City Life: Mexico City - All-women force drives away traffic corruption

TRAFFIC TAILBACKS are one of the torments of driving in Mexico City, swarming with more than 3.5 million registered vehicles. To many traffic police, each idling car represents an opportunity. For a small payment, called a mordida or little bite, they can choose not to write out violations and are quite happy to pocket the change.

Until last week, pairs of these brown-uniformed cops would lurk in the rush-hour troublespots, ticket books at the ready, palms outstretched, pistol in the pocket. Most seemed far less concerned with traffic flow than with their personal cashflow.

But last Monday all 900 male traffic officers in Mexico City were forced to turn in their ticket pads and give way to an elite all-woman force, who cruise around in zippy new vehicles. Only 60 of these new police, known as cisnes - or swans - were appointed at first. The new force was doubled to 120 officers, riding four to a car, by the time the scheme went into full effect.

Still, in a city with an official population of 9 million - and unofficial census estimates of upwards of 23 million - this represents precious few. No wonder that in the three months I've been driving in the city, I have been sideswiped by a bus, had the passenger door kicked in by an irate motorcyclist who objected to being overtaken by a woman driver, and sat behind a 15-minute "Mexican stand-off", where neither driver would give way to the other on a narrow stretch of road, yet I have never witnessed any concerned traffic police of either sex pull over to investigate.

Drink-driving laws are lax, breathalysers are rare and stopping at red lights is optional. Most traffic police prefer to survey the cars waiting to merge on to the ring road, diligently searching for an expired pollution certificate or licence plate they can point out so they get a cash incentive from the motorist not to issue a citation.

Last year, only 1.7 million traffic tickets were filed in the entire calendar year, and 90 per cent went unpaid.

"There is a perception that the people holding the ticket books commit acts of corruption," says Alejandro Gertz, the Secretary of Public Security. `'That's why we are coming up with an adequate and sensible response."

There are a few women officers, known as foxes or zorros, but they are in a glamorous, black-clad, gun- toting demolition squad andhang on to the leads of German shepherd dogs.

The swans are unarmed, and must rely on persuasion rather than threat. Their salaries average even less than the typical pounds 300 take-home pay of the traditional traffic policemen.

But the city fathers are confident the swans will not take bribes. "Women by nature are more moral," the Public Security spokesman, Valentin Perez, said. "They take the straight road."

Curbing corruption in some manner is a high priority. Two weeks ago, a police supervisor was taken to court for demanding from a rookie a "facilitation fee" that would guarantee a better-tuned patrol car and a lucrative patrol beat.

So far this year, 44 policemen and security guards have been charged with crimes, ranging from extortion to rape and murder. Petty offences by police are considered routine.

"Show your identification to the cops, if it is requested," says Debra Pike-Tritton, a long-time resident of Mexico City. "But do not hand it to them. You may not get it back, especially if you have refused to pay a bribe. Some sell your identity papers."

Experienced drivers usually keep a copy of the Mexican rules of the road in the glove compartment. When pulled over, they flip open to each possible traffic violation listed next to the corresponding fine. After a little pleasant dickering, most drivers and traffic police are willing to settle on one-third the maximum fine.

Jose Luis, a bartender, was nabbed for double- parking by one of the swan patrols this week, but the old methods failed him.

When he tried to slip the policewoman a 50-peso note to forget about it, she pursed her lips and continued filling in the form. She slapped away his attempt to put the folded bill into her pocket.

"Nothing doing," Jose Luis muttered later. "She told me if I pay this in three days at the station, they'll cut the fine in half. But I just don't know. I have been driving 15 years and never paid a ticket yet."

Could this finally be the swan-song of the macho ticket dodger as well as the corrupt cop?

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