REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- There are 13,000 surveillance cameras dispersed across this megalopolis, capturing everything in view, in real time and around the clock.
The cameras peek at streets and people from the tops of light poles, inside buses and over subway platforms, watching in the name of public safety.
The local government, headed by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, this week unveiled an intelligence center where all these video feeds are monitored. It is a state-of-the-art "integrated" hub with a name that sounds like a futuristic space vessel: the C4I4.
Speaking inside the building's circular nerve center -- where 600 video screens carried scenes of residential streets and choked intersections -- Ebrard told reporters that the C4I4 is one of the largest and most advanced public-safety command centers in the world.
It would serve as a hub in case of a major earthquake, an eruption of one of the nearby volcanos or an outbreak of the kind of intense drug-war street violence that has been seen in other parts of the country.
And every image captured by the center's cameras -- movement in the city's prison yards, commuters on the jam-packed Metrobus lines -- is stored for up to a week, making for a gigantic ongoing intelligence operation blanketing the urban obstacle course that is Mexico's capital. Hence the center's name, signifying four Cs (command, control, communications, computing) and four I's (intelligence, integration, information, investigation).
Ebrard said the center would help "guarantee safety in our city."
The opening of the center is the realization of a long-term goal for Ebrard, who is running for his leftist party's nomination in next year's presidential election. In 2002, as Mexico City's police chief, he brought the first surveillance cameras to the colonial downtown. Between 2003 and 2004, he said, there was a 35% drop in crime in the historic core.
Upon taking office as mayor in 2006, Ebrard sought to put video surveillance cameras in as much of the city as possible.
He visited 12 foreign cities, including London and New York, to look at their public surveillance systems. The municipal government then put a reported $460 million (link in Spanish) into a plan called "Safe City," in which Carlos Slim's flagship phone company Telmex was contracted to supply the network and the French electronics corporation Thales was hired to supply the camera technology.
The city added 8,000 cameras to 5,000 in place in the subways.
The cameras, officials said, are designed to automatically spot anomalies on the streets of the D.F., as this city is called for short. Cameras would alert staff at the C4I4, for instance, if a car was going the wrong way down a major avenue, or if a group of people was detected suddenly moving or running at once.
Fausto Lugo Garcia, one of Ebrard's top emergency-response officials, said the C4I4 allows authorities to have "one vision of the city," and added that the threat of drug-war violence creeping into Mexico City is "without a doubt a worry that we work on and keep working on."
So far, the drug war has largely been absent in Mexico City, a place once notorious for out-of-control crime and now seen as a haven from drug violence. Earlier this month, Ebrard's government announced a 12.5% drop in crime in the capital between 2010 and 2011, a decline attributed in part this week to the use of public surveillance cameras.
"In having security cameras, there's a natural effect of dissolution" of potential criminal activity, Lugo said.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: The nerve center of Mexico City's new C4I4, October 25, 2011. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times