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Don Quixote: Mexican crime fighter… for real!

23 October 2006

The ingenious hidalgo fought giants, demons and Moors in 17th century Spain without much success, but the Man of La Mancha is back … and enjoying more success fighting car thieves, narcos and public attitudes in Mexico.

No Mexican policeman’s lot is a happy one — a garbage man gets more respect. During the Revolution Day Parade in Mexico City, the crowd claps and cheers for the garbage trucks. The police cars sailed past with sirens blaring… to drown out the boos from the crowd. They couldn’t do anything about the propensity of parade-watchers to give them the finger… or “moon” them.

Mexican cops are low paid, seen as a necessary evil at best. Where the Mexican solider at least gets three hots and a cot (and a uniform, and some education) in return for taking on a thankless job, “los Esmurfs” (as Mexico City cops were called behind their back, in honor of their blue uniforms) received a salary too low to appeal to anyone capable of better work, and not enough to support a family.

What you got were either the “ethically challenged” who could supplement their income, people without families, or alienated from social norms (I’ve always half-suspected that William S. Burroughs’ claims in the 40s of seducing Mexican cops with drugs and sex he talked about in Queer were based in Borroughs’ ignorance of Mexico — gay cops and drug-suing cops were the norm… and they were taking advantage of him, not the other way around). Or, you got bullies who wanted an excuse to carry a gun and exercize some power. Naturally, no one trusts the cops. Mexicans often say, “don’t call the police, or the real theives will show up,” after a robbery.

The situtation has started to change. Mexico City started providing arms and uniforms to the officers, paying them a livable wage and giving them training. And raising the standards. I used to see the results around the the old 1968 Olympics Veleodromo where I used to teach a few mornings a week. The “NEW” cops were younger, healthier and … wonder of wonders … were doing their morning workout in the parking lot. Coupled with higher entry requirments, various attempts to foster “esprit de corps” (decent uniforms made a difference… a well-dressed officer isn’t going to be sitting around with taco fixin’s dripping down his big belly) and some changes making it harder to offer bribes (traffic citations are bank deposit slips and the fines were lowered to reduce the incentive to offer a bribe) were genuine accomplishments during the Lopez Obrador years. The biggest change I saw in Mexico City’s police was that the cops got younger and buffer… and it wasn’t rare to see well-dressed pretty girls flirt with policemen.

Nezahualcóyotl, across the state line from the Federal District (If Mexico is Manhattan, Neza is Jersey City) always had the worst of Metro Mexico. That included city services and, por supuesto, city cops. They had a police chief sentenced to 25 years for narcotics violations, and a random drug test of their department turned up more drug users than upstanding citizens. The city could only do so much to raise salaries and buy uniforms. They were still faced with the lower-qualified police officers. And no respect.

In a fascinating experiment, Neza has been creating better cops. Low eduction (many officers don’t have more than a secondary school education, and a spotty one at that) suggested sending the officers to school. Besides just giving the officers the equivalent of a GED, the idea is that a better citizen is a better cop. And a better cop will be treated as a citizen.

So… besides basic schooling, the officers in Neza are … reading Quixote as part of their regular shift. Every Spanish speaking person of any accomplishment has read Quixote at least once. Of course they also read Agatha Christie and Ignacio Taibo II (Mexicos one and only socialist detective novelist) and… a lot of things. The Neza cops are reading a book a month on city time. And writing poetry in creative writing classes. And attending art appreciation lectures. And, once in a while, some dance lessons.

It sounds bizarre, but apparently it works According to the Herald measurable crime is down. Sociolgists studying the Neza experiment are using auto theft records (something people report, just because their insurance agent requires a police report) show a drop and calls to the police are up. Anecodotal evidence suggests people call the cops because they expect them to respond — and not steal something.

Not an impossible dream …

5 Comments leave one →
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