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Mexican Cops Get a Required Reading List

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Luis Sanchez got his cops a raise, a sleek helicopter called Coyote One and 100 new squad cars. Now the hard part: He’s forcing culture down their throats.

Starting this month, the mayor of this Mexico City bedroom community is requiring all 1,100 members of his police force to read at least one book a month, or forfeit career advancement. The cops will get reading lessons if they need them and can select the literature from a list of recommended books at a new library, ranging from “Don Quixote” to the latest crime novels by Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

Why the emphasis on literature for police officers, 70% of whom have no more than eighth-grade educations? Sanchez believes that too many cops are rude to citizens and that by reading, they will become better mannered, more communicative and thus more welcome in the neighborhoods they patrol.

“Reading makes us better people, more sensitive, more able to express ourselves,” said Sanchez, a bibliophile with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. “Better persons give better service.”

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Police will be tested and graded on their reading each month -- as they will be on six other traditional proficiency standards, such as physical fitness, ethics and arrests, the mayor said.

But there are skeptics among the ranks.

Some in uniform think that they and their comrades are too set in their ways to be transformed at this stage in their lives.

Local patrolman Jose Luis Avila likes the idea of trying to “eliminate ignorance,” but worries that the reading program, which Sanchez calls the first of its kind in Mexico, will be dropped after the initial flush of enthusiasm.

“The majority of us are confused because other mayors have come and made promises that haven’t been fulfilled,” Avila said.

Still, in his two years as mayor, Sanchez has improved working conditions and imposed new policing methods. The crime rate has fallen by 20% in this sprawling working-class suburb of 1.2 million people, he said.

That’s a remarkable improvement in a country that at times last year seemed more controlled by criminals than police.

The U.S. State Department issued a report last month severely criticizing Mexican police for widespread human rights abuses and corruption in 2004. Police forces in the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas were singled out as especially deficient.

Until recently, few Mexican towns had a more notorious police force than Nezahualcoyotl’s. Its last police chief, Carlos Ernesto Garcia, is sitting in Mexico’s highest-security prison, facing charges of being a major drug-trafficking capo in the so-called Neza Cartel.

But the new methods introduced by Sanchez and his new Police Chief Jorge Amador apparently are turning things around, said Javier Valencia, the state of Mexico’s deputy attorney general. The city’s decrease in crime last year was the largest in the state, Valencia said.

Mexico City, with its own crime-fighting campaign, claimed an 8% drop last year in “local crimes,” which include murders, assaults and car thefts.

But security expert Ernesto Lopez Portillo says that he doubts the crime rate has fallen here or anywhere else in the country, and that many Mexicans don’t report crimes out of fear of or frustration with police.

“Falling crime rates don’t necessarily square with the victimization rate,” Lopez Portillo said. “In fact, all official figures I have seen show there are still increases in federal crimes, which include organized crime and trafficking in drugs, arms and humans.”

Public disgust over the breakdown of law and order led to a massive demonstration in Mexico City last June, prompting the president to propose a 32% increase in funding for public security. That included $500 million in federal crime-prevention subsidies to states and cities, twice the 2004 amount.

But the extra money has been slow in filtering down to some cities. State congresses divvy up the cash, and the process is inevitably political. Sanchez said he hadn’t received “a single cent” of the increase and was making do with the resources he had.

He said he had diverted money from public works projects to bump police spending by 50%, an increase that included boosting cops’ starting pay by 30%, to $700 a month.

He and Amador, his police chief, also radically reorganized patrolling methods. Instead of roaming freely, officers have 50-block coverage zones from which they are not supposed to stray.

They work 12-hour shifts instead of the 24-hour turns that much of the force slept through. Perhaps most important, the city hired 400 more officers.

The obligatory reading program is a new wrinkle, but one that author Taibo, a friend of Mayor Sanchez, believes is worth a try. He has agreed to help prepare the program and teach classes this year.

“There is no doubt that if you open people’s minds to the world of literature, that you also open up a world of sensitivity and of civilization, as any of us who read already know. That seems a worthwhile effort,” said Taibo, one of Mexico’s best-selling crime novelists.

The cops here are hesitantly embracing the idea.

“In Mexico, people don’t read,” said Officer Ranferi Soto, who is among the 10% of this town’s police officers who have high school educations. “This will awake some cultural interest among us.”


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