corruption has topped the list of citizen demands for some time. So, on Aug. 2, Mexico City police Chief Alejandro Gertz announced the formation of Grupo Cisne.

The women operate in teams at 30 problem intersections around the city, writing tickets for everything from not wearing a seat belt to driving backward down a city street. Fines run from $18 to $110.

But two months into their tenure as traffic cops, the officers of Grupo Cisne have found that Mexicans howl in anger when they discover that ending corruption means that they, too, will have to start obeying the law.

"When they commit some infraction, they'll immediately argue," says Officer Maria del Carmen Garcia. "They always deny it. They get out and immediately they'll say, `Here, take this [money],' when we've never asked for anything."

Traffic is the most visible sign of the lawlessness and corruption that characterize Mexican public life, and in which Mexicans have been both participants and victims.

To drive in Mexico City is to enter anarchy. It is a world in which people think nothing of making a right turn from the far left lane, or of backing up against traffic to get to that cross street they missed.

It is a world in which drivers view a shrieking ambulance the way a football running back views an offensive lineman -- as a moving shield to tuck in behind. A red light is a challenge to manhood.

Add to that the incessant double-parking, the illegal U-turns, the taxis and buses racing for fares, the lane changes without warning -- not to mention the poor traffic planning and the enormous number of cars on the road.

The result is a maelstrom, a lurching automotive free-for-all based on complete disregard for the 92 articles of Mexico City's traffic code -- likely the most violated statute in the country.

Standing amid it all is the traffic cop -- a character world-famous for stopping drivers, for sins real and imagined, to extract bribe money.

Increased supervision has reduced the practice. Still, the "mordida" -- the bribe -- and the bad image remain. So the department has turned to Grupo Cisne.

"It's now a culture in the country, the mordida -- giving a bribe of 50 pesos to avoid paying a fine of 300," says Raul Tovar, Mexico City police spokesman. "What this is about is making sure everyone acts responsibly."

Despite a near-universal clamor for an end to corruption, many of the drivers the officers stop end up behaving like smokers going cold turkey -- yearning for the good, old days of anything goes.

"They say, `Let me go this time,' but they'll go out and do it again," says Garcia. "Or they'll say, `We've always done it this way.' But I think we have to start breaking with these kinds of customs.

"You'll pull someone over for an illegal U-turn, and he'll stand there watching to see who else does it. `Why are you stopping me? Look at him. Stop him.' I just say, `Sir, we're all adults. We each have to correct our own behavior.' But people don't understand. They never want to accept their error."

Another ploy, Garcia says, is for the stopped driver to flourish purported press credentials.

"One told me, `My brother works for Television Azteca [a television network] and he is going to do an expose on you.' If they're not from Televisa," she says, referring to the largest Mexican network, "they're from Azteca or they're press reporters."

It will probably take a long time and many thousands of Grupo Cisne tickets before driving habits change in this teeming city.

And installing the female officers will prove fruitless unless the city can force drivers to pay their fines. At the moment it cannot. Last year, 90 percent of the 1.6 million traffic tickets written in Mexico City went unpaid, a loss of an estimated $5.3 million to city coffers, says Tovar. The department is proposing reforms that will make it harder for drivers to avoid paying.

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