From Bullets to Bistros: the Mexico City Miracle

Even as drug war violence encroaches, a sharp drop in crime over the past decade has changed the culture of Mexico's capital.

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Policemen patrol during the start of a joint security operation in Ecatepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City on January 22, 2013. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

After midnight, Cesar Perez, the director of Mexico City's Driving Without Alcohol program, stands alongside more than a dozen other police officers at a checkpoint on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes avenues, near the capital's historic center. Perez, a veteran officer with a serious demeanor, isn't looking for drug smugglers. He and his team have a different focus: drunk drivers.

He looks over at the line of cars by the curb. "In 2003 [former New York City mayor Rudolph] Giuliani came to look for programs to increase the efficiency of the police," Perez says. "We had a high incidence of drunk driving." Under a slight drizzle, a police tow truck operator raises the front of an impounded late model Volkswagen Beetle. The car's driver, a middle-aged man in a crisp blue shirt, fails his breathalyzer test and will spend the night inside a holding facility, along with a few hundred other over-the-legal-limit drivers detained at other checkpoints.

In other parts of the country, cartel violence is raging and criminals are taking advantage of the resulting power vacuum. But in Mexico City, the police, through their presence in the streets, have helped reduce the types of common crimes that affect residents the most. The alcoholímetro checkpoints are now a well-recognized element of Mexico City's nightlife. They are part of a broader slate of innovative community-oriented police programs that have helped turn Mexico City from one of the world's most dangerous places into one of the safest areas in Mexico.

At the checkpoint on Reforma Avenue, police officers in white vests emblazoned with the word "ALCOHOLÍMETRO" wave cars though the cordoned-off lane behind the mobile breathalyzer station. "It's a civil infraction... [we detain] eight to twenty-five people a night," at each checkpoint, Perez explains. Five detainees who failed their breathalyzer tests wait inside a transport vehicle. "When there are five or six people, we take them to El Torito," he says, a holding facility where drunk drivers must spend a minimum of twenty and a maximum of thirty-six hours. "It's not a pleasant place. People don't want to go back," Perez says.

Police patrols, security cameras, and a relentless focus on reducing crime has transformed Mexico's capital.

Mexico City was once feared as being the most dangerous city in the planet. A new network of security cameras, and a focus on community police-work and patrols, have helped entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, and young professionals out of a decade of stalled urban renewal programs, and fostered the emergence of a vibrant nightlife. As street gangs have receded to fringe neighborhoods, crime has fallen, and many late night partiers have a different concern: the fear of being detained at the breathalyzer checkpoints.

Even high profile figures such as Manuel Espino, the ex-president of the right-of-center National Action Party, and Sergio Sendel, the actor who provided the voice for Diego in the Spanish-language version of Ice Age, have been detained at the checkpoints and taken to "El Torito." Nearly 100,000 drivers have been detained at alcoholimetro checkpoints since the Driving Without Alcohol program was implemented in 2003. The culture of Mexico City's vida nocturna has already started to change.

After Mexico's economic collapse in the mid-1990s, violence increased in the capital. "There was an explosion of crime," says Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City-based security consultant. In 1994, Mexico City's crime rate increased by a third, a jump that was repeated again in 1995. In 1997, in two separate incidents, an American journalist was shot in the spine during a botched kidnapping attempt and two German tourists were shot in a robbery at a restaurant. In 1998, for the first time, the U.S. State Department warned that crime in Mexico City "had reached critical levels," and warned U.S. citizens visiting Mexico's capital that there had been a "marked increase in the levels of crime committed." In 1996, an average of three murders a day was recorded in Mexico City.

Starting in 2000 with the election of leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as Mexico City's mayor, the city began investing in a series of innovative social programs. Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, explained that Marcelo Ebrard, who was mayor between 2006 and 2012, and his predecessor, Obrador, "went street by street in the Centro Historico and got rid of the ambulantes [unregistered street vendors]. It's a variant of the broken windows theme." Ebrard also told the police to focus on ticketing drivers who neglected to wear seatbelts. He installed security cameras throughout the city, and set up the alcoholímetro checkpoints to crack down on drunk driving.

"Accidents caused by drunk drivers are down 30 percent," Perez said. Other types of crime have fallen as well. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State dropped its "critical crime level" warning for Mexico City. Police patrols, security cameras, and a relentless focus on reducing crime in in upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Polanco, Condesa, and La Roma have helped change the city. In particular, the alcoholímetro anti-drunk driving program has been a success. "People think it's annoying, but it really works, it's lowered the number of drunk driving accidents," Eduardo Guerrero said. In recent years Mexico City has also achieved impressive reductions in assaults, robberies, and violent crime. In 2011, inter-gang conflicts in Mexico City, the largest urban hub in the country, accounted for about 1 percent of the total number of drug-related murders reported in Mexico.

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Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Mexico City based writer who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile and written articles for Forbes, The World Policy Journal, The Nation, The Global Post, and Lapham's Quarterly.

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