The Mayor of Guanajuato banned kissing in public, arguing that it embarrassed children

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Mexico’s mayors need courage
to face dubious de-facto powers

By Rodrigo Aguilar Benignos, Senior Latin America Correspondent

14 April 2010: This year Mexico celebrates with passion 200 years of independence as well as the centenary of its Revolution - but the country still remains a land of powerful privileged forces who pursue their own interests. They include drug cartels, religious groups and companies. City Mayors’ special Latin American Correspondent examines their influence in three Mexican cities.

| De-facto powers | The drug cartels | The Catholic Church | Powerful individuals |

The term “privilege” rests on different meanings when applied to the quality of democracy in certain countries, particularly when it refers to the use of private means to influence public matters and to erode public institutions. At the sub-national level, some municipalities in developing countries such as Mexico are the captives of interest groups possessed of special privileges, which they employ to influence and shape decisions affecting millions of Mexicans across the nation.

This state of affairs is not new. It can be found in any city in the world. However, the degree of influence affecting the public interest in some Mexican cities is nothing more than a virulent cancer overtaking the public domain and compromising elected public officials and threatening the nation’s democracy as a whole.

De-facto powers
The influence of the so-called de facto powers in Mexico represents a tale almost beyond belief in modern times, affecting the lives of people everywhere. Reminiscent of such films as the “Mask of Zorro”, which took place in Mexico just before the Declaration of Independence was finally signed, people from some regions of the country still claim a link to that heroic intervention to break the hold of greedy men and their masters seeking to keep their privileges for themselves and their followers.

It is important to distinguish the difference between de jure and de facto political power. The difference lies in the means of achieving their purposes. The first works under the rule of law, the constitution, and in accordance with the current legitimate political system. De facto political power employs private resources, and sometimes uses force, to shape decisions.

The most common de facto groups in Mexico today tend to be related to religious groups, companies, and drug cartels. In other places they work with local political bosses, former governors, and union leaders. (Such people are still termed “caciques”, named after tribal chiefs in Latin America, particularly of the Spanish West Indies and Brazil from the 16th century).

So the question is, how are mayors facing up to these established and renewed de facto powers? How are city mayors dealing with their growing dominance in the cities they govern?

The drug cartels
In order to illustrate the current situation, three cities governed by mayors from the three main political parties in Mexico have been selected: Ciudad Juarez (Institutional Revolutionary Party), Guanajuato (National Action Party) and Tlajomulco (Democratic Revolutionary Party). These cities are being subjected to the influence of de facto powers in different ways, and we shall briefly look at how they are affected.

The Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in the world, according to prestigious Security watchdogs such as the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice. Ciudad Juarez, governed by Mayor Jose Reyes from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) suffers an average of 130 murders for every 100,000 residents per year. The city of 1.6 million inhabitants is in the hands of powerful drug cartels such as the Juarez Cartel, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It is one of the biggest narcotics traffickers in the world.

For decades the de facto powers of drug cartels in Juarez have operated in the city with total impunity, backed up with mercenary violence. Today, the city’s rising murder rate (some 250 a month) has not decreased, even with 10,000 troops stationed there.

The reaction of Mayor Jose Reyes, from the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has been, to say the least, cynical. While declaring: “the city’s fight against drug violence is a success process that the world can learn from”, he moved his residence to the safer US city of El Paso, Texas, just over the border from Ciudad Juarez. Mayor Reyes has been overwhelmed by the drug cartels and he has little power to overcome them. The massive influence of this de facto power forced the mayor to retreat and avoid using the political institutions to fight them. These situations are becoming more frequent in municipalities in different Mexican states such as Michoacán, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Guerrero and Tamaulipas.

This de facto power has enjoyed an important increase in influence not only in the decisions of mayors across the nation, but has affected the lives of millions of citizens disrupting, among other things, social life, study, commuting, business development, and community cohesion.

Owing to the recent killing of two US citizens from the US Consulate in the City of Juarez, the metropolis has been almost taken over by both the Mexican federal police forces and the military in order to take back the city for the people and to respond firmly to increased violence. For decades this de facto power In Juarez has forced mayors to retreat and concede defeat. Mayors like Jose Reyes have no other option but to run away and hand over the city’s power and authority to federal forces and to limit mayoral functions to administrative matters – and in his case, even withdrawing and absenting himself from the very city that elected him as mayor.

