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VISITING MEXICO CITY? BETTER PACK YOUR STREET SMARTS

As boxing promoter Don King was being driven to his hotel from the Mexico City airport one night in March, four men in ski masks stopped his van. Pointing a gun at King's head, one demanded his watch. Their prize: a $100,000, diamond-studded Rolex. King hadn't listened to experts. ''Don't draw attention to yourself,'' says Rolando Soliz, head of the Mexican unit of Vance International, a security firm in Oakton, Va. ''Leave the Rolex at home.''

Even if you don't sport $100,000 watches, you need to take precautions when visiting Mexico City. Street crime has exploded in the past four years amid economic turmoil, endemic police corruption, and the breakdown of authoritarian political controls. Worst of all for unwary visitors are taxi kidnappings, in which criminals steal a cab, pick up passengers, and force them at gunpoint to withdraw cash from bank machines. Official statistics put the number of crimes at nearly 700 daily. The vast majority go unreported. Criminals don't single out foreigners as targets, but visitors who don't take common-sense precautions make easy victims, says Morton ''Pete'' Palmer, director of services in Mexico for Kroll O'Gara, a security company.

Companies with visiting top executives don't skimp on security. When Intel President Craig Barrett was in Mexico City last August, his entourage was warned not to leave the hotel. Barrett did leave--to meet Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon--but he was escorted by a private security service. Indeed, security firms are doing land-office business protecting senior execs. Vance International's top executive protection package costs $1,000 to $1,500 per visitor per day, plus $175 to rent a Chevy Suburban. This gets you a driver trained in evasive tactics, a bodyguard, and more security people in a followup car. Kroll O'Gara provides a similar service, charging $1,500 to $2,000 for a lightly armored car.

Even if you don't need this much protection, there are plenty of safeguards you can take. Look up the State Dept.'s consular information sheet on the Web at travel.state.gov/mexico.html. The sheet is compiled from experience: Almost 10% of embassy employees have been victims of Mexico City crime. And ask your company's security officer if there are any bulletins on Mexico.

One way to reduce the odds of becoming a victim is to take only hotel taxis or cabs from stands, called sitios, that can be contacted by phone. The drivers know each other, and their cabs aren't usually targeted by kidnappers. Never use a green or yellow Volkswagen Beetle street taxi.

Major hotels have taxi services, usually manned by English-speaking drivers. At the Four Seasons, taxis charge $15 an hour or preset rates, depending on the trip. And when you make your hotel reservation, ask for a hotel taxi to meet you at the airport. The Four Seasons charges $50 for this. Or take the yellow-and-white airport taxis, which cost about $10 for most downtown hotel destinations.

There are places you should avoid. One is the Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone, a seedy neighborhood of restaurants, clubs, and shops just off Paseo de la Reforma, the city's main drag. American visitors have been known to wander into bars there, have their drinks drugged, and end up ''shoeless, hugging a tree in the park 24 hours later,'' says Soliz. Also steer clear of Plaza Garibaldi, the home of the mariachis. If you simply can't forgo live mariachi music, organize a group and arrange for a driver to bring you to the bar and fetch you.

Even the best precautions may not be enough. That's what a group of Japanese tourists learned last December when their bus was stopped just blocks from their hotel. Robbers made off with passports, watches, and cash, but nobody was hurt. Security experts say that if you are accosted, keep your cool, hand over your valuables, and don't try to fight back.

Despite such tales, Mexico City remains a business and tourist destination worth visiting, especially in summer, when the notorious pollution is low. Just keep your wits about you and take the same precautions as you would take in any large city. And steer clear of anyone with a Rolex, even a fake one. Robbers won't be far behind.

By Elisabeth Malkin
EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN



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Updated June 11, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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