You're walking down a random, densely populated street in Mexico City when something sharp is pressed into your back. A second knife is then held against your throat. A man jumps in front of you, jabbing a switchblade toward your horrified face. His own expression reads: "No bullshit."
You're being mugged. Get ready for it.
This happened to me on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, in Mexico City's historic downtown.
One of these men ripped off my backpack, while another, a 20-something in jeans and a grey hoodie, began slicing through the shoelaces of my Doc Martens. The third man tugged at the headphones protruding from my pocket, fumbling, so I did him the favor of tossing my cell phone — an iPhone bought just six weeks ago — away from me.
The trio then sauntered off, forgetting the Docs. I couldn't believe what had just happened and that the attackers were getting away with it on busy Correo Mayor street, just a half-block north of Mexico's National Palace at 1 pm on a Wednesday.
"No one is going to stop them, or help?" I asked the crowd, still lying on the floor rubbing my hair, which seconds earlier one of the men had been ripping at by the fistful.
My muggers were still within earshot.
"That's not how things work here, m'ija," a woman responded, shaking her head. "Ya vete — just go."
"No one saw anything," another witness chimed in. "Stand up."
I jumped up and hopped into a cab that was passing by. At least they didn't slit my throat, I thought. My cabbie took me home, where I scraped a few coins together and paid him.
"They probably thought you had cash in your shoe," the driver said matter-of-factly. "That's where I always keep my money."
Mexico City's historic downtown district. (Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre/AP)
Muggings are a feature of life in any big city, the statistics tell us. But there is something particularly frustrating and disheartening about the crime and how it is handled in the Mexican capital — especially when it comes to the authorities whose job it is to help victims recover their belongings and maybe acquire some justice.
My mugging in September set me on a nightmare ordeal that taught me — as far as the police were concerned — that I was one of the criminals, too.
Throughout the rest of that day, after I vented on Twitter, friends checked in to make sure I was OK. They also began to share horror stories of their muggings in Mexico. As awful anecdotes began flooding my inbox — stories involving AK-47s, pistols, ice picks, and knives — I asked each victim the same question: "Did you file a police report?"
"It never crossed my mind," said Emma Herrera, 27, who told me she was mugged twice in the span of three months. "The police don't feel like a protective element in Mexico. When you're in danger, they're the last people you think to go to."
I worried about this as I packed my bags for the airport. I was leaving the country early the next morning, and decided I would let Mexican officials know what happened to me at the airport's ministerio público, the term used in Mexico for a public prosecutor's desk.
That's when I found out my "mugging" was taking on a whole new dimension.
More than one in four Mexicans were victims of violent crime last year — not including those related to organized crime such as drug and human trafficking — but only 7.2 percent of these crimes were even reported to authorities, according to a government survey released last week.
The report released on September 30 by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (or INEGI) said victims in Mexico fail to report crimes because they considered it "a waste of time," or due to "lack of trust in authority."
The report goes on to say that less than a quarter of those surveyed "feel safe" in their communities, meaning 72.3% of people in the country have a negative perception of security in the daily surroundings.
'I didn't want to waste my time at the prosecutor's office, and wanted to avoid the victim shaming.'
In Mexico City, 15,121 people were mugged on the street "with violence" in 2014, according to data published by the National System of Public Safety, or SNSP. The data also says that more than 3,000 pedestrians were also robbed "without violence."
Crime statistics in Mexico, of course, are notoriously unreliable.
Stellum Sotelo says he's been robbed six times in Mexico. In one incident, he was left with a bruised eye. (Photo courtesy of Stellum Sotelo)
"I was robbed by a taxi driver last Thursday," Ricardo Enriquez told me, after he was assaulted in the LGBT-friendly Zona Rosa district of Mexico City.
"I didn't file a report, because I didn't want to waste my time at the prosecutor's office, and wanted to avoid the victim shaming — 'What were you doing on that street at night? Surely you must have been drinking? Were you trying to seduce the cab driver?' — and all of those pleasantries," Enriquez said.
Stellum Sotelo, 25, works late most nights as a musician and photographer. He told me he's been violently assaulted six times in Mexico. "I only reported one of them," Sotelo said, adding that that particular mugging landed him in a hospital with black eyes and bruised ribs.
"If victims don't report the crime, there is no way to include them in the reports," said Laura Trejo, director of a campaigning anti-crime group called Alto al Secuestro (End Kidnapping).
Last week's INEGI study said more than half of the kidnappings in Mexico are so-called express kidnappings — lasting less than 24 hours.
I spoke to several young women who were victims of temporary kidnappings in Mexico City. Two shared almost identical stories of armed men threatening their lives, while holding them hostage in cabs and forcing them to empty their bank accounts at ATMs.
"After driving around for an eternity, they let me loose on a horrible, dark street," said Anita Valerio, 31, a VICE Media employee in Mexico City. "They were threatening my family, and had everything — my address and my family's phone numbers, which I stupidly had saved in my phone as 'Mom, etc.'."
Valerio was so afraid by the threats that she decided not to report the attack to authorities.
"One of them groped me all over, and then I walked toward an alley while they pointed guns at me, not sure if they were going to shoot me or not," Valerio said.
'The prosecutor's office acted like I was the fucking criminal.'
Paulina Upalia, a 27-year-old who works in marketing, described her disturbingly similar kidnapping experience.
"I kept my eyes closed, because they said that if I ran, screamed, or looked back at them they would 'put lead' in my head," Upalia said. "They finally let me out of the cab a block and a half from the police station."
