Now Small Becomes Democratic

Sam Quinones was an Alicia Patterson fellow for 1998

It's the nature of Mexico's transition to democracy that great changes happen slowly, in unexpected forums or at deceptively mundane moments. So it is fitting that almost no one noticed the virtual revolution unfolding over the last two weeks. Both houses of Mexico's Congress voted to give sweeping new powers to the country's most local form of government, the municipio. (The municipio is comparable to a county in the United States, though usually smaller in population and geography.) Mexico's state legislatures also must vote on the reforms, but their approval is expected. The importance of these reforms, both for Mexican democracy and economic development, cannot be understated.

But by bringing real power closer to the people, the reforms will begin to make local government more accountable and correspondingly weaken Mexico City's hold on far-flung region.

For decades, Mexico's central government has hamstrung its municipal governments. Ineptitude, insolvency, ignorance and improvisation are the norm in local government. For example, Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, had only one working police car to serve a population of 500,000 people when Enoch Araujo became mayor in 1996. Sixty percent of the city's water was being lost through leaky pipes. About 18 miles of electric cable had disappeared from its major streets, according to Araujo. Tuxtla hadn't had the money to pay its electric bill, so the Federal Electricity Commission cut its power. With city parks and avenues dark and the city scrambling to pay the bill, gangs had stolen the electric cable for the copper it contained.

The congressional reforms are the first step in transforming such municipios as Tuxtla from helpless, babbling infancy into early adulthood. For starters, they will change the Mexican constitution to officially recognize the municipio as an autonomous form of government. Previously, it was merely an administrative entity, which invited meddling by state and federal authorities.

No longer will local delegates of the state government act as shadow governments and provide the services that should be municipal responsibilities. Indeed, the reforms spell out these responsibilities for the first time: public safety, water, garbage disposal, streets, parks, regional planning, transportation.

To meet them, the municipio will control how its budget is spent. Previously, the state had decided for it. Municipios also will collect the one tax--property--they can levy. In the past, the state government collected it, then allocated total proceeds among the country's municipios. Parastate agencies like Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, and the Federal Electrical Commission will, for the first time, have to pay property taxes on their facilities, producing a much-needed cash infusion to municipios.

Additionally, a municipio may enter into regional agreements with others or the state to provide services. This is crucial, since many Mexican municipios are tiny, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, and cannot provide essential services themselves.

Finally, municipios will be able to plan their economic development and thus respond better to the needs of businesses in their areas. The state and federal governments now plan the economic destiny of the country. Imagine Washington or Sacramento deciding where roads and industrial parks should go in Van Nuys or Riverside, and you have an idea of how economic planning gets done in Mexico.

Major blunders are often the result. One planner in the city of Leon, Guanajuato, reported that Mexico City bureaucrats had proposed a highway near his town. Unhappily, they used old maps that didn't show an existing neighborhood where the road was supposed to go. They discovered their mistake only when they showed up to begin highway construction.

Centralized planning has meant that priorities are set by politicians who don't have to live with their decisions. This has pocked Mexico with white elephants, while basic municipal necessities go unmet. Tuxtla Gutierrez, for example, has one of the largest kitchens in Latin America, part of an enormous convention center the governor decided the city needed. But since there's not much to do in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the center has had a hard time attracting conventioneers. So it's mostly used for weddings and birthday parties.

Altogether, these municipio reforms bring the structure of Mexican government closer to what the 21st century seems to require. For most of the 20th century, economic development was the nation-state's job, and the Mexican government embraced this idea. But in a global economy, a country's development depends, in large part, on an agile response to the needs of business. Local and regional government do this better than national government. Yet, local government is exactly where Mexico has been weakest.

Which is why these reforms are so momentous and why they will have lasting consequences for the United States, too. The post-Cold War world is dividing into economic blocs. Formally or not, this is happening in Europe and Asia. But the North American bloc includes a country in which some local governments can't pay their electrical bills. Under such circumstances, long-term economic planning is a pipe dream. The inability of municipios to respond to the basic needs of their citizens and businesses is one important reason why Mexico is poor and cannot provide enough jobs for its people. It's also why they can't do much about cross-border pollution. The new reforms will help facilitate solutions to these problems.

The democratization of municipios will also strengthen Mexico-U.S. cooperation against drug trafficking. In the United States, local governments are bulwarks against drug smuggling. Not in Mexico. In 1995, the new mayor of Ciudad Juarez said he had 13 working police cars. More recently, the police chief in a small town in the state of Sinaloa, where drug smuggling has been a mainstay of the economy for 30 years, said his 210 officers have 111 pistols among them. They are rationed eight bullets.

Responsibility for fighting the drug war falls exclusively to Mexico's central government. But until Mexico's municipal governments can pave streets or attract employers, Mexico will never be a strong and effective ally in fighting drug traffickers.

It will take Mexico's municipios years to fully incorporate their new powers. More reforms will be needed before they can be viable, independent governing units. Still, the changes voted by the Mexican Congress last week are what Mexico needs.*

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