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Twin Cities

MEXICO CITY -- Since Cairo is the foreign city I know best, I often see its image in other world capitals. Usually those kinships present themselves in little flashes here and there, reminders that when you gather a few million people in one place they are certain to organize themselves in predictable and familiar ways. But in Mexico City, the resemblances are not fleeting; they are ubiquitous, even uncanny.

Cairo serves hot tea more often than coffee -- otherwise the scenes of geriatrics playing backgammon in street cafes are identical here and there. On most blocks in Mexico City, there is someone shaving meat off a spindle; if that meat were not sometimes pork, or adjacent to pork, the servers could start an exchange program with the shawarma vendors around Talaat Harb Square. In the Mexico City subway for the first time, I was urged politely by a uniformed attendant to move down the platform to a gentlemen's car. The last time I rode in one of those, the ladies in the car next door were all veiled.

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The one Mexico City phenomenon that Cairo conspicuously lacks is crime. In several days here I have not been so much as short-changed, so when I imply that Mexico City is crime-ridden I rely on the reports of Mexicans and expatriates here who give the same types of advice one gets in Nairobi. Don't walk around in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Take registered cabs, and get out in well-lit areas. To avoid carjacking, keep your car in gear and rolling at intersections after midnight. Here they occasionally take the crime paranoia to ridiculous extremes.

But there are genuinely worrisome developments. The signature act of thievery is the "express kidnapping," which elevates the streetside stick-up to the level of grand theft. The victim is taken from cash machine to cash machine and forced to empty his accounts. Since his bank likely places a daily limit on his withdrawals, the kidnappers often keep him past midnight to get a second day of cash. They may even activate networks of accomplices in the banks, to reset the daily limit for a third or fourth harvest of withdrawals. When the account is depleted, the victim's credit cards fund high-end buys at Walmart or elsewhere, till finally the victim is left free and bankrupt. This sort of criminal spree (sometimes called a "millionaire's tour") happens on the order of half a dozen times daily in Mexico City.

I suppose what shocks me is that this sort of crime -- high-reward and not more than medium-risk -- does not happen more in America, and at all in most other great cities. I have never heard of ATM theft at all in Cairo, and though it happens in New York, I have never heard it described as such a developed industry anywhere else.

I went to Alameda Park, a placid gathering point in the historic center of Mexico City, and asked a few people whether express kidnappings were something they feared. It felt odd to be asking people here, in such a quiet and peaceful place, about terror. The scariest thing in sight was a target-shooting stand, where you could pay five pesos to shoot fifteen pellets and win a prize.

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Most people said they did worry. But they also said the crime had not altered their lives. No one had ever been kidnapped personally, though some said they had been robbed. The most garrulous character in the park was Andreas Montecristo, a tenor and auto mechanic who told me his thoughts on crime in exchange for a half a packet of fried plantains. Andreas explained the supposed Mexican crime wave with reference to the tabloid newspaper he was reading. "Look at this," he said, pointing to a photo of Michael Jackson. "When you examine things, they look strange, and the press finds a story." Crime in Mexico wasn't abnormal, or even on the rise, he claimed: just more visible, now that the newspapers were more competent, and the spotlight more focused.

In view of the happy families out here taking photos, playing music, and shooting fake guns I could see why a world of real guns might seem implausible and distant. But I wager that no spotlight of any wattage would make Antonio himself look as strange as Michael Jackson, or Cairo as crime-bedeviled as Mexico City.


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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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