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Earlier this week, we published an article on Mexican towns and cities that are dealing with public corruption and record violence by effectively seceding from the state. But we wanted to elaborate more on this story by recounting what it was like to report on each town, which we visited last year, and offering our thoughts on its larger lesson for Mexico and the world.
This article originally appeared in our Interpreter newsletter, and two more pieces spotlighting the other areas will publish later this month. So sign up the Interpreter newsletter here, and let us know what you think: email@example.com.
We came to Monterrey, a rich commercial city, with many questions. But there was one we asked over and over because we just could not believe the answer we kept getting.
Are you really O.K. with local business leaders seizing control of the police?
We asked rich and poor. We asked in corporate offices and community outreach centers. We asked activists and government officials. We asked a man who had been forced from his home by criminals. We asked a nun.
Always the same impatient yes.
We tried explaining our incredulity. If top chief executives in Washington, where we were living, took over local police departments, reformed police practices top-to-bottom and paid for cops’ salaries and housing, then it wouldn’t really matter if crime dropped. There would still be something fundamentally uncomfortable about the heads of local aerospace and defense firms effectively running public security — and there would almost certainly be an outcry.
Finally, Armando Torjes, a community activist in the working-class suburb of Guadalupe, cleared it up for us.
No one much minded business people acting like politicians because, he said, the real problem was politicians acting like business people.
“It’s not that businessmen are bad people, they’re just getting all the privileges. They should be giving back,” he said as his mother, also an activist, served us lemonade in his living room.
“We have this political class that totally forgets why they are there. Suddenly it’s all about the possibility of business,” he said, referring to rampant political corruption.
We were starting to see what he meant. Monterrey’s problem wasn’t just crime. It was institutional breakdown at nearly every level of government, which allowed corruption to become the norm, including among police officers who sometimes beat citizens and extort money from them just as brazenly as did the drug gangs.
Fixing crime required fixing corruption, which required fixing the state.
That was also the conclusion reached by Monterrey’s business leaders. Except instead of fixing the state, they would cut it out.
Jorge Tello, a former head of Mexico’s intelligence agency and now a big man about town, met us at his private lunch club, just across from city hall, to tell us how it’d all happened.
“The first meeting I remember was with the governor at Lorenzo’s office,” Mr. Tello said, referring to Lorenzo Zambrano, the head of Cemex and unofficial leader of Monterrey’s business community until his death in 2014.
Drug cartels, after years of ravaging poorer communities, had begun to target the richest of the rich.
“The governor was the one to say: ‘You need to help me. I cannot do it by myself,’” Mr. Tello recounted. It was a tacit admission of the state’s weakness.
To get what happened next, you need to understand Monterrey’s peculiar corporate culture. It is one part worldly Davos elite, one part 1980s Wall Streeters working from their beach home in Florida (lots of men with tan suits, manicures and perfect hair) and three parts cowboy culture, which suffuses this part of Mexico.
Mr. Zambrano, who was peppery but aristocratic, agreed to lead a reform effort that grew into a takeover of local police forces. But first he would ensure that Monterrey’s executives would remain to help lead — and, crucially, to fund — the effort. Some were already considering a move to nearby Houston.
So Mr. Zambrano posted a tweet that Monterrey’s business leaders still cite as a call to arms. It read, translated into English: “Whoever leaves Monterrey is a coward. They must fight for what we believe. We must return to our great city!”
After a few years, community leaders like Mr. Torjes saw an improvement. As an experimental new police force moved into the streets, backed by the executives, crime and reports of police brutality dropped.
The reforms were an academic’s dream. Juan Salgado, a governance expert at the CIDE, a Mexico City university, called the new force “very impressive.”
“What they did was create comprehensive community police services,” he said, detailing reforms that benefited from the C.E.O.s’ largess and as well their ability to skip the usual political corruption and horse trading.
But then, he said, “there was a change in the government.”
No one in official or corporate Monterrey likes to talk about what happened in 2015. No one except for Mr. Tello, who said it was important that the city face what had happened.
“I’m getting mad,” he said, remembering it.
The governor left office that year. (He later faced embezzlement charges, which we mention only to underscore that official corruption is just pervasive.) Monterrey’s executives, maybe a little taken with their newfound autonomy, backed an independent candidate whom they expected would be even more pliant.
But the new governor, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, turned out not to be pliant. He has mixed fiery populist language with old-style patronage. Reforms have lapsed and crime has returned.
Mr. Torjes, the activist from the working-class suburb, argued that the real problem wasn’t the governor himself but a political system in which reforms never seem to stick.
“Every politician comes in and brings something new,” he said; a complaint we heard from activists and academics across Mexico. “You never know if something is going to last past the next election.”
This was our big realization from our time in Monterrey. The Mexican state — which oversees the world’s tenth-largest population and 14th largest landmass — is perilously weak.
Its institutions are too weak to fix the crime and corruption tearing away at society. They are too weak even to maintain a fix that, as in Monterrey, is already working.
“It’s quite different than if you talk about well-developed countries with strong institutions,” Mr. Tello said. In countries like the United States, he added, “it doesn’t matter what kind of mess you have at the top of the political structure because you have strong institutions.”
Monterrey’s business leaders had tried to install their corporations as replacement institutions. But they fell victim to the same institutional weaknesses they’d tried to fix. With little in the way of a civil service, a simple change in governor destabilized everything.
That might seem like a technical or abstract lesson, but it’s one that should concern everybody, and not just in Mexico. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the health of our institutions; they’re boring, opaque and largely unseen. But maybe we should think about them.
Many of the biggest stories in the last year — ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, democratic backsliding in Turkey and in Venezuela, regime change in Zimbabwe, a destabilizing power struggle in Saudi Arabia — come down, in part, to weak institutions. They are the guardrails meant to keep government orderly, capable and self-policing. Without them, you have corruption, instability, power grabs and leaders whose incentives do not align with the public good.
Even in the developed countries that Mr. Tello called categorically different, institutional health can’t be taken for granted. Spain has been destabilized by a secession movement led by some of its own regional institutions. Hungary and Poland, unchecked by courts and legislatures that have grown weak, are backsliding into authoritarianism. American diplomats, aghast at the gutting of the State Department, warn that American power in the world could be set back by a generation.
Many of Mexico’s leaders, like Monterrey’s business elite, hardly noticed their country’s institutional decline until they started feeling the effects personally. By then, it was too late.