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Next Time in Mexico, Beware Frisky Police

Since 1994, crime has soared. To combat it, police conduct random searches - a lot.

The bus driver has a decal of Disney's Thumper on the side window. Above the front window is a red fringe with dangling balls, and, as always, the radio blasts nonstop.

This is a crowded local bus, rumbling out of Mexico City, carrying me and my wife to the magnificent ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan. Halfway there, police flag the bus to a stop, and climb aboard to body search all the males for weapons.

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Twenty minutes later it happens again, this time with police wearing bullet proof vests and carrying AK-47s. All caballeros are ordered off the bus and searched for weapons and drugs while Doberman pinschers on leashes watch quietly.

Welcome to Mexico's National Emergency Security Plan, an effort to thwart the country's explosive crime rate. As an American tourist traveling on buses to and from Mexico City, Taxco, and Cuernavaca over a recent 10-day period, I was searched five times.

Since the peso was devalued in late 1994, millions of working-class people have lost their jobs. And the flow of drugs through Mexico has risen dramatically. Crimes of robbery and burglary, particularly in Mexico City, have soared. Kidnappings, highway assaults, and robberies on buses have also increased. But this week at a press conference, Mexico City's security chief reported that there had been a slight reduction after two years of spiraling crime.

Possession of a revolver can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, and penalties of possession of firearms can be as high as 30 years.

Seated in Sanborn's Cafe for breakfast in Mexico City one morning, I watch a side door burst open and three, uniformed men carrying AK-47s rush through the tables and out the front door. No one blinks an eye. No one asks what's happening.

While police presence with weapons has become commonplace, the terrible irony is that Mexican police are nearly universally distrusted because of pervasive corruption. For example, last summer when Hector Palma, one of Mexico's most notorious drug peddlers, was arrested in the state of Jalisco, 33 federal police officers were also arrested. They were moonlighting as Palma's bodyguards.

Mexican criminologists say the real crime rate is probably higher than reported, because many victims choose not to contact the police. Reasons for hesitancy abound. In 1995, three police officers tried to hijack the chauffeur-driven car of President Ernesto Zedillo Pisano's son. Bodyguards prevented the attack, arresting the hapless officers. And last year, after Mexico City police opened a substation in a middle-class neighborhood, residents protested with sit-ins and vigils until the office was closed.

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People are wary about letting police enter their homes, because of stories about citizens who were robbed shortly after a visit from officers. Local citizens make changes in habits and schedules to lessen exposure to robberies. An American couple working in the city pay their household help at odd times to reduce the chance of her being robbed. "At the first of the month or the middle," says the husband, "everybody knows people are going home on the bus with their pay. So we pay her on off days."

There have been stories of American tourists brutally robbed and abandoned after climbing in one of the little green Volkswagens that serve as taxis in Mexico City.

Yet, during 10 days in Mexico, our treatment by strangers, police officers, taxi drivers, and workers was nothing but polite and warm. A man we stopped on a busy Mexico City street to ask for directions huddled with us for several minutes over a map making sure we understood the route to our destination.

Taxi drivers were polite and business-like. In Taxco, while I leaned over to look at silver jewelry, unknowingly my reading glasses dropped out of a pocket. A woman caught up with me a block later and presented me with the glasses and a smile.

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