Falling into the rhythm of daily life here, I’m beginning to get a sense of the roles that the private sector (including informal networks of citizens) plays—going the next step beyond obtusely identifying areas that the government has and hasn’t neglected, as I wrote about in my last post. But even more exciting to me is the interaction between the public and private sectors that I’ve only begun to appreciate. On this issue, Mexico seems different from highly developed countries like the U.S., where the government plays a far greater role, and (I’d imagine) also from less developed countries, where the government is far less involved. In Mexico City, the government is highly functional, though often gives the private sector loose reins to also step in, maybe because one level of government is just not enough in such an unwieldy city.
To my dismay, I’ve found going about daily life here little different from at home. Sure, part of the issue is that I’m living in a barrio bien, a well-to-do area, in a city of extremes. So, the obvious solution was to get some exposure to the other side. My destination was Tepito, informally dubbed barrio bravo, or ‘fierce neighborhood’, and home to an extensive market boasting, ‘everything save dignity is sold’ (todo se vende menos la dignidad). Notorious for theft and the sale of pirated goods, I found several online journals that also suggested the neighborhood harbors a great sense of community—the kind that emerges when presidents routinely vow, and invariably fail, to slum-clear your neighborhood.
Street map memorized and pockets emptied, I walked purposefully through the labyrinth of multicolored tarp-covered stalls. The lightest-skinned individual around, I received a few looks, though generally no one paid me any bother. Pacing crowded neighborhoods, I was struck by the neighborhood’s spectacular Neo-Classical and Arc Deco architecture, even if in need of some intensive reinvestment. All in all, I was pretty unimpressed; based on my jaunt, I would have ranked plenty of neighborhoods in Washington D.C. above Tepito as barrios bravos.
Several days later, a far fiercer Tepito made the front pages of local and national newspapers. Apparently, when a squad of police entered a Tepito home harboring electronic goods stolen from the neighboring city of Ecatepec, more than 200 locals mobilized in opposition, stoning the police, setting off firecrackers, burning two government vehicles, and shattering the windows of three patrol cars. Local youths then exploited the chaos to assault merchants and those in passing vehicles.
The incident seems to have exposed two parallel policing forces: the formal police, and the network of local merchants. The latter group generally provides vigilance against petty theft in the markets by wayward adolescents (presumably, the very people who exploited the lawless situation for personal rather than communal gain), while also protecting the neighborhood from federal interference.
This whole scenario struck me as very familiar, having been reading about the emergence of microbuses in the city for a project at work. These vehicles emerged illicitly as car-sharing arrangements with the tacit approval of the local government, filling in the gaps inevitably left by public mass transit in such a sprawling city. Realizing the vital role that microbuses played in providing low-cost transit in areas that the public systems either did not or could not serve, the government ultimately legalized the industry, which still remains highly deregulated. Meanwhile, private bus associations have sprung up to provide a degree of coordination in this free market. The microbuses have flourished at the expense of ridership on the publically owned bus, trolley, and metro systems. Moreover, they have complicated the construction the city’s new Bus Rapid Transit system, Metrobus (specifically, the project required that microbuses be forbidden to service the same route as Metrobus to ensure enough demand that the latter would be profitable, as was necessary to attract private investment for the system’s construction).
These are just two instances in which the government at face level seems to be providing services in a manner just as I’m used to in the U.S. (urban policing and mass public transit, in these cases). However, for reasons that aren’t as familiar to me (the wide-spread, tacitly accepted sale of illicit goods in a permanent marketplace; and demand for mass transport that completely overwhelms the public systems), the public and private sectors sometimes provide parallel services. But more interestingly, it’s because both exist in relatively strong forms here—in contrast to areas where governance is largely successful or absent—that the two seem to interact significantly. At least in these two cases, the private services have ultimately undermined the public.
Public sector-led development in a nation like Mexico might therefore have as much to do with adjusting citizens’ behavior as capacity-building and investing in infrastructure; while the prior emerges in the absence of the latter, citizens’ adaptations might also undermine public efforts. Of course, I also have strong admiration for the ability of these local networks to take governance into their own hands, if, like the metrobus drivers, only to make a living. I could have been far more mobile growing up in suburban D.C. had the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority allowed microbuses.