A year after Mexico's massive anti-crime protests, few changes

MEXICO CITY — One year ago, a rash of kidnappings throughout Mexico prompted tens of thousands to fill the streets to demand from the government safer streets and more honest cops, and from each other a more proactive citizenry.

Yet, as activists marked the anniversary of those protests, the collective momentum of a year past has yielded few concrete changes. While grisly drug-trafficking violence monopolizes headlines here, it is the muggings, kidnappings, and burglaries that concern the average Mexican. Kidnappings are up, more Mexicans report feeling unsafe, and slightly more say they have been victims of crime. And Mexicans still don't trust the cops.

The percentage of those who do not even bother to report crimes — about 80 percent — has not budged, despite government and civilian efforts to support victims.

"We do not have a culture of reporting crime here," says Elias Kuri, the national coordinator of Light Up Mexico, a nonprofit that organized the nationwide protests last year. "Mexicans feel that authorities are ineffective and dishonest; they fear that reporting crime to the authorities will make their problems worse."

In the wake of a crime spree in 2008, during which kidnappings doubled from the year before, the government adopted a national pact to, among other things, root out corrupt police moonlighting for kidnapping rings, better coordinate police actions, and create more citizen watch groups.

At the same time, citizens, many holding candles and photos of their missing relatives and friends, marched in cities across the country to demand that crime be addressed and that the pact be more than an empty promise.

A year later, the government maintains it has accomplished the pact's goals: connecting all states to a central crime reporting system, creating citizen watchdog groups in municipalities across the country, and orienting victims to psychological and legal services.

But residents say the situation is just as bad, if not worse, than before. Rosario Hernandez watched protesters march past her newspaper stand in downtown Mexico City last year and felt that something was going to change. "But there is just more crime, and I think we are even more neurotic now," she says.

Civil society groups also say they are disappointed. The nonprofit Mexicans United Against Crime assessed the results of the national pact, and maintains that the government has fallen short of its goals, particularly at the municipal level.

"They list a number of actions they take, but that does not help us at all if it is not part of a coordinated effort," says Juan Francisco Torres Landa, secretary of the group. "They are betting on sheer force."

To many, that gamble is not bringing results. In a new survey carried out by Mexicans United Against Crime and the polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, 68 percent of Mexicans say security is worse now than it was a year ago. And 24.2 percent say someone in their close circle has been the victim of a crime, up by six points from a year before.

The number of kidnappings is also up. They jumped from 436 in 2007 to 825 in 2008, according to the Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies. And after a dip, Mexicans United Against Crime shows that kidnappings this year, through April 2009, are up by 9 percent over 2008. (Mexico's attorney general's office says that their military fight against organized crime has pushed drug traffickers into other criminal areas, such as kidnapping and extortion.)

Most alarming to some, Mexicans are still wary of reporting or publicly denouncing crime. In a new annual Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies survey released last week, only 22 percent of citizens are reporting crimes, up by only a single percentage point from the year before.

Civil groups continue to encourage citizens to come forward, since, they reason, authorities cannot do the full scope of their work unless they know the full scope of the problem. Light Up Mexico launched a crime map Sunday to mark the anniversary of protests last year and to allow citizens to report crimes via the Internet. The government has also pushed for increased citizen participation through anonymous hot lines, but Kuri says the tool is ineffective because Mexicans don't trust the confidentiality of the phone system.

Some 39 percent of Mexicans, according to Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies figures, consider denouncing crime a waste of time, while 22 percent say they are afraid of the consequences.

Hernandez, the kiosk owner, says she believes people are "daring more to denounce," she says. But when asked if she would go to the police if she were the victim of a crime, she hesitates, looking at her teenage daughter. "I'm not sure. You never know what will come of it."

Torres Landa says he also fears that Mexicans have become desensitized. "A good portion of Mexicans have lost that sense of surprise about what is going on," says Torres Landa, whose group orients victims to the proper authorities and follows up their cases. "We cannot get used to this."