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Mexican Police Hit the Books With the Help of Radio Codes

Police officers Marco Antonio Molina Tolentino, left, and Luis Alberto Campos Tellez check out their copies of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" before attempting to translate Chapter 1 into radio code during a class in Nezahualcoyotl.
Police officers Marco Antonio Molina Tolentino, left, and Luis Alberto Campos Tellez check out their copies of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" before attempting to translate Chapter 1 into radio code during a class in Nezahualcoyotl. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 10, 2008

NEZAHUALCOYOTL, Mexico

In the luminous opening scene of Gabriel García Márquez's classic novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Aureliano Buendía confronts a memory.

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"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice," García Márquez wrote.

But here in Nezahualcoyotl, García Márquez's opening line reads, "Many alfas later, in front of a 44 squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía had a 60 about that distant afternoon when his father 26 him to 62 ice."

Confused?

The police here aren't. The Nezahualcoyotl version speaks their language: cop-speak. Police supervisors here are translating some of the greatest works of the Spanish language using police radio codes. So Macondo, García Márquez's mystical Colombian village, is a "22." And Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes' windmill-tilting hero, is a "skinny 67."

Nezahualcoyotl's stab at remaking the Spanish-language literary canon in terms that can be easily understood by poorly educated police officers strikes at a fundamental problem in Mexico. The country's educational system is woeful. And the police, most of whom come from poor neighborhoods where the schools are the worst of the worst, reflect it.

In a survey of 15-year-olds in 30 developed nations, Mexico ranked last in reading comprehension, according to a study released last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Most of the 1,300 police officers, firefighters and rescue workers now being tutored in Nezahualcoyotl have not completed high school, and barely any have gone to college. Mayor Victor Bautista López says he believes that teaching them to read will improve their communication skills and help them overcome the image of police as uncouth, uneducated brutes.

"Like politicians," Bautista López said, "they're almost at the bottom when it comes to prestige."

A Game and a Lesson

Nezahualcoyotl sprawls over 60 square miles east of Mexico City. With more than 1.1 million residents, it is the country's seventh-largest city, a poverty-gripped place with a long, sordid history of police corruption scandals.

Outside city hall and the police station, there is a statue of Nezahualcoyotl, the Aztec-era "poet king" who gave the city its name. He holds a writing quill and a scroll. Police here can't help but think he would approve of their new literary enthusiasm.


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