In a city where streets are vehicular free-for-alls and red lights are mere suggestions, there is no greater symbol of corruption than the traffic policeman in his brown uniform, notoriously eager for a bribe in return for pocketing his ticket book.
"Never more!" Mexico City's police chief has declared. As of Monday, he will yank ticket-writing authority from the city's 900 male traffic enforcers and create a new, all-female squad of uniformed patrols in hopes of curbing corruption in one of the city's most tarnished institutions.
"They are more highly regarded by people," said Secretary of Public Security Alejandro Gertz. Added his spokesman, Valentin Perez: "Women, by nature, are more moral. They take the straighter road."
Many here consider the switch to women in brown a radical transformation for the most macho of professions in this conservative, male-driven society. But others wonder whether the all-female ticketing squad is another gimmick in the city's long and largely unsuccessful effort to solve an entrenched problem that often is viewed as an equal opportunity temptation rather than a real crime in a nation of underpaid public servants.
"Look, nobody respects us," conceded Isidoro Duran, 54, a veteran of 25 years on the city's traffic force whose salary is $435 a month. "But there's not going to be less corruption with women. This is not a question of sex because the uniform is the same, the salary is the same. With corruption . . . it's not easy to ignore the opportunity."
In Mexico City, a metropolis with 3.5 million registered vehicles, the opportunities abound, despite every new program launched by the city government. In one of his initial acts as the federal district's first elected mayor in modern times, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas slashed fines in half in hopes of making it cheaper for traffic offenders to pay the penalty than to bribe police. It made no perceptible difference in the bribe rate.
Motorists frequently complain that traffic police pull them over even when no law has been violated, then threaten to file a trumped up charge unless the victim forks over a mordida, which literally translates as a "bite."
"The police don't care anything about the traffic rules," said Alicia Machado, 37, a lawyer who plies the city streets daily. "They're just waiting and looking for a victim. Then after they nail you, they go for lunch or a sleep in their patrol car."
The cops on the street, however, say they often are driven to collect bribes to make their own payoffs to supervisors who demand weekly payments. Just Thursday, a precinct supervisor was jailed after one of his men accused him of demanding a bribe in return for assigning the officer a patrol car and a desirable beat.
But stripping the male traffic enforcers of their ticketing authority has raised another issue. With 900 male officers being allowed to give only warnings to errant drivers, the police chief will have only 30 two-woman patrol cars policing traffic in the clogged streets of a megalopolis of nearly 22 million people.
"With only 60 officers, who is going to care about people running through intersections?" asked Mario Tabla, 38, who has been driving a taxi for two decades. "If there's nobody there to make a case, nobody's going to obey the laws."
Of course, even when Mexico City drivers get legitimate tickets, they seldom pay. According to police chief Gertz, city police issued 1.7 million traffic citations last year, 90 percent of which were never paid.
"I have gotten 20 tickets and I've never paid one," said a Mexico City lawyer, who--for obvious reasons--asked to remain anonymous. "Why should I pay? If the police don't like you they write out a ticket for no reason."
He admitted, however, that some of the citations were issued for laws he did break, such as running red lights and parking in no-parking zones.
Neither police nor drivers say they believe an all-female force--whose members will be chosen from among officers who do other law enforcement work--will eradicate corruption.
"But women are less corrupt," said Enrique Tabla, 39, another taxi driver.