When traffic cop Maria Luisa Calderon ordered a taxi driver to move on as he picked up a passenger in heavy traffic, his reaction bordered on homicidal: He turned on his high beams and floored it, slamming her to the ground and ripping her face and ankle as he sped away.
It was typical of a macho backlash on Lima’s streets, where most male traffic officers were replaced by women in the late 1990s in an effort to give law enforcement a kinder, gentler and less corrupt face.
Eighteen months after her brush with death, 29-year-old Calderon says her foot still swells up. “The gentleman got away,” she said. “They never captured him because I couldn’t get his license plate number.”
The “gentleman”? Yes. The policewomen are trained to keep their cool, never pull a gun, and always address the driver as “el senor.”
But it doesn’t seem to be working. Eighty percent of the 405 incidents reported in the past two years have involved one of the capital’s 1,031 female police, meaning roughly a third of them have been cursed, shoved, punched, dragged, run over or taken hostage by angry men. Cabbies and bus drivers are the worst offenders.
Lima isn’t the only Latin American city to have tried using women to tame its wild drivers, based on studies concluding they are less likely to be corrupt. Mexico City attempted it and gave up.
In Lima, the change came with tough new rules that oblige policewomen to ticket drivers who don’t buckle up and bus drivers who carry too many passengers.
The drivers say the cops are overzealous.
“There are infractions that the policewomen should overlook. They should listen to us and say to us, ‘OK, don’t let it happen again,’ but they don’t,” complained Jaimi Lopez, a 54-year-old bus driver. “Right away, they ask for your license and registration and they hand you the ticket.”
The police blame weak laws for the violence against them. A Lima driver, says Calderon, “can do to us whatever he likes and the laws don’t back us up.”
The maximum penalty for such offenses is two years’ imprisonment, in a country that suspends all prison terms under four years and has no provision for increasing penalties for repeat offenders.
“What that means is that no one is doing time for these cases,” said Lima’s deputy transit police chief, Vicenzo Ieva.
The Interior Ministry proposed increasing the penalty more than a year ago, but Congress hasn’t considered the bill yet.
Peruvians desperate for work rushed into the taxi and bus businesses with little training after Peru lowered used-vehicle import tariffs in 1991 to ease a transport shortage. Already sprawling, dirty and disorganized, Lima jammed up with tens of thousands of rogue cabs, aging microbuses and vans called “killer combis” because they run over so many pedestrians.
Now supply exceeds demand, and the pressure has pushed the drivers to new heights of road rage, according to a University of San Marcos study. It found that more than 40 percent of public transport drivers interviewed displayed anti-social, even psychopathic, tendencies.
“Run over a traffic policewoman : they don’t care,” said the study’s author, psychologist Carlos Ponce, who interviewed 491 public transportation drivers and 249 regular motorists.
“The worst-behaved motorists are the taxi drivers, followed by the bus drivers and then us private motorists,” Ponce added. “We aren’t saints, and something needs to be done about it.”
One other rule the policewomen are taught is never to climb into a “killer combi” lest the enraged driver abduct them.
Of 10 police abducted in 2004 and 2005, nine were women.
Peru gives women police officers a dangerous law enforcement job because it essentializes females as “kinder and gentler” and “less corrupt.” The women, who encounter a large number of drivers who display “anti-social, even psychopathic, tendencies,” are trained “to keep their cool [and] never pull a gun,” and they are rendered even more vulnerable by weak laws and a legal system that does not back them up. And so they get assaulted, battered and abducted. But the Peruvian Congress shows little interest in improving the situation. And when this same thing happened in Mexico, they “gave up” having female officers rather than dealing with the underlying causes of the violence against them. Arrrrghhhh.