<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Giuliani's Mexico City Game

A story of Fear, Power, and Money


By Noah Friedsky
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

September 11, 2003

1993, New York City: Citizens of the largest city in the United States live in fear of a seemingly endless crime wave. Violent attacks on evening joggers, frequent shootings and constant muggings, leading sensationally on the evening news, have city residents on edge. The nation freshly remembers its last President, George Bush proclaiming that he will “end the scourge of drugs” and crack cocaine that he says is sweeping inner cities and turning parks into war zones. The city’s federal Prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, runs for mayor and is elected on a promise to make life safe for New Yorkers.

2003, Mexico City: Residents of América’s largest metropolis live in fear of kidnappings, rape, and murder. A city perceived by the foreign press as “lacking rule of law” stumbles through another decade of the drug war with crime on the rise. Enter Rudy Giuliani to bring his crime fighting expertise to Mexico City’s embattled residents – many of whom call themselves Chilangos.

The formula is largely the same, except that this time Giuliani wasn’t elected. He was not hired by any public agency or official. His consulting firm, Guiliani Partners LLC, was hired by a group of private business interests led by Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, for a stated price tag of $4.3 million. But when Giuliani Partners announced its 146 recommendations of how to fight crime in the nation’s capital, Mexico City’s police chief and Mayor hailed the recommendations and announced they would adopt every single one.

The whole process had the look of a well-orchestrated show: in January, Giuliani toured Mexico City’s toughest neighborhoods, surrounded by 300 bodyguards (as one journalist asked me, “Does he walk around New York that way?”); in early August, the city government appeared with the Giuliani recommendations in hand, confident that Mexico City would follow in the footsteps of New York City’s reportedly historic crime rate drop. By September, Mexico’s downtown historical district already sported new video cameras and mounted police monitoring the streets.

Underneath the gleam of new police uniforms and in the backrooms of business suites used for triumphant press conferences exists a more complex reality. Just as the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, (a historically poor neighborhood in New York’s borough of Brooklyn), and the employees of legal aid and the New York’s mayors office know, as residents in the northern barrios of Mexico city and keen businessmen downtown all know, there is more behind the official version of this story.

The Story in New York

Giuliani brought “zero tolerance” policing to New York City with great fanfare and statistical success. Attacking low-level crimes like panhandling, noisy clubs, and pot smoking, Giuliani sought to destroy what he called a “culture of crime.” Under his watch, crime purportedly dropped nearly 60% and the city’s image brightened as Times Square and other popular spots were cleansed of “unseemly elements” such as homeless people and strip clubs.

As with most instant success stories, there were costs. Those stories made for less splashy headlines: young men of color routinely searched and harassed for daring to walk the streets, overcrowded prisons filled with non-violent drug offenders, families of those prisoners left without fathers, mothers abandoned by a welfare system gutted as police budgets grew, indigent defendants virtually guaranteed conviction as Giuliani waged war on public defenders, who are supposed to be paid to provide competent counsel to the accused. Only later, after Giuliani’s exit from City Hall, have these effects begun to seep into the headlines, as prisoners are proven innocent by DNA evidence after serving a decade in prison and as a culture of police power and immunity has since been revealed through historic acts of police brutality like the torture of Abner Louima.

Only now are New Yorkers feeling the effects of a regime that spent freely—in a “crime war” against non-violent offenders—during a recession. Today the city treads water with an $8 billion budget shortfall, social services slashed, more homeless families on the streets, and with no end to the costly drug war in sight. Little matter that during Giuliani’s term crime was plummeting throughout the United States as well, the simple fact of lowered crime rates continues to give life to an illusion of a Mr. Fix-it: crime fighting as a powerful narcotic for a people in dire straights. It is not clear whether those on the Giuliani bandwagon don’t see the costs behind the successes, or whether they feel the costs and abuses were worth it.

Who Is on this Bandwagon?

Pepe Martinez, a nationally syndicated Mexican columnist and author of the definitive biographies on two of Mexico’s richest men, Carlos Slim (Carlos Slim: Retrato Inedito. Oceano publishers, 2003) and Carlos Hank González (Las Enseñanzas del Profesor: Indigación de Carlos Hank González, Oceano publishers, 1999), tells Narco News that the Mexican side of this story can be traced back to September 11, 2001. As Rudy Giuliani began his political resurrection as the stand-in Commander and Chief, Carlos Slim donated large sums to aid New York. Little more than a year later, with Rudy Giuliani in private-money-making mode, and considered on the short list of future Republican Presidential hopefuls, Carlos Slim offered him $4.3 to lend Mexico City a hand.

Interestingly, Mexico City’s leftwing mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD, in its Spanish initials) soon joined his Police Commissioner Marcelo Ebrard in welcoming Giuliani’s report. Here are some of Mexico’s most powerful figures – politicians with aspirations, Mexico’s richest man – Slim – who has a history of philanthropy, but no aspirations to run for office himself (according to biographer Martinez) – standing together in an unconventional marriage. But, what about Mexico City’s 12 million-plus Chilangos – where do they stand in this equation?

There is no doubt that many city residents live in fear of crime and there is a pervading sense that something must be done. In that sense, most residents seemed to welcome a new approach and many were open-minded about the Giuliani announcement. But the questioning began in many circles even before the 146 planks of the crime plan were announced.

The Story in Mexico City

Originally promised for January, 2003, the Giuliani report did not arrive until August. Raul Fraga is a journalist and professor who has studied crime in the United States and Mexico since the 1980’s. He told Narco News that there were many explanations circulating about the delay, principally that the Giuliani team had not been able to do a sufficient diagnostic evaluation of the reality and problems in Mexico City and that there were discrepancies between preliminary recommendations and their applicability.

