#18 cities
Markus-Michael Müller

Punishing the Informal

The prison rates in Mexico City are higher as during authoritarian rule. A side effect of economic transformation, argues Markus-Michael Müller.

“El Torito” is not a normal prison. It is a rather small block of buildings in Mexico City close to the Tacuba metro station with space for only 124 inmates at a time. Officially it is called the Centro de Sanciones Administrativas (Centre for Administrative Sanctions), but in the media it is best known as the “hangover prison”, since most of the people who end up there have been picked up for public drunkenness or drink driving. The tiny prison is also a symbol of a process that can best be described as the punitive turn of urban governance in Mexico City.

In contemporary democratic Mexico City, more people are behind bars than during the years of authoritarian one-party rule...

In 1997, local democracy and mayoral elections were (re-)introduced in the City of Hope (Ciudad de la Esperanza) — a term invented by the city government run by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) to promote the city’s image as an inclusive urban space. Since then, the prison population has increased by more than 500% . In contemporary democratic Mexico City, more people are behind bars than during the years of authoritarian one-party rule by the Revolutionary Institutional Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). At first glance, it might seem as if this rise could be due to the escalation of drug-related violence over the last decade, though a closer look reveals that the main driving force behind the city’s growing inmate population cannot be entirely attributed to the ongoing Mexican “drug war”. In fact, Mexico City has hardly been affected by the drug violence that haunts other parts of the country. The increase in the city’s prison population is related to the growing politicisation of security and crime issues and the resulting criminalisation of the people living at the margins of urban society, in particular those who work in the city’s informal economy.

This concern with “public space” is a main factor behind what can be termed a veritably punitive turn in urban governance in the city.

Which brings us back to El Torito. Most of its inmates have been arrested for the consumption of alcohol in public spaces or the obstruction of the free transit of persons and/or vehicles in public spaces. This concern with “public space” is a main factor behind what can be termed a veritably punitive turn in urban governance in the city. To a large extent, the growing punitiveness of Mexico City is related to the economic transformation of the city’s economy, including emergence as a global city, which accompanied the local democratisation process.

…the informal economy became the fastest growing segment of the city’s economy and its most important job provider.

Mexico City’s urban economy was negatively affected by processes of trade liberalisation and economic globalisation. The local manufacturing sector, for instance, once an important economic base and job provider for the city, was not competitive on a global scale and many companies moved their headquarters out of the city. At the same time it grew increasingly difficult to find employment in the public sector, so the informal economy became the fastest growing segment of the city’s economy and its most important job provider. Although it is difficult to assess the actual size of the city’s informal economy, it seems reasonable to suggest that it comprises about 50% of all jobs.

…emphasis was placed on promoting development in tourism and in real estate investment.

Since the late 1990s, local administrations have tried to restructure the city’s economy in order to ameliorate the negative consequences of globalisation-related de-industrialisation. To attract investment and regain some of the economic strength lost, the local PRD government opted for an economic development strategy that focused on the creation of an investment friendly environment. Particular emphasis was placed on promoting development in tourism and in real estate investment. This points to a central problem of the informal sector: Much of the new urban development agenda focuses on the city’s historic downtown, which is also home to most of the city’s informal economy.

…the unregulated informal economy is also associated with crime and “dirt”…

The preservation of the often run-down colonial architecture seems to provide an ideal basis for revitalising the historic centre as an investment location for real estate development, heritage tourism, and cultural consumerism. In the eyes of many local businessmen and administrators, the success of such efforts also depends upon the expulsion of the informal economy from the streets of downtown Mexico City, mostly because the unregulated informal economy is also associated with crime and “dirt”, and viewed as a veritable physical obstacle for the kind of urban upgrading the PRD and segments of the local business community envision. From the early 2000s onwards, mostly local business representatives have portrayed the historic center as being in a state of crisis that undermines the area’s economic development potential.

The response to this “crisis” has been a shared commitment by both the private sector and the PRD to counter the informal economy in the economically most attractive parts of the historic center by implementing new laws and policing measures aimed at “recuperating public spaces.” Most of these efforts are related to the so-called “rescue program”, the Programa de Rescate. According to official statements, the program aims to reduce crime in the city's historic center, thereby helping to promote Mexico City as a globally attractive tourist destination. In addition to the Programa de Rescate, and in keeping with suggestions from a report released by international security consultancy Giuliani Partners, city officials enacted the Civic Culture Law of the Federal District (Ley de Cultura Cívica del Distrito Federal, LCC) in 2004 to enhance the “quality of life” in the city.

The LCC’s most visible contribution to improving local “quality of life” was probably the effort to remove informal street vendors from the historic centre in October 2007 that involved nearly 15,000 arrests.

Despite the fact that the law was presented as a means for promoting “harmonious cohabitation” in the city, it defines 43 administrative infractions — most related to informal activities and the improper use of urban spaces—that are punishable by up to 36 hours of confinement in El Torito or monetary fines of between one and 30 days’ earnings at minimum wage. The LCC’s most visible contribution to improving local “quality of life” was probably the effort to remove informal street vendors from the historic centre in October 2007 that involved nearly 15,000 arrests.

On a more day-to-day level, from 2006 to 2011 alone, the number of detainees who were brought before the civic judges (Juzgados Civícos) in charge of punishing LCC-related administrative offenses nearly tripled from 49,205 to 134,731. About half of these cases were related to arrests in Cuauhtémoc, the borough that is home to the historic district. In this delegación alone, civil judges heard 56,719 cases regarding LCC-related infractions, mostly the “obstruction” of public spaces, from August 2010 and September 2011.

For those living at the margins of urban Mexico City, the realisation of the promises of the City of Hope seems far away.

These numbers indicate that the democratisation of local politics and the economic restructuring of the city exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, patterns of exclusion and marginalisation. A growing segment of the local population — those struggling with a lack of employment options in the formal economy — are being targeted through the criminalisation of informal economic survival strategies that are at odds with the current urban economic development model in Mexico City.

For those living at the margins of urban Mexico City, the realisation of the promises of the City of Hope seems far away. Instead of improving their livelihoods, the punitive measures of democratic urban governance in the city are reinforcing their dependence upon deals with corrupt police officers, bureaucrats and politicians willing to turn a blind eye to the enforcement of laws in return for bribes or votes. This situation is not unique to Mexico City. It is also visible in many other cities throughout the world where informality is the norm and formality the exception. This represents one of the greatest challenges facing an inclusive urban development agenda. Moreover, it calls for rethinking established wisdom based on (over-)simplified ideas of how legal regulatory frameworks operate, so as to prevent those at urban society’s margins predominantly experiencing the rule of law as rule through law.

Photo: Matt Mawson (getty images)

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