The Catholic Church
The city of Guanajuato, in the central highlands of Mexico, is considered to be the cradle of the independence movement of 1810, when priest Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico’s founding father, raised his voice against Spanish rulers and called on the indigenous people and Creoles to free themselves from the shackles of colonial rule. It is a magnificent city. Its mayor is Eduardo Romero Hicks of the right-wing conservative National Action Party.

The de facto power in Guanajuato is represented by the Catholic Church and its well organized conservative groups aligning their moral interests with legislative proposals and public policies. The pressure of these groups, linked to the National Action Party (PAN) in this city, has always been a key factor to consider before making any decision. These groups have been shaping policy outcomes in the city of Guanajuato and other cities since the assumption of power by PAN in the 1990s. A good example of this was in January 2009 when the Mayor of Guanajuato passed an anti-obscenity law that banned kissing in public, arguing that it embarrassed children.

With the passing of this law Mayor Romero Hicks took controversial steps in moving closer to the Catholic Church, despite a public outcry about laicism.

Due to the National and International scale of the scandal, the mayor and those conservative groups who supported the anti-obscenity law in Guanajuato were forced to step back and suspend the law just a few days after passing it. However, the initiative pointed to the increased influence of the Catholic Church and, particularly, conservative radical groups in state affairs.

Mayor Romero Hicks had no choice but to move radically to the other side, setting up a massive marketing campaign in Mexico proclaiming the city of Guanajuato as “the capital of the kiss”.

Powerful individuals
De facto powers that influence decision-makers are not only anonymous interest groups, ideological or criminal gangs hiding behind veils of secrecy, in some instances they are clearly named, almost openly exerting pressure on public officials to manipulate and shape government decisions.

The city of Tlajomulco in central-western Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, is governed by Mayor Enrique Alfaro who came to power backed by the left-wing parties, such as the Workers Party and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

The de facto power in the State of Jalisco is in the form Raul Padilla Lopez, a former dean of the second largest public university in Mexico, the University of Guadalajara. He is a powerful local political leader who allegedly uses cultural promotion to legitimize his tyrannical actions in different aspects of public life in the state of Jalisco. He was the founder of the International Book Festival in Guadalajara twenty years ago, the most successful literature event in the Hispanic World, including Spain, as well as other cultural events such as the Guadalajara International Film Festival.

Even after two decades since leaving his position as dean, he still allegedly controls the destiny of this important university (its budget this year was around 600 million USD) through an unconditional group of privileged people. He also rules over half of the PRD, part of the PRI and other public institutions across the State of Jalisco, allegedly using their people and budgets for his personal projects and ambitions.

Recently, the Mayor of Tlajomulco, Enrique Alfaro Ramirez of the PRD declared the city of Tlajomulco to be “Raul Padilla-free territory”. After releasing at a press conference a document entitled “For the dignity and respect of Tlajomulco”, Mayor Alfaro Ramirez denounced attempts by Raul Padilla to control 60 per cent of the appointed officials in the city in forcing them to sponsor his cultural events. This, moreover, would put at risk the construction of an important university centre that would help hundreds of young people from Tlajomulco if the mayor failed to meet his obligations. Mayor Alfaro referred to him by name in publicly declaring: “He (Raul Padilla) acts as the so-called ‘factic powers in Mexico’ through schemes of pressure, manipulation and blackmail as part of a pre-modern generation who still thinks that the power is not to serve the people but for to serve themselves.”

With that single action, Mayor Alfaro gained the support of most of Jalisco and the vast majority of political leaders quietly applauded him. He also secured support from the most important leftist leaders in the nation. However, the consequences that Mayor Alfaro will face are neither simple nor soft. De facto powers such as Raul Padilla can destroy political careers and young leaders, particularly those who have the courage to denounce them publicly in the attempt at achieving public and political probity.

In sum, the de facto powers or “caciques” in Mexico have always been a political factor to consider in the governance of various cities. The degree of power and the privileges they have accumulated in such small groups render it impossible for ordinary citizens to improve their lives, forcing them to live in frustration and hopelessness, just as it was in the early 19th century.

Now, 200 years since independence, Mexicans have little to celebrate, and much to do in achieving freedom and independence from these new forms of oppression. The de facto powers in cities change the balance of power and erode incipient democratic institutions. The finest way for citizens to celebrate the founding fathers of Mexican Independence is to share the risk, as they did 200 years ago, with those leaders who confront the few privileged people who are still captains of the destiny of most of the people of Mexico. Only then will it be fitting to celebrate true independence.

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