Fraga says the report is basically the re-application, with a few modifications, of Giuliani’s famed “Zero tolerance” strategy from New York, which itself was copied from George Kelling’s 1980’s “No More Broken Windows” study. Kelling’s thesis held that by cracking down on low-level crimes, a respect for authority would develop, eradicating an incipient “culture of crime.” Giuliani recently denied that he subscribes to “zero tolerance” measures for Mexico City, but his report notes that small crimes should be made a priority: “They should respect and comply with the law, which includes simple actions like obeying traffic signals and not offering bribes to police officers.” Indeed, the report calls for harsh drug penalties in drug free school zones, for eliminating prostitution on the streets, for anti-graffiti and anti-noise police units, and for a crackdown on the informal economy of squeegee men, street children who perform magic tricks for pesos, and frenaleros who watch over parked cars for a few pesos.

While the report also calls for reorganizing the police force, combating corruption, and revising the criminal justice system, the Mexican public quickly jumped on the recommendations carrying the most immediate consequences: crackdowns on “quality of life” crimes. As squeegee-man Israel Jorge Peralta, 17, told the New York daily Newsday, “If they put me in jail for this, who will feed my family? Why should I be punished for trying to earn money honestly when there are no jobs?” Human rights groups denounced the move to criminalize the city’s more than 20,000 homeless children, without offering adequate alternatives. Perhaps the most significant challenge came from Mexico City’s District Attorney Bernardo Batíz Vásquez, who declared to reporters that some of the recommendations run contrary to the Mexican Constitution, leading many to question whether the Giuliani team had done its homework.

How – experts and everyday Chilangos want to know – does Giuliani think he can export strategies tailored for New York’s well-financed and modern police force to the Mexican city of the legendary “mordita,” a systemized bribery of under-paid police? Not to mention the challenge of projecting a crime-fighting approach built for New York onto a city with a vastly different socio-economic mix? “Whatever the differences in culture, background and laws, the objective for all decent societies is absolutely the same, and that is protection and safety: the single most important human right,” Giuliani told the Guardian of London.

In impoverished Mexico City, the buying power of wages has fallen steadily over the past decade, and much of Mexico City’s population is not formally employed. The English language press – from AP to Newsday to alternative papers like the Village Voice – speak of skyrocketing crime and regale us with stories of “express kidnappings.” This trend in which taxi passengers are forced to empty their ATM accounts by drivers holding them prisoner is not new and effects only the minority of Chilangos who have ATM cards. These papers say that there are 500-600 crimes reported daily, but that criminologists believe that these make up only 10% of actual crimes committed. Most crimes do indeed go unreported because Chilangos seem to have more fear of policemen than faith in them. Policemen routinely pad their low wages with bribe money. Pepe Martinez goes so far as to say that there is a policeman behind virtually every crime.

Many Chilangos worry that while crime may or may not go down, giving the police broader powers may lead to increased abuses by the police. At a recent meeting in response to the Giuliani report, called by a local educational organization, the Mexican Association for Cannabis Studies (AMECA, in its Spanish initials), David Rodriguez worried, “The police are going to begin to act tougher, because they will feel they have more moral power. Even if some of these recommendations don’t pass, the cops are going to perceive this new approach.” Ignacio Saiz of Amnesty International agreed in a recent Village Voice article, saying, “Zero tolerance encourages police to act on their instincts, including their discriminatory instincts.”

According to Fraga, Mexican security experts who have studied crime in Mexico for decades believe that the Giuliani plan does not make a convincing case that it can be an effective model to resolve the high delinquency in Mexico City. Journalist Carlos Ramirez compares the approach to what happens in the movies, saying officials are going after the most visible criminals while ignoring the mafias responsible for the major crimes and forgetting about the society’s structural problems that cause the high crime rate. These observers speak of a “spectacular show” being staged, one that creates an illusion of action and safety, but is constructed in a way that impedes delivery of its promises.

Behind the Curtain

These pessimistic analyses beg a response. But the main protagonists have avoided engaging in a democratic public discourse: either choosing silence or simply endorsing the report one hundred percent. Carlos Slim has said nothing, and Lopez Obrador – who is known for calling public referenda and participation on all kinds of issues – has been evasive, while Police Commissioner Ebrard, a former national congressman, has expressed complete optimism. Their refusal to enter into a debate only creates more questions among Chilangos. It seems to many that the powerful groups behind the report have much to gain yet the ordinary citizen’s cut is more uncertain.

Ramirez worries that politicians are playing political games with the public’s security and may be taking advantage of the public’s overwhelming fear. He says that the political motives for Lopez Obrador and Marcelo Ebrard are obvious, while Slim and Giuliani have perhaps even more to gain. Fraga, the crime-fighting analyst, sees the private-sector sponsored Giuliani recommendations as part of an ideological project centering on quality of life improvements in Mexico City’s more upscale neighborhoods: a wider strategy with ancestral roots, which seeks to raise property values for real estate speculators and to push others – workers and poor – to the margins. This may sound familiar to residents – former as well as current – of many of Manhattan’s recently gentrified neighborhoods.

Indeed, numerous Mexican analysts stressed to Narco News that the Giuliani report cannot be viewed by itself, that it is not a coincidental or isolated development. In Part II, we will explore the motivations – the question of “what’s in it for them?” – of the major players in the Mexico City crime-rate gambit. Behind all the glitter and talk about “fighting crime,” there is big money – and political power – to be made by the strange bedfellows who have brought the Giuliani project to Mexico City.

Noah Friedsky, a graduate of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism last February, and participant in the summer session of the J-School, is a freelance photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, and the Bolivian Times. He can be reached at: nfriedsky@yahoo.com

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America