Giuliani's crime plan for Mexico City a work in progress

MEXICO CITY — Thanks to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fernando Perez was thrown in jail twice last week for washing windshields on the streets of this crime-plagued city.

Unable to pay a $45 fine, which for him is one week's pay, Perez spent 36 hours crammed in a jail cell with two dozen other windshield wipers. His second stint was shortened to 15 hours because police had more squeegee men than cell space.

But on a recent day, Perez was back at his usual intersection, accosting stopped cars with a spray bottle in one hand and a homemade squeegee in the other.

"It's this or rob," said the father of three as he darted toward a slowing car, limping on his left leg that was swiped by a vehicle during a windshield-washing mishap three years ago. "Why isn't Señor Giuliani picking on the real criminals instead of people trying to earn enough to eat?"

One year after this sprawling megalopolis launched an ambitious crime-busting project crafted by Giuliani in exchange for a $4.3 million consulting fee, results appear to be mixed, at best.

Crime rates have decreased roughly 8 percent under what's known here as Plan Giuliani — an impressive achievement even if it falls short of the 10 percent to 15 percent drop Mexico City officials had predicted annually for the plan's first three years. In the city's historic center, the area of prime concern to a group of business executives who paid Giuliani's fee, crime has dropped nearly 28 percent.

But citywide kidnappings, already higher here than anywhere in the world outside of war-torn Colombia, have doubled to at least 100 so far this year, while homicides have slipped a mere half percent.

Meanwhile, street vendors, child beggars and squeegee men — all of whom were to be cleared from the streets under Giuliani's "zero tolerance" theory that disorder breeds hard-core crime — are returning to their illicit work after they've been jailed or fined, albeit in reduced numbers.

"We've begun to achieve very favorable results, but they're still insufficient," acknowledged Mexico City Police statistician Mario Delgado, the lone official the Police Department made available for comment.

When Giuliani visited here 1-<133>1/2 years ago — prompting jeers from Mexican media for touring hot spots in a convoy of 12 armored sport-utility vehicles, surrounded by 400 police officers with a helicopter whirring overhead — he warned the plan needed four years to achieve significant results.

Many criminologists wonder if that time frame is sufficient. Although crime rates were halved in New York City when Giuliani applied zero-tolerance measures as mayor in the 1990s, some observers attribute the drop to such factors as an economic upswing.

Moreover, crime experts say, Yankee logic may not work to solve Mexico's endemic crime problem.

"Zero tolerance is a useless concept in Mexico," said Rafael Ruiz-Harrell, a leading Mexican criminologist. Like many critics, he also questioned the veracity of the city's reported crime drop.

With 22 million people and a 50 percent poverty rate, Mexico City and its surrounding sprawl teem with so many thieves and hustlers that nearly every family here includes recent crime victims. Police and prosecutors are so corrupt that polls show two-thirds of residents don't bother to report crimes.

Supporters of Plan Giuliani believe that what they call Mexico's "total tolerance" attitude can be changed but only if the project receives adequate funding and vigorous implementation.

"The government has applied this plan hypocritically," said Luis de la Barreda, president of the Citizens Institute of Crime Studies, a Mexico City think-tank. "It's focusing on attacking easy targets."

Among other Giuliani recommendations, city police have placed "panic buttons" on public buses, beefed up patrols and placed hidden surveillance cameras in key crime spots to catch both thieves and corrupt cops. Mexico's national legislature is drafting measures to increase prison terms for kidnappers and other criminals.

But because federal lawmakers slashed public-security funding for Mexico City by one-third this year, most of Giuliani's ambitious proposals to streamline and modernize Mexico City's police force remain on the drawing board.

In addition, the Police Department has yet to stop requiring officers to buy their own uniforms or to increase rookies' monthly salaries from the current $300 — a figure so low that police routinely let suspects off the hook in exchange for bribes, known here as "mordidas" or nibbles.

A program that subjects drunken-driving suspects to Breathalyzer tests was suspended on Christmas and New Year's eves in deference to holiday revelers.

And while police have forced 350 unauthorized cabs off the streets, other unlicensed cabbies continue to commit "express kidnaps," in which they hold unwitting passengers just long enough to seize their ATM cards and empty their bank accounts.

Many supporters fear that even if all of Plan Giuliani's recommendations are implemented, crime won't subside unless Mexico provides alternatives for employment.

Still, many residents consider the plan a step forward. "Even a little drop in crime is something," said Liliana Valdez, a secretary who has been the victim of pickpockets twice and burglars once in the past three years.