Instead of reporting the incident, Upalia also went home.
"The police in Mexico are deplorable," said Max Gaudelli, a 21-year-old film student, after a man with a knife robbed and threatened to kill him in front of his college campus two months ago. "I didn't file a report because it's a waste of time."
"People begin to realize that the government will not punish them for their crimes," Gaudelli added. "This empowers them to assault you and steal."
Among 40 people I spoke with, only five reported incidents to authorities — and worse, the few who did said they later came to regret it. Just as I eventually would.
Mario Rodriguez said he was robbed in the capital by "a group of 12-year-olds" with knives.
"I reported it," Rodriguez said. "But the prosecutor's office acted like I was the fucking criminal. They were dicks, and wasted my time."
Mexico City resident Alan Gallart spoke of being carjacked and kidnapped with his girlfriend, by two armed men in the posh Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
The men dropped the pair off in the middle of an industrial complex "where there was a shootout in progress," Gallart said. He reported the crime, but said that doing so had been "pointless."
"A police officer came to my house months later, and said that if I wanted my car back, I would have to give him 5000 pesos [roughly $300]. So I gave it to him and he took me to see the car, which had been completely stripped," Gallart said. "He then told me I had to pay to have the car towed, because it was blocking the street!"
"It was all a bad joke," Gallart explained. "The experience with the police was almost as bad the assault had been."
'I would go home if I were you.'
Gio Franzoni, a music writer in Mexico City, told me of her carjacking experience.
"The guys forced their way into the car and one lifted up his shirt. His zipper was down, so I thought he was was going to show me his dick, but he pulled out a gun instead," Franzoni said.
She was pistol-whipped twice and dragged out of the car. Franzoni decided to report the attack to authorities — for insurance reasons, she said — and was asked to answer a string of questions, four times over.
"In the end, my insurance company didn't want to be held responsible," she said. "Because the prosecutor's office said that my stories were conflicting, even though I said the exact same thing each time."
The morning after I was assaulted, I headed to the Mexico City International Airport, looking to board a flight to the US, and gave myself some time to visit the ministerio público at the terminal to report the mugging and my stolen Mexican residency ID card.
"You won't be able to leave the country without your residency card," I was told. "If you report the theft, it will take weeks to receive replacement documents, and you'll have to pay a fine."
"I can do you the favor of giving you a document to get you through immigration," the attendant told me. "But just don't tell anyone you were robbed … Say you left your wallet at home or something."
I asked what would happen if I decided to not accept her advice. "Well then," she said, looking confused. "Enjoy your stay in Mexico, I guess."
The false police report I signed at the behest of a public official at Mexico City's international airport. (Photo by Andrea Noel)
None of this was making sense, but my plane was getting ready to take off, and I needed to be on it.
The attendant typed up a police report:
"I found myself inside the Mexico City International Airport and started to look for my temporary residence card, which right now I cannot remember the number of but know it has not expired, and I realized that I don't have it with me. I don't know where I might have lost it, but am filing this report in case my documents are misused." I sighed, checked my watch, and then signed the document.
The official explained she was in a hurry, but quickly dictated a clause, one word at a time, for me to print on the back of her copy: "I am receiving a copy of my police report free of charge, and the reporting official has not asked me for money in exchange for said document."
I missed my flight anyway, and immediately regretted signing the false report.
I asked an immigration authority how I should proceed, and he said I would need to take it up with the prosecutor's main office — nowhere near the airport. I had now been there for five hours, and had another five before my new flight would be leaving, but wasn't about to go on an adventure just to soothe my confusion. I decided to wait until I returned.
Back in Mexico, I went into my nearest prosecutor's office last Monday, hoping to file a new police report and lodge a complaint against the attendant who had pressed me into lying on official documents.
When I got to where I needed to be, the official behind the counter told me I would have to go to a different district to try to file a complaint. I was informed that the process would take at least 20 days, and I would likely face charges for signing erroneous documents. I jumped into another cab and made my way to the next prosecutor's office, conveniently located in an area far sketchier than the one I was originally mugged in.
One of the public prosecutor's offices that I visited during my mugging ordeal. (Photo by Andrea Noel)
I walked through the front door, but was greeted by three cops who promptly surrounded me and asked me to step outside with them. I walked backwards through the front door. I answered their questions, explaining that I was there to lodge a complaint and put my experience on record.
"What you are admitting to is a very serious offense," one officer said, nodding for me to follow him toward the curb. "If you file that complaint you'll be in pretty real trouble. It is cause for automatic arrest."
He then lowered his voice, adding: "I would go home if I were you."
Incredulous, I rephrased and asked the man to clarify: "You're saying that if you let me enter that building, and admit that a public official lied to me and encouraged me to sign a false statement instead of recording the fact that I was violently assaulted, that I'll be arrested?"
"Yes. That's correct. This is a serious crime, but congratulations — your Spanish is very good," he said smiling.
The officer then encouraged me to speak to a lawyer, and said I could return the following day before 3 pm and would be provided with a public defender, "free of charge."
I decided to call it quits.
"Unfortunately, that's the way the justice system works in Mexico," said defense lawyer Elizabeth Valdez. "I don't think you would have been immediately arrested, but it would be very difficult to reverse your declaration now without being charged with a crime yourself, and even more challenging to file a complaint."
After hearing my friends' ordeals and experiencing my own, I now can't tell who the criminals are in Mexico, but according to the prosecutor's office, I'm one of them.
Photo above via Flickr.
Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter: @MetabolizedJunk