Mexico is experiencing rough times right now. As the government officially fights drug cartels, many politicians and police are actively involved in aiding the cartels, exacerbating the messiness of the situation.
According to Newsweek, in the first 10 months of 2017, there were 20,878 murders in Mexico, an average of 69 per day. In a country of about 128 million, that’s an astronomical rate of violent crime. Compare that to the United States, with an average of about 47 homicides per day (17,250 in 2016), and a population of over 320 million.
It’s so bad that some towns are taking drastic action — seceding from the country to form their own independent city-states.
This secessionist movement was recently discussed in a lengthy report by The New York Times. Locals in these towns and cities were so fed up with the violence and corruption that they literally expelled the police and politicians and formed their own governing structure, some run by large private companies in the area.
Visit three such enclaves — Tancítaro; Monterrey, a rich commercial city; and Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, just outside the capital — and you will find a pattern. Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. But their gains are fragile and have come at significant cost.
They are exceptions that prove the rule: Mexico’s crisis manifests as violence, but it is rooted in the corruption and weakness of the state.
The town of Tancítaro, in the state of Michoacán in Southwestern Mexico, exports about $1 million per day in avocados. Next time you go to the store to get some to make your guacamole, consider what the avocado growers may have endured to sell it on the market.
The town is now protected by men in green uniforms, who bear no official force’s markings and who man massive stone turrets that fortify the town. The new protective force, largely employed by the local orchard owners, is doing what the government has thus far been unable to do: reduce violent crime.
It began with an uprising. Townspeople formed militias to eject both the cartel, which effectively controlled much of Michoacán, and the local police, who were seen as complicit. Orchard owners, whose families and businesses faced growing extortion threats, bankrolled the revolt.
In Neza, police chief Jorge Amador fired more than 12 percent of the police force and replaced his entire command team. He is working to convince the other police officers that pride is more valuable than corruption.
Essay contests, sports leagues and scholarships come with heavy messaging, cultivating a culture that can feel cultlike. Awards are handed out frequently — often publicly, always with a bit of cash — and for the smallest achievements.
“We have to convince the police officer that they can be a different kind of police officer, but also the citizen that they have a different kind of officer,” Mr. Amador said.
Yazmin Quroz, a longtime resident, said working with police officers, whom she now knows by name, had brought a sense of community. “We are united, which hadn’t happened before,” she said. “We’re finally all talking to each other.”
It’s not a perfect world, though. The towns are run in ways that resemble cartel control — those suspected of being involved with the drug cartels were purged either by being killed or forcibly exiled. Drug use is also still very high, just as in many other places in Mexico.
Citizens’ councils have been created in an attempt to establish some sort of institutional structure, but the militias remain in control and rule with an iron fist. In Tancítaro, there is a mayor, but he has worked to make sure that he is the only viable candidate for election.
With the new order, there are certainly major problems that the citizens need to work out, but their own mini-revolutions aided in stopping the violence in their streets. They had enough of a corrupt government and literally made a new system for themselves (sound familiar?).
There’s a long road ahead for them, and even more so for towns and states still in the grips of the drug war, but some have found that risking it all ended up being worth it.
What do you think about these towns' uprisings? What do you imagine will happen if others follow suit?