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And every cop is a criminal (fiction reader)

13 July 2010

This has been a bad few months for Mexican letters. Juan Hernández Luna was only 47 years old when he had a fatal heart attack over the weekend.

A one-time el Universal nota roja correspondent in Puebla — a job he took on to supplement his meager income as a theater performer (and thankless, economically suicidal career as a poet) — Hernández Luna turned to crime fiction… one of the few Mexican writers in the genre.  Naturally, Latin American crime fiction is not your Patricia Cornwall cut em ups, or your Agatha Christie nice cup of poisoned tea. Hernández received the Dashell Hammett Prize for crime fiction in 1997 for his Cadáver de ciudad, which might be best described as a Janet Evanovich novel on peyote: the shaministic protagonist — having killed a cartel boss in the middle of Puebla Cathedral goes into hiding in Baja California… where he is recruited to solve the mysterious castration of a reclusive millionaire… AND… for good measure, the disappearance of Mexico City’s Angel of Independence. With a lot of gratuitious kinky sex and off-beat religious sects hovering around the background. And all tongue firmly in cheek.

But Hernández Luna was not a simple entertainer, but like so many Mexican men (and women) of letters, an intellectual seriously involved in national affairs. He was the genius behind “Programa Literatura Siempre Alerta” — an idea that seemed so bizarre it actually made sense. Beginning in 2006, and continuing until a new PRI local administration discontinued funding, Programa Literatura Siempre Alerta introduced the Nezahuacoatl municipal police department to their fictional brethren.

By the generally low standards of Mexican municipal police departments, Nezahuacoatl (one of Mexico City’s largest, and poorest, suburbs) stood out for sheer incompetence, low morale and low standards when the program was introduced in 2005 by Hernández Luna, who had grown up in the community. It was never intended to turn municipal coppers into Sherlock Holmes or even Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Hector Belascoarán Shayne (and how many leftist Basque-Irish private eyes can Mexico support anyway?) although Taibo was an enthusiastic supporter, and occasional “facilitator” in the program, which was a nice bit of “Life Itself (My favorite Taibo novel — in which a leftist intellectual crime fiction author finds himself — albeit reluctantly — the chief of police of a vastly underfunded municipal department).

No, the idea — and this is what I found so brilliant about it — was not only to improve the reading skills of the generally undereducated local police officer — but to find a way to allow police officers to discuss their own lives and their interaction with the public… and, perhaps more importantly, to introduce them to the police officer as a person of respect within society.

It worked. Expanded to include not just classic Spanish language literature like Don Quixote and 100 Years of Solitude, but everything from art appreciation to dance classes, police morale increased and … perhaps more importantly… with police officers who began to see themselves as persons of respect who, in turn, should (as Latin American do), show respect to others, citizen trust in the police improved, and crime rates dropped.  It has received recognition not only from Mexican  academic institutions, but from the inventors of the respectable policeman… Scotland Yard.

The Federal District adopted a similar program, Letras en Guarda, in 2007, with which Hernández Luna was intimately connected until last year when his health began to deteriorate. The Nezahuacoatl program was canceled in 2009, when a PRI administration took over the municipal government (and the officers went on strike demanding an end to bribery!).  That the Federal District continued it is not surprising — the Jefe de Goberierno, Marcelo Ebrard — with a background in social services administration — had been the unusual choice for chief of police under the Lopez Obrador administration, and improving the quality of the Federal District police has been a priority for years.

Police reform is not something that comes overnight.  It is not a matter of  hiring more officers, or changing the organizational chart.  Nor is it a matter of focusing on the priorities of the United States, nor of public relations.  What Hernández Luna recognized, and what he should be remembered for — is understanding that fiction is, as Andre Gide once said in his own crime novel, “a mirror held up to reality”.  The reality of crime and punishment in Mexico (and everywhere else, both in fiction and reality) depend on how we reflect our cops and robbers… until we see our cops as men and women of respect, and they see the citizens as equals deserving respect, throwing money and manpower and new and more lethal weapons (paid for by the United States or not) is likely to be wasted.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 July 2010 5:52 am

    I agree. Like most residents of this country, I saw the various branches of law enforcement personnel as either keystone cops or to-be-feared-and-totally-avoided Federales. After a brush with urban craziness, a group of state police were assigned to “watch over ” us. I got to know these men and now have a healthy respect for them. Sadly, misconceptions sabotage even the best intentions resulting in what’s commonly called “The Mexican standoff”

  2. 7 March 2014 3:15 pm

    American expats have entered the crime fiction scene in Mexico. Murder in Mexico is my series of eleven mysteries set in and around the expat colony of San Miguel de Allende. Artist Paul Zacher is drawn into crime investigation because ‘he might see things differently.’ Maybe it’s time for the humanity of Mexico to show through all the narco headlines! Take a look at this suspenseful and often funny series, available in Print, Kindle, Nook, & Kobo. Start with ‘Twenty Centavos’ by trying a sample on my website.

    http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/titles.html

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