From Bullets to Bistros: the Mexico City Miracle

On a warm winter afternoon, Oscar Tapia, a 33-year-old cable technician, took a break from a game of basketball near the glass-paneled Reforma 222 shopping center, not far from where Perez and his team ran the alcolímetro site. Tapia looked up to a row of aging, graffiti-smeared cement apartment buildings with heavy grates over their windows. "This used to be a conflict zone, a point of sale for drugs," Oscar, who grew up in the neighborhood, explained. "It used to be that if you went to visit friends or family you had to leave by eleven or twelve because crystalazos [smash-and-grab robberies] were common." As he talked, a blue and grey police car passed slowly on the street. "Now the patrols pass every twenty minutes," Oscar explained.

Mexico City's success in reducing crime helped fellow PRD politician Miguel Mancera win a landslide victory in the race to replace Ebrard as the city's mayor. During the campaign, Mancera claimed that security was his first policy priority. He promised to put "police by your side in the community" and to "keep reducing crime." He won an overwhelming 63% of the vote.

In Mexico City, the police benefit from a favorable power dynamic. Although there are rumors that some trafficking organizations might be trying to muscle their way into Mexico City's retail drug markets, the city is generally not a focal point for cartel violence. The police enjoy the benefit of being the most powerful armed force on the streets. In other parts of Mexico, where local police offices are short-staffed and poorly equipped to face threats from cartel members, the federal government has used the army and federal police to battle drug traffickers. Aside from a couple of high-profile yet isolated incidents, such as the triple homicide at the capital's airport and the pair of decapitated bodies found at an upscale shopping mall in 2012, Mexico City has largely been spared from the grisly violence affecting other parts of the country.

As street gangs have receded to fringe neighborhoods, many late night partiers have a different concern: the fear of being detained at the breathalyzer checkpoints.

The first few weeks of 2013, however, have put Mexico City's police on alert. In a 24-hour period between Friday, January 11 and Saturday January 12, a number of disturbing incidents occurred in Mexico's city's more dangerous, outlying neighborhoods. On Friday night, gunmen killed an 18-year-old man near a known outdoor drug depot. An hour later, three men were found blindfolded and tied up, killed by multiple bullet wounds. On January 12, two men were killed while drinking in the street. A few hours later, gunmen stepped out of a car and killed three men in the same area. In total 11 people were killed in the span of 24 hours and 22 people were killed over the course of the weekend.

Still, unlike other parts of the country, Mexico City is not likely to emerge as a narco-violence hotspot. As security analyst Alejandro Hope explained, "Recent killings are mostly about control of the retail drug market. It may have been a flare-up between rival gangs -- rather serious, but nothing that alters the main insight that Mexico City tends to be safer than, say, Monterrey, just because it has far many more cops."

The heavy police presence discourages criminals from operating in plain sight, and a network of public security cameras provides an additional deterrent. Plus, for organized criminal groups, operating in Mexico City attracts unwanted political attention that could hurt their more lucrative smuggling operations in other parts of the country. Mexico City's retail drug market is largely served by an atomized group of local dealers rather than a vertically-integrated mafia-type organization. In the city's gentrifying core, the police patrols enjoy the relatively mundane tasks of thwarting petty crimes and stopping drunk drivers. So far, the community-focused policing strategy has yielded positive results.

Federico, a 26-year-old Mexico City resident who spent a day in "El Torito" after failing a breathalyzer test said people "know the alcoholímetros exist... this is a reason to avoid driving [drunk.]"

Seated at an outside table at an expensive Argentine restaurant at one of the main avenues in La Roma, he added, "now, if I have a friend who is [thinking about driving while intoxicated], I say it's not cool." A late model silver and blue police car passed slowly on the main avenue.

"Do you want another beer?" a waiter asked.

"No, I'm good," Federico said.

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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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