Mexico City's prisoners of crime Fear: Since 1994, the number of Mexico City's reported crimes has risen 74%, leading many residents to fence off their neighborhoods.


MEXICO CITY -- Peace came nine months ago to Latacunga Avenue in the middle-class Linda Vista neighborhood. But it didn't come cheap.

Residents in the 30-odd houses in this part of the city pooled their money to hire a full-time security guard and paid $900 to build a 10-foot-high fence. The fence and gate keep thieves from entering from an adjacent thoroughfare, but they also leave Latacunga Avenue looking as if it were behind bars.

"We were already imprisoned," says Alejandra Elkisch, who organized support for the fence. "You don't know when you get up in the morning if you're going to be robbed that day or not."

Linda Vista has in the last year become in effect a gated community, as one street after another has constructed its own 10-foot barricade against the world.

Elkisch was for a long time against the idea, believing that gates would further alienate and isolate people. But Latacunga Avenue became the only street without a fence. But when robbery and theft went up, so did Latacunga Avenue's fence.

Closing streets is illegal here, but city authorities have been forced to allow it, in a remarkable admission that they are powerless against a 74 percent increase in reported crimes since 1994.

The last 22 months have brought the worst economic downturn in modern Mexican history. And in response, residents of this city of 8.6 million people -- in a valley of 16 million -- are battling each other, in effect shredding the social fabric.

Crime has been the partner of a bad economy. The number of reported crimes rose 18 percent in 1994. Then came the devaluation of the peso. People stopped spending. Businesses began failing en masse. As businesses failed, people were thrown out of work.

So in 1995 the number of reported crimes rose 35.7 percent. Statistics for the first nine months of 1996 show that Mexico City will record an increase of 20 percent.

"We're at the edge of a storm," says Rafael Ruiz Harrell, a criminologist who studies crime trends in Mexico City and is believed to be the only person to have full records of the city's crime statistics.

Only twice before, he says, has the Mexico City crime rate risen in double digits two years in a row: in 1811-1812, during the war for independence against Spain, and in 1911-1912, during the Mexican Revolution.

Mexico City has endured the ravages of 20 years of economic incompetence. The increases in crime are mostly in burglary, robbery, auto theft -- crimes against property -- while the figures for rape and homicide have risen much less.

When Indian peasants rebelled in the southern state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, Mexicans thought that other uprisings of the country's poor, unemployed and disenfranchised would follow. The apprehension intensified during last year's economic nose-dive. But no mass uprisings have occurred.

Instead, the clearest expression of Mexicans' discontent with their government was the increase in crime -- which led to the gates of Linda Vista.

"Octavio Paz says that democracy is a strong society against a weak government," says Ruiz Harrell, the criminologist, referring to Mexico's Nobel Prize-winning poet. "In Mexico, we've always had the reverse: an extremely powerful government against a weak and disorganized society.

"Civil society was incapable of speaking for itself. We're still suffering from that."

Certain poor neighborhoods have endured rampant crime for many years. But now middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Linda Vista are being overrun. People tell stories of being carjacked at gunpoint in broad daylight on Paseo de la Reforma -- the city's most famous thoroughfare.

"It used to be rare to meet a victim of a crime," says Victor Mendez, a spokesman for the city prosecutor's office, who was robbed in a taxicab in December and whose wife was robbed while shopping earlier. "Now everyone you meet has been robbed, or has a cousin or brother-in-law or friend who's been a victim."

Thus the well-to-do neighborhoods of Mexico City -- Lomas de Chapultepec, Satelite, Pedregal de San Angel -- have been adding gates to their streets and hiring private security guards. People are going out less, carrying less money with them when they do and buying car alarms and steering wheel locks.

"The market is growing in a big way," says Antonio Hernandez, president of Origen Seguridad, which imports video security systems and has seen sales rise 20 percent since the end of 1995. "People are more conscious of protecting themselves and that security systems, like we sell, aren't luxury items but necessities."

At the root of all this seems to be a breakdown in Mexicans' faith in any institution.

They've never had confidence in their police -- notoriously under-trained, under-equipped, underpaid and corrupt to the point that they commit crimes themselves.

"We've gotten to the absurd point of fearing both criminals and those hired to combat them," writes Eduardo Huchim, a columnist with La Jornada, the Mexico City paper.

Perhaps the most alarming casualty of the latest crisis has been Mexicans' faith in the basic social contract. The lesson learned during the last two years of crime and economic deprivation, many Mexicans say, is that the country lacks justice of any kind -- social, political, criminal or economic.

"We're facing complete ungovernability and a total lack of control," says Luis Trigos on Lima Avenue.

"There's this terrible vacuum of power."

"They told us they couldn't guarantee our security, so it was up to us to protect ourselves," says another resident of Lima Avenue, where a gate went up last fall.

That is how Alejandra Elkisch views things from behind the bars of the new gate on Latacunga Avenue.

"Before, you could say, 'I'm going to work to save for a house, a car, for whatever. If I work and fulfill my part of the bargain, I know that little by little I'll get ahead,' " she says. "It's sad, but the reality is different. People who work hard realize that those who don't do it get further ahead.

"I think we've lost faith. Faith in everything. Faith that if someone attacks me I can go to the police. Faith in values. People don't care whether they kill, steal, or insult."

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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