Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings

MEXICO CITY — Armed robberies have gotten so common aboard buses in Mexico City that commuters have come up with a clever if disheartening solution: Many are buying fake cellphones, to hand over to thieves instead of their real smartphones.

Costing 300 to 500 pesos apiece — the equivalent of $15 to $25 — the "dummies" are sophisticated fakes: They have a startup screen and bodies that are dead ringers for the originals, and inside there is a piece of metal to give the phone the heft of the real article.

That comes in handy when trying to fool trigger-happy bandits who regularly attack the buses, big and small, that ferry people from the poorer outlying suburbs to jobs in the city center.

The scene is repeated over and over again, courtesy of the cameras that many buses now carry that record the assaults, often late at night or in the early morning: Sleepy passengers are seen bouncing along in the jitneys when one or two of the men aboard suddenly pull masks over their faces. One will pull out a gun while his accomplice passes down the aisle, often with his own gun, demanding valuables.

"You're all screwed now! Don't move or you're dead! Cellphones and wallets!" barks a thief in one recent video. Time and again, those who resist or refuse are hit in the head with a pistol, or simply shot and left to bleed on the floor of the bus.

Martha Patricia Rociles Estrada, a schoolteacher from the low-income suburb of Nezahualcoyotl, was robbed herself. Now, she says, most city residents make their daily commutes in fear. "Getting on public transportation is now a risk," Rociles Estrada said. "You get on, but you never know if you're going to return."

"Now you have to be careful to carry money, because if you don't, the thieves get angry and you run the risk that they'll shoot you if you're not carrying money."

There were an average of 70 reported violent muggings every day in Mexico City in the first four months of 2019. About two-thirds were committed against pedestrians, with the rest split almost evenly between bus passengers and assaults on motorists stopped at lights or caught in traffic jams. Between 2017 and 2018, such assaults rose by about 22 percent.

But when Rociles Estrada was robbed at gunpoint several years ago, most people weren't carrying costly smartphones around with them.

"They just took whatever I had of value, my change purse, that was all," she recalled

The advent of smartphones changed all that. Now, many people carry a device worth hundreds of dollars in their pocket, and one that may also hold their bank or credit card information.

That's where "dummy" vendors like Axel come in. Axel says he sells three or four dummy phones a week out of his stall in a downtown electronics marketplace, next door to a colonial college building that dates to 1767.

Axel, who asked his full name not be used for fear police would accuse him of selling fake merchandise, said all of his customers know they are buying fakes.

"It's useful for robberies, the large number of muggings happening in Mexico City," said Axel. "They say 'hand over your cellphone, give me everything', and people know now they have to hand over the phone quick, in a matter of seconds, so they hand over these phones and often the thieves don't realize it."

But Axel admits the victim would be in trouble if a thief caught them handing over a "dummy" phone.

"Obviously there are problems, because if the criminals search it or find out ... there is going to be a problem."

Because of that, some try a different strategy, spending a little more to buy a cheap but real second phone.

Gloria, who works at her own stall at another market across the street in a converted art-deco movie house, said the dummy trade started about 14 years ago, but for different reasons: Phone shops would buy dummies for their exhibition cases to protect against another type of crime, the so-called "sledgehammer crews" who can clear out a jewelry or electronics store in seconds by breaking windows.

"Generally, the dummy is for a showcase, for people who sell real cellphones," Gloria explained. "Dummies have been sold here for about 14 years, for use in showcases, but nowadays people are buying them to protect their own cellphones."

Gloria sells an iPhone dummy for 300 pesos ($15), that would save a victim the 18,000 pesos ($900) a real iPhone would cost here.

"In most cases, people want to avoid getting their cellphone stolen, but also their data," says Gloria, who also asked her last name not be used.

The paranoia about assaults and muggings has been amplified by the fact that so many of the robberies are now videotaped by surveillance cameras on public buses. The tapes are often shown on news programs, instilling terror in people.

The government of the eastern borough of Ixtapalpa — one of the city's biggest and poorest precincts — launched a program this week to have police ride the buses to prevent robberies. But even as the program started up with fanfare and media photo ops, some residents were skeptical.

Oscar Armenda, a transportation worker who was riding a bus in Iztapalapa around midday as police started climbing aboard, said, "This is good in a way, but in a way it's not."

"They should do this at the time of day when it's needed, at night, not now," Armenda said.