- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

MEXICO CITY This sprawling city, already one of the world's most dangerous, has a new criminal menace on its hands: Bands of crooks dressed like police have been using fake patrol cars to hijack freight and rob people at gunpoint.
Local authorities are calling these copycat robbers "clones," and the menace appears to be the latest blot on a megalopolis known worldwide as the capital of express kidnapping and corrupt cops.
Mexico City police last week chased down a pair of "cloned" cars detailed to look like police cruisers, which were being used to pull over and steal tractor-trailers on their way out of town. Three men were arrested after a shootout, and three others got away.
The most recent victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer, was found with his cargo in a warehouse outside the city limits. According to some accounts, the suspects were aided by police in the neighboring state of Mexico.
The city said it had since found at least four more cloned cruisers. On Friday, the police admitted there was a phony squad car at large in the city's eastern outskirts, pulling over motorists for supposed moving violations, then robbing them.
According to the officers, one victim who refused to cooperate was shot twice.
The crimes are not isolated. In the past year, there have been at least three other cases in which suspects passing for federal police, city detectives or standard-issue cops robbed cash, cars and even shipments of refrigerators. The State Department Web site warns tourists to "be wary of persons representing themselves as Mexican police or other local officials."
It's no wonder, considering the widespread availability of police equipment in a city where underpaid cops often sell their uniforms for ready cash. An investigation by the newspaper Reforma showed that a Pontiac Sunfire or a Chevy Malibu could be made to look like a police car for only $700.
For locals accustomed to harassment from corrupt and often criminal police, the irony of the clones is hard to miss; indeed, one cop-clone suspect arrested in June said that he was the son of a high-level police official.
In response, Mexico City police Chief Marcelo Ebrard, said the city would issue "intelligent" uniforms to all of its about 85,000 police by the end of the year. "The criminals are out there and we're going to get them," he said. In the meantime, "we're looking for a uniform that can't be copied."
Chief Ebrard says the uniforms will be made from a fabric unavailable to the public and will cost about $8 million. It's a big figure, given that the average police salary here is less than $5,000 a year. The low pay is considered a key factor in the force's entrenched corruption.
The city made headlines in the fall by hiring former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as a crime consultant on a one-year, $4.3 million contract. Mr. Giuliani, who visited Mexico City for 36 hours last month, could not be reached for comment. He is scheduled to turn in his recommendations in May.
The problem for the local authorities also is that anybody can dress up to like a Mexican policeman. Apart from the scores of suppliers who cater to law enforcement, there are many street vendors openly selling cop gear to anybody who wants it.
In front of the city's "Foro Sol" baseball stadium, a pair of covered stands hawk complete police uniforms, vests, patches, insignia and even numbered brass shields. Previously worn, "autentico" items fetch the highest prices.

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