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'There's No Other Option': The Radical Plan to Move Mexico's Government
Tuesday, 02 October 2018 12:55

Schatzberg writes: "Jacinta Morales came to Mexico City more than 20 years ago, following promises of education and employment, like millions of others. After getting a degree, she found stable work as a public servant, moving between different government agencies."

Passengers struggle to fit onto an overcrowded train at the Balderas metro station in Mexico City. (photo: Simon Schatzberg)
Passengers struggle to fit onto an overcrowded train at the Balderas metro station in Mexico City. (photo: Simon Schatzberg)

'There's No Other Option': The Radical Plan to Move Mexico's Government

By Simon Schatzberg, Guardian UK

02 October 18

A project to decongest Mexico City by moving government agencies to smaller cities has provoked mixed reactions – not least from workers facing relocation

acinta Morales came to Mexico City more than 20 years ago, following promises of education and employment, like millions of others. After getting a degree, she found stable work as a public servant, moving between different government agencies.

Though she has always worked on temporary contracts, the wide availability of civil service jobs in Mexico City offered her the financial stability to buy an apartment and start a family. “I’m a young, productive person and I thought I would have more opportunities here,” she says. “But now I’m feeling uncertainty in my career, which is something I never expected.”

Morales (not her real name) is worried her life could be derailed by an ambitious plan by the president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Over the next six years, he wants to move the headquarters of up to 31 government agencies out of Mexico City to spread civil service job opportunities to smaller cities.

With 700,000 government employees in the capital, many with families, the plan could lead to an exodus of 2.7 million people from the metropolitan area of Mexico City. But that is a liberal estimate, as it is unlikely that every employee will be able to follow their jobs.

For Morales, who has a child in school and whose husband works in Mexico City, relocating to the northern city of San Luis Potosí – where her department is expected to move – is out of the question. “Moving to a new place would mean exchanging the whole structure I’ve built here for complete uncertainty,” she says. “But I don’t think I could find a job here either – there are going to be a lot of people like me unemployed and looking for work.”

In a 400-page policy document, López Obrador says the country’s “exacerbated centralism” – with “practically the entire federal government” and many major businesses in Mexico City – has led to overpopulation in the capital while smaller cities remain underdeveloped.

According to the Mexican Association of Real Estate Professionals (AMPI), only six cities have the infrastructure to receive an agency – the others will need significant investment in office and residential real estate. Though that is likely to cause disruption, most local governments and businesses have welcomed the prospect. An AMPI press release said construction would revitalise the real-estate sector across Mexico, while poorer cities in the south, such as Oaxaca and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, would benefit from becoming destinations for business travel.

In addition to disrupting millions, decentralisation is expected to have a high price tag, with one estimate calculating federal government expenditure of 140bn pesos (£5.6bn) over the six years. But the benefits far outweigh the cost, according to Manuel Ordorica Mellado, a demography researcher at El Colegio de México (Colmex). “It’s not going to be easy for so many people to leave their jobs, but from my point of view, it’s necessary,” he says. “There’s really no other option.”

The debate over decentralisation has been a perennial one in Mexico. After the country became independent in 1821, it fell into a conflict between federalists and centralists over the placement of the capital. Centralists wanted it to remain Mexico City, while federalists wanted to move it to the smaller northern city of Querétaro, following the US example of Washington DC.

Querétaro did become the capital for a short period, while the US was occupying Mexico City in 1847. But after the war the capital returned to Mexico City. In the next century, the growing bureaucracy of a modern state swelled its population to create one of the largest cities in the world. And, as problems related to overcrowding worsened, anxieties about centralisation never went away.

Today, Mexico City has about nine million inhabitants, with 23 million in the metropolitan area, representing 18% of the country’s population. This contributes to a host of problems, including traffic congestion and deadly air pollution, that the government struggles to control through restrictions on driving.

The water supply is also under strain, with overexploitation of aquifers causing the city to sink up to 30cm annually, while constant shortages leave millions of homes with dry taps for most of the year. Problems such as mobility and water supply aren’t simple functions of population density, but Oscar Terrazas, professor of urbanism at the Metropolitan Autonomous University, says lowering the city’s population could be a vital part of a strategy to address them.

“There would be fewer trips and lower emissions at rush hour, which is when government employees travel, so there will definitely be benefits,” he says.

López Obrador won a landslide victory on 1 July with his promise to cut spending and strip the highest-paid bureaucrats of their privileges. He is a native of the southern state of Tabasco and first came to the capital to study. Mayor of Mexico City for six years, he presents himself as the voice of the forgotten provinces.

During his presidential campaign many doubted that López Obrador’s decentralisation plan would be technically or politically viable, but moves are being made to implement it. The public education secretariat will be based in Puebla from December, with its 17,000 employees relocating over the next three years. And other agencies have received instructions about their forthcoming moves. It remains to be seen whether all 31 agencies will be decentralised, but Ordorica Mellado thinks López Obrador has the political capital to carry out the radical plan.

Dolores Franco, president of the Urbanists’ College of Mexico, is sceptical of the impact of simply reducing Mexico City’s population. She says that for problems such as air pollution and congestion that need planning solutions, a reduction in population is irrelevant. “As long as we don’t have a policy that promotes safe, affordable public transportation, the situation with pollution won’t improve.”

A population reduction could even have negative consequences. “We don’t know how many people Mexico City can expel without affecting its status as [Mexico’s only] global city,” Franco says. “We don’t know how hard it would hit the real-estate or service sectors, and if that would lead to a collapse in the city’s growth.”

Countries such as South Korea and China have moved some government offices out of their capitals. In the US, bills to move federal government offices out of the Washington DC area have been introduced by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, while in the UK, the case to move civil servants out of London has been made across the political spectrum, from Labour to the Ukip.

In the past, countries have most often separated their administrative centres from their largest cities by building planned capitals – a policy related to, but distinct from, what is happening in Mexico. Vadim Rossman, author of Capital Cities: Varieties and Patterns of Development and Relocation, says the relocation of capitals is typically part of a political project to promote a federal form of government. “Oversized capitals such as Mexico City, in general, are not favourable for federalism,” he says. “Most federalist countries, if you look on a map, have capital cities that are smaller than the primary cities.”

For Rossman, the success of Mexico’s plan will depend on proving that it will benefit the cities that receive government agencies and the country as a whole, not just Mexico City. “Speaking from experience, negative motivation is not enough. So in cases where the only motivation was to decongest, to remove the pressure from larger cities, it was not sufficient,” he says.

Mexico’s last serious attempt at decentralisation came after 1985, when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City, killing thousands and destroying many buildings. The recovery effort sparked a renewed push to decentralise the government apparatus, but the only agency to relocate was the National Statistics and Geography Institute (Inegi). Its 800 workers moved out of their damaged offices in Mexico City to the northern city of Aguascalientes over several years.

“Aguascalientes went from being known as the capital of the smallest state in the country to being home to an important government dependency, a destination for workshops and education,” says Terrazas. “Investment in the city went up; without a doubt, it was a benefit for Aguascalientes.”

Although that post-earthquake push for decentralisation stalled, Inegi’s success in Aguascalientes is often cited as proof of the benefits and viability of relocating government offices. Whether that can be repeated is uncertain, but it is clear that Mexico is at the start of a long and difficult process.

For Ordorica Mellado, the first step towards decentralisation has to happen. “In this country, we always complain about how difficult everything is, but we never make the effort,” he says. “We should have done this a long time ago.”

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