Let me start with a confession. I love Mexico City. I also hate Mexico City. When I arrive in the Federal District of Mexico (el D.F.) I always feel conflicted. Half of me feels excitement at being immersed in a unique and alien culture. The other half of me feels like a rich widow stepping off the stagecoach into Dodge City.
The reason for this is the level of crime. Crime is everywhere in el D.F. yet it’s something which guidebooks gloss over: “Mexico City is no more dangerous than most Northern European cities,” says one well-known travel guide, “as long as you take the appropriate precautions you won’t have any problems.” In my experience, unless the appropriate precautions include driving the bat-mobile and wearing a Kevlar body-stocking, you are unlikely to find that Mexico City has much in common with Stockholm.
In a country where there are such extremes of wealth and poverty, ex-pats are viewed by the criminal fraternity as nothing more than brogue wearing cash machines. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint and chased down the street by a car full of youths intent on abducting me. Three of my friends have been hijacked in taxis. Two others who went walking in the hills outside Mexico City one Sunday were robbed by bandits sporting toothy grins and brandishing machetes. Mugging is so common it’s referred to as “gringo tax”.
Crime in el D.F. ranges from opportunistic stickups to the nastier gang organised kidnaps involving high profile business people and their families.
It’s not uncommon for these gangs to be run by the police or ex-police officers. In 2005, four officers from the Federal Investigation Unit were charged with kidnapping a man in Tijuana, an activity their unit was expressly created to combat. The statistics are grim. So many kidnap victims are murdered every year (43 in 2005 alone) I sometimes morbidly wonder if the police are simply attempting to eradicate the problem by reducing the supply of kidnap-ees.
One of the first things that strikes you about the traffic in el D.F. is the prevalence of bright green VW Beetle taxis (nicknamed “vochos”). “Ooo aren’t they cute” coo tourists when they see them. The cars are cute, but I never forget that Hitler loved VW beetles too. Vochos have no back passenger doors. This makes it hard for passengers to exit in a hurry, but makes it easy for unwelcome visitors to jump in. This feature is one of the reasons why taxi-hijackings, or express kidnaps, have become so popular. While the exact details of each incident vary,
I’ve included a step-by-step spotter’s guide below:
- You’ve drunk one too many mezcals and the long walk home through the City will crease your linen suit.
- You hail one of those cute vocho taxis and hop in.
The cab swerves into a dark street.
- Two fellows jump out of the darkness and try to open the passenger side door.The gentleman gain entry to your vehicle.
- They produce handguns which they point at your head. Often at this point the phrase, “Now you die, gringo” is employed.
- Your new friends drive you around the city. Being entrepreneurial types, they eschew tourist sites and drive you from cash-point to cash-point. At each, they insist that you withdraw the maximum sum.
- (Optional) Since you are all getting on so famously, your new pals insist that you stay with them for twenty-four hours, thereby adding more stops on your tour.
- (Optional) Being gregarious, your new best friends want to “go back to yours” to appraise your antique collection and make friends with your girlfriend.
- Since you are an imperialist gringo-pig and confidant of George W. Your impromptu guests administer a good beating, but hey, it’s nothing personal.
- You exit the moving taxi in a dangerous part of town. No need to worry though, your friends have guaranteed your safety by pre-removing all your valuables.
The last time this happened to my friend Damien, he was beaten-up and his wallet, jacket and shoes were stolen. A fact which perplexed him, since at 6′ 5″ his size 11’s were unlikely to fit many Mexicans. Suffice to say, I never complain about London cabbies.
The police in Mexico are badly paid. They have to buy their own uniforms and patrol car repair costs come out of their salaries. This means many rely on bribes to top up their salaries. These “mordidas” (literally “little bites”) and the culture of torture mean that many people see the police force as nothing more than the best equipped of the city’s gangs.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say that this isn’t true … but I can’t.
The torture problem is so bad that a few years ago the attorney general ran an anti-torture training course for police prosecutors. I watched the TV coverage of the event. Worthy types wagged fingers at the officers telling them that it was wrong to mutilate or burn suspects to obtain convictions. The officers looked on bemused, bored and uncomfortable, occasionally scratching at body parts. “Does it still count as torture if there are no marks?” one attendee asked.
This perception was borne out when I visited the local police station after being robbed by a gun-toting entrepreneur. My Mexican friends tried to discourage me, but I needed a police report. Only one of them, Desy, would accompany me. “Be careful what you say,” I was told, “because they’ll pass your details on to other gangs.” I went down to the police building and waited to report the theft. Eventually an officer appeared and took me to a small cell. His first three questions related to the robbery. The rest related to where I worked, how much I got paid, when I got paid and which bank I used to collect my salary from.
“Why do you need to know this?” Desy asked.
“Oh…are you from the embassy?” replied the officer, looking worried.
“No,” she said, “I’m just a friend.” He looked unconvinced.
“…Well I have enough, for now,” he said and shuffled us out.
“But tell your friend to come back on his own,” he said, “we need him to sign some documents before we can finish the report.”
I never did.
As an ex-pat, dealing with this situation is difficult. Rumours make it easy to indulge in paranoia. Some people invest in bullet-proof SUVs (the only place that sells more of them than Mexico is Colombia) or private security teams (a risk since these are often co-opted by kidnappers as well).The only practical security method is to develop your own virtual wing mirrors: keep your eyes (and ears) open, be ready to run like hell and always carry enough cash to pay anyone that can catch you. And failing that, never get in a taxi if the driver is wearing size 11 brogues.
(c) Guardian Unlimited 2008