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Mexican Police Hit the Books With the Help of Radio Codes
Supervisors Hope Literature Will Soften Officers' Rough Image

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.

"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.

One recent afternoon, officers streamed past the statue, about 20 of them bounding up a set of stairs and crowding into a spare second-floor conference room. Their bulky bulletproof vests rode up around their necks as they squeezed around a long table. Three crates, each holding brand-new copies of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," stood against the wall.

The lesson started with a game. Roberto Pérez Ortiz, a public affairs specialist who looks like a college professor with his sports coat and stylish round glasses, asked the officers to make up a story, each contributing one line. The officers started conventionally. But P¿rez Ortiz stopped them, reminding them that they were about to enter Garc¿a M¿rquez's magical-realist realm.

"Destroy the narrative line!" Pérez Ortiz demanded.

The officers, some of whom had been watching with glazed eyes, brightened.

"A child died," said a deep-voiced patrolman.

José Luis Santoyo Herrera, a baby-faced officer stuffed into his black bulletproof vest, chimed in: "And then the child got up and ran away!"

His fellow officers cracked up. Pérez Ortiz smiled. He had them now.

'Don Quixote,' Anyone?

Police supervisors in Nezahualcoyotl tried to jump-start tutoring sessions more than three years ago. They had grand plans about introducing rank-and-file officers to great literature.

But it didn't work.

Officers couldn't get into the material. They were distracted. Bored.

That's when a group of supervisors came up with the idea of translating great novels using police radio codes. Juan Meléndez Mecalco, a regional chief with a literary flair, dived into "Don Quixote" and produced his own little police-style masterpiece. Many of the officers were still resistant. But for others, it was a spark. Suddenly, classrooms that had been deathly quiet came alive.

The big surprise, though, was that officers started asking for more books -- and they didn't mind if they weren't translated into police code.

Santoyo Herrera, a member of a special crisis strike force known as the Coyotes, was one of them.

"I hadn't read a book since high school," he said during a break in class.

Something else happened, too. Santoyo Herrera started to reassess the education that his children, now 7 and 4, were getting. They weren't reading much, he noticed, and he wasn't happy about it.

He started buying them books.

Trying Their Hand

Class resumed with a question.

"Have any of you heard of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude?' " Pérez Ortiz asked.

Santoyo Herrera looked down, scraping a boot against the floor. Some officers shook their heads. Others looked around searchingly. Not a hand was raised.

Pérez Ortiz smiled patiently.

"It's a very interesting work," he assured them.

An aide produced bright green, pristine copies of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Some of the officers turned the books over and over in their hands, examining them as if they were objects from outer space.

The officers will get Meléndez Mecalco's translation of the first chapter. But today, they are going to be the writers. Pérez Ortiz tells them to partner up and write their own translations of Chapter 1.

Marco Antonio Molina Tolentino hunched over a blank page with fellow officer Luis Alberto Campos Tellez. Pencil in hand, Molina Tolentino started to write.

"First they 26 the imam," he wrote. "A 40 gypsy, heavyset with a coarse beard, presented himself to the 62 of Melquiades."

Molina Tolentino looked up and grinned.

"Not bad," he said.

Birth of a Bookworm

Molina Tolentino lingered after class. A police officer for the past six years, he was one of the veterans in the room. At 38, he's like an older brother to the 20-somethings.

Since beginning the reading program, Molina Tolentino has become a bit of a bookworm. He'd always liked words, but now he devours them. Not long ago, he tackled "The Underdogs," Mariano Azuela's celebrated 1915 novel of the Mexican Revolution.

Yet he wasn't satisfied. Now, after work, he has taken to poring over law books. In his spare time, he is inching toward a law degree.

But he still appreciates what he calls "the economic" nature of the language he uses on the police radio and, frequently, just chatting with his colleagues.

Not long ago, he said, he wanted to invite a fellow officer to dinner.

" I said, 'Do you want to 35 at my 94?' "

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