The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 23, 2003; Page A20

Bus Attacks Foster Fear in Mexico City

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY, July 22 -- Last Sunday just before 9 p.m., three men armed with pistols commandeered a public bus and robbed each of the 20 passengers,
stripping off their watches and jewelry. For three hours, the criminals drove the bus around the city, methodically stopping at three banks to use passengers' ATM
cards and raping two women before they fled, police said.

It was the second nighttime bus hijacking in two days and residents in the capital worried that the incidents could represent the reemergence of the so-called Masking
Tape Gang.

"It makes me want to leave the city," said Teresa Martinez, 49, a saleswoman, as she was riding a bus here today. "I feel so unsafe."

"Even though I am scared, I have to take the bus because there is no other way to get around," said Maria Eugenia Benitez, 30, who works at a children's
foundation. Benitez rides bus Route 1 in the southern district of this city, the same route on which four rapes have occurred in the past week.

On Saturday night, two women were raped and two dozen passengers robbed as hijackers drove a bus around the city for two hours until it ran out of gas. About
19 women reported being raped aboard public transportation in the first six months of this year, according to a spokeswoman for the city attorney general's office.
She said there could be other rape cases that have not been reported.

Several newspapers put the count much higher, reporting that at least 55 women have been raped so far this year while using public transportation.

Police Chief Marcelo Ebrard yesterday fired a police captain in charge of southern Mexico City, where several of the rapes and robberies have occurred. He
threatened to fire others if the crimes did not stop and ordered officers to randomly stop and inspect buses. Several victims told police that they had seen many
police vehicles on the road as the robbers drove the hijacked buses around the city.

Robberies are not uncommon aboard the city's 28,000 microbuses, which are about half the size of regular buses. Ebrard said that about 4.6 million passengers ride
those small buses every day. The price of a ride is as low as 20 cents, so they are a popular means of transportation. The Mexico City subway system is limited,
furthering reliance of workers on buses.

Prosecutors said it was possible that the crimes were the work of the Masking Tape Gang, so named because the assailants placed tape over the mouths of their
victims. That gang was blamed in 1999 and 2000 for taking over buses to rob and rape passengers.

"The criminals take advantage because it is very easy to hijack us," said Abraham Cocoletzi, 30, a bus operator who was driving his route today in the south of the
city. Most criminals are not caught in Mexico, and many crimes are not reported because citizens say they believe that contacting the police is useless and could lead
to even more trouble. After a bus driver who reported a robbery on his bus was killed in November, other drivers said in a public forum that they were reluctant to
report such crimes.

                                               © 2003