Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings

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In this May 15, 2019 photo, a young passenger sits near police officer Jose Osorio del Angel who stands at the back of the bus, in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City. (AP)
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In this May 15, 2019 photo, a woman in a public transport van looks toward police who are part of a program in which officers ride buses in pairs to protect passengers and drivers from armed robbery in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City. (AP)
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In this May 15, 2019 photo, Axel, a vendor at an indoor electronics market, shows his dummy mobile phones which people buy in the case they are mugged and have to hand over their phones, in Mexico City. (AP)
Updated 22 May 2019

Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings

  • 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

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.


High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Updated 18 August 2019

High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

  • Reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the ice-farming trade
  • The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores

NIKKO, Japan: In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers,” eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.
His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.
But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.
“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto says at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.
At the time, shaved ice cost just ¥200 ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.
“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.
The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labor intensive.
Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavored syrup.
After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.
“I put the price tag at ¥800 for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at ¥9,000 per case, which is six times more than my predecessor,” he says.
At first, there were days he threw away tons of ice because he could not find clients.
But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.
Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.
It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.
It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.
With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.
The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs — with expensive and labor-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available.
And making ice naturally is a grueling task.
The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.
Thin frozen initial layers are scraped away along with dirt and fallen leaves.
The ice-making begins in earnest in the winter, when water is poured in to freeze solid, but it must be carefully protected. Producers regularly scrape off snow that can slow the freezing process.
“I once spent 16 hours non-stop removing snow,” Yamamoto recalls.
And rain too can ruin the product, causing cracks that mean the whole batch has to be discarded.
“I check the weather forecast 10 times a day,” Yamamoto laughs.
Once the ice is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) thick, which takes at least two weeks, workers begin cutting out rectangular blocks.
Each block, which weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), is glided into an ice room filled with sawdust on a long bamboo slide.
The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores.
In the Yanaka district, more than 1,000 people queue up every day for a taste of kakigori made with natural ice produced by another ice-maker from Nikko.
Owner Koji Morinishi says the naturally made ice has a texture that is different from machine-made products.
“It feels very different when you shave it. It’s harder because it’s frozen over a long period of time,” explains Morinishi.
“It’s easier to shave really thin if the ice is hard. If not hard, it dissolves too quickly.”
Morinishi himself struggled when he first opened the kakigori shop, but has gradually built a cult following for his desserts topped with purees of mango, watermelon, peach or other fruit.
And Yamamoto’s firm has seen demand soar — he now harvests 160 tons a year and knows two new producers who have entered the market.
He says: “This business has become attractive and the ice makers are all busy.”