Should Mexico Move Capital to New City?

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. </i>

In every big city, as Detroit has been reminded, tragedy is no stranger. But some cities seem to be stricken more than others. If there is a message in the recurrence of disasters, it should be heeded. Mexico City evidently has reached that stage.

The crash of a cargo plane on the crowded Mexico City-Toluca highway last month was the latest in a three-year spell of disasters with high death tolls.

A 35-year-old cargo plane--a Boeing 377--carrying 18 horses and 10 passengers had problems with its landing gear from the moment it took off. The pilot searched for a place to make an emergency landing, narrowly missing two of Mexico City’s tallest buildings--the Mexicana de Aviacion headquarters and the gigantic, though unfinished, Hotel de Mexico. The plane finally descended on the highway. Only one of the passengers died in the crash, but 53 persons on the ground were killed, and more than two dozen vehicles and two buildings were destroyed. Mexico City was once again forced to look its future straight in the eye.

The explosion of a gas-storage tank in the San Juan Ixhuatepec neighborhood in November, 1984, and the devastating earthquakes that hit the city on Sept. 19 and 20, 1985, were clearly ominous warnings that something must change in what is now probably the world’s largest urban conglomeration. The first accident could have been avoided, the second one obviously not. In the first case the nation’s authorities responded poorly; in the second case, after initial confusion and paralysis, the Mexican government has done a remarkable job of providing decent housing to the tens of thousands of Mexico City inhabitants left homeless by the quakes. But little or nothing has been done to reduce the potential effects of another earthquake, another gas explosion or another plane crash in a densely inhabited area of the city. Nor does it seem possible to achieve anything through the gradualist, incrementalist policies that have so far been attempted.


Damage caused by the earthquakes seemed to create the opportunity to decentralize some government operations. With the exception of the national toll-road and bridge agency, transferred to Cuernavaca, that hasn’t happened.

Just one year ago a small Cessna successfully carried out an emergency landing at mid-day on one of downtown Mexico City’s busiest thoroughfares. No one was killed, but the thought of small planes using wide city avenues to crash-land was not a comforting one.

After last month’s accident a familiar clamor re-emerged, calling for the removal of the international airport. When built, it was on the outskirts of the city; today it is virtually surrounded by heavily populated neighborhoods. But the pleas for relocation are futile; the cost is so high, the government so short of funds and the lead time so long that, as a decision isolated from broader decentralization, the airport’s removal is probably unthinkable.

When gradualist responses become impossible or excruciating, and dire warnings still pour in too frequently to be disregarded, it is usually time for momentous decisions and drastic measures. There is one on the drawing boards of many Mexican urban planners, government officials, far-seeing intellectuals and simple inhabitants of the country’s capital. It is expensive, complicated, time-consuming and has absolutely no guarantee of success. Yet it is becoming increasingly attractive, perhaps even inevitable. Few can favor it on the basis of its own intrinsic merits, but fewer still can oppose it on the ground that the status quo is acceptable. That is the transfer of the capital of Mexico to another city, preferably in the poorer, southern, more isolated part of the country.


Latin America’s two other macrocephalic nations have already taken the plunge. Brazil’s 30-year-old experience with Brasilia is not an unmitigated success, but it is not a dismal failure, either. President Raul Alfonsin’s decision to move the Argentine capital from Buenos Aires to the south of the country has met with wide spread support. Doing the same in Mexico would, as in most other cases, involve greater difficulties, costs and consequences.

Not many people here can argue that they prefer their present “security” as inhabitants of the capital to the risks and dangers of an unknown future. All three--the risks, the dangers and the unknown--have already become part of daily existence in the Valley of Mexico, which Carlos Fuentes, following Alfonso Reyes, once admiringly called “where the air is clear.”