Nothing like reality to put things into perspective. Mexico City, that present and historical political and ceremonial center, is collapsing due to lack of investment. Instead of building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure, recent governments have privileged very visible and politically rewarding spending at the expense of substance, with the consequence that the city is beginning to collapse. Water shortages, the explosion of the Western Interceptor sewer system, the extremely poor quality of the electric infrastructure and the lack of an effective police system are all signs of the neglect and of the inattention that the city’s essential tasks have been subjected to. Like so much else in the country, reality hit us.
The story is familiar to all: from the moment the Mexico City mayor is elected what we’ve had are presidential candidates, not city administrators. This change, small in appearance, has altered everything. The incentive for the ruler is to generate support and develop clienteles rather than administer the bowels of the city. A road work such as the second floor is showy and the subsidy program for the elderly is even more profitable, in political terms, than fixing the sewers. Nevertheless, today we know that those programs were made at the expense of maintaining the infrastructure that is essential for the functioning of the city.
The issue here is not one of assigning blame but of the negligence that results from our political structure. As illustrated by the farce regarding the Cuajimalpa and Miguel Hidalgo boroughs, the city government lacks the most basic counterweights. The mayor controls the local Legislative Assembly, de facto appoints the local Electoral Institute, and controls the Electoral Tribunal in Mexico City. With this power structure, no one can limit or even put in evidence the excesses or omissions of the person in power in forefront issues such as water, security, sewers and electricity.
The water issue is particularly hurtful because it reveals decades of neglect. In addition to over-exploiting its groundwater, the City consumes a disproportionate amount of the precious liquid that comes from other entities. Water is managed poorly, as illustrated by the enormous number of leaks that occur before it reaches its destination. It costs a fortune to “import” water from the rest of the country, then it is not charged and on top of this, it is also wasted. Other cities that manage their water well charge it at least at cost and, by charging for it, provide incentives that induce very different behaviors from those that characterize the population of this city, and create recovery schemes that today we are far from being able to contemplate. PRD mythology (and certainly the PRI’s when they were in charge) has prevented us from devising schemes capable of supplying the water needed in novel ways. Now reality has set its terms and there does not seem to be even the ability to recognize that the essential was abandoned for the sake of constructing three presidential campaigns.
The same goes for the city sewers. For decades there was a dual system, one for rainwater and other for sewage. However, instead of continuing to invest in systems that could create an outlet for this waste and, in turn, prevent flooding, the political decision was to use existing collectors for both purposes. The system previously used for collecting rainwater did not have a coating suitable for handling sewage and now it had to be urgently repaired. However, as illustrated by the explosion in one of the great collectors of the city and the danger posed by the Western Interceptor, the city is under threat not because it rained too much but because they have not built the collectors needed for a mega city as ours.
Public safety is another one of those issues that seem unsolvable. It is true that the police system that once existed was not a modern one, but the chaos of insecurity that citizens have endured for at least the last fifteen years should have been addressed and resolved by those who govern us since 1997. This has not happened and the citizens pay that cost on a daily basis. Instead of effective policing, Mexico City is still characterized by pre-modern vigilance systems but without the political controls that were in place before. The result is that nobody trusts the police and they do not fulfill their duty as they should.
The traffic chaos cannot be attributable to a particular government, but certainly the City is responsible when the cause of chaos is a march or blockage by special-interest groups, whether they are unions or any other like-minded groups: instead of authorities protecting citizens, their priority has been to empower their and protect troublemakers that are politically close to the governing party. The case of blockades by electrical workers from the electric utility Luz y Fuerza is even worse by the fact that the power service in Mexico City is the worst in the country and that could not happen without the complicity of local government.
Clearly, the particular situation of Mexico City within our peculiar federal structure demands the concurrence of federal authorities in many of the issues that are essential for city life. Many of the investments that are needed for water and drainage, to name the most obvious examples, require federal funding in addition to the cooperation of the authorities of the City with those of the neighboring State of Mexico. Yet this fact does not acquit the City government of its responsibility.
In our municipal tradition, which limits terms of government to three years, the local ruler has no time to do much: the government takes some months to understand his or her tasks and responsibilities, and then spends a year doing what they can. By the end of the second year the politics for succession is in full swing and, last but not least, the outgoing mayor begins planning his next job. In sum, it is difficult to hold accountable a (modest) mayor for things that he or she did not do.
That is not the case of Mexico City. After twelve years of one-party rule and even, in many cases, the same officials in different administrations, it is impossible for the PRD not to assume the responsibility that belongs to them. Twelve years is enough to show priorities and decisions. The recent floods illustrate years of neglect, omissions and, in short, complete lack of responsibility.