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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexico City's New Mayor

Air Date: Week of

Mexico City is one of the most populated and polluted cities on earth where thick smog usually burns the lungs of its 18 million inhabitants. But a year ago, Mexico City residents, for the first time, elected their own mayor. They chose an opposition politician Cuauhtemoc (cu-wow-TEH-moc) Cardenas (CAR-den-as), who has pledged to make environmental reform a top priority. Bob Carty offers this profile of Mayor Cardenas and the challenges he faces.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Mexico City is one of the most populated and polluted cities on Earth. Civil society is plagued by rampant crime, and thick smog usually burns the lungs of its 18 million inhabitants. But some relief may be in sight. A year ago Mexico City residents, for the first time, elected their own mayor. They chose an opposition politician, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who has pledged to make environmental reform a top priority. Bob Carty offers this profile of Mayor Cardenas and the challenges he faces.

(Fireworks explode; a band plays)

CARTY: With firecrackers and a brass band, the people of Masatepec are celebrating. Masatepec is a dusty neighborhood of cinderblock houses, dirt streets, and open sewers. It's also part of the history of the valley of Mexico. Five centuries ago Masatepec was little more than a small island in a crystal blue lake. To the north you could see the great city of the Aztecs arising from an island in another lake. And all about the valley, pine trees sloped up the volcanic mountainsides.

(The band continues)

CARTY: Three centuries ago, Masatepec was a tiny church and a few houses on the road to the colonial capital of Mexico. The lake was disappearing, slowly being drained to allow the city to expand. Today, Masatepec is part of Mexico City. There is no lake. There are barely any trees. The downtown skyscrapers are hidden behind a veil of smog. But the people of Masatepec are celebrating because their mayor has come to open a new market.

(Man announced Cardenas in Spanish; applause)

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas towers over his audience even without a platform. He is tall, but like the poor people in the audience, he's also dark and Mestizo. His forehead and nose could be that of an Aztec prince. At 64, however, his frame is now a bit stooped, as if burdened by his office -- presiding over the most polluted, populous, and politically unmanageable city on earth.

CARDENAS: We want a city that operates with rationality - that improves the quality of life - having a different kind of a government with no corruption.

CARTY: When you look at all the problems that Mexico City has, do you ever wonder if it can be done?

CARDENAS: The challenges are immense, yes. But I think that the city can change and improve. It is possible.

(A man shouts "Viva" [rest inaudible]. The crowd shouts, "Viva!")

CARTY: One year ago, tens of thousands of Mexicans converged on the central plaza to cheer Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Cardenas is the son of a former popular president. He served as a senator and a state governor for the governing PRI party. He was on a career path towards the presidency. Then, in 1987, he suddenly resigned from the PRI over matters of principle. He claimed the party had abandoned the poor and embraced corruption. In 1988 Cardenas was an opposition candidate for president, an election many believe he won were it not for electoral fraud. Throughout, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has earned a reputation, even among his enemies, for honesty and integrity. But it was his courage in breaking away from the governing party that won the respect of Jose Alvarez Icaza, a Catholic activist and, like Cardenas himself, a civil engineer.

ICASA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: He's very competent. He had a good record as a state governor. One of his virtues is his tenacity. And I have seen how it works -- his honesty, his determination, and his seriousness. He is very serious. I have given him advice that he should smile from time to time, and now he smiles constantly.

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas does smile more often now. Winning the election for mayor is a political comeback for him. Overnight he became the second most powerful politician in Mexico, according to political scientist Sergio Aguayo.

AGUAYO: Cardenas is already one of the leading candidates in the race for the presidency of the year 2000. He won the heart of the country. Mexico is a highly centralized country, and the capital concentrates finances, industry, intellectual activity. And the fact that he won this city has had profound implications for the rest of the country. And Cardenas is now trying to tame the monster.

(Shouting in the crowd)

The monster is right outside of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's office window in downtown Mexico City. Here in the Zocalo, the central plaza, there are hundreds of street vendors. They clog every corner, hawking cigarettes and videocassettes and hoping for a better life. They are part of the invasion from the countryside that swells this city by 36,000 people every day.

(Milling crowds, music playing)

CARTY: Then there is the Cathedral, tilting to the right and propped up only by scaffolding. The problem is that the city is draining the underground water table. And as the water is taken out, the soil gets more and more compressed. The city is sinking 3 inches a year. Buildings like the Cathedral are falling down. And still, one million people in this city are without running water.

(Traffic sounds)

CARTY: And then there is the air, the worst in the world. It's not just the ozone that scars the lungs of children, or the fumes from 3 million vehicles and countless factories that cause lung diseases and thousands of deaths a year. The air is also rife with fecal matter, picked up from the city's open sewers. Tourists come down with the intestinal trouble known as Montezuma's Revenge not so much from drinking the water as from breathing the air.

Rogelia de la O is an economist who runs a consulting firm for multinational corporations investing in Mexico. All too often, businessmen ask him not about the quality of stocks and bonds but about the quality of the air.

DELAO: People do get very, very ill in Mexico City, and this also increases the cost of being in Mexico City -- both personally, health-wise, and also economically. It also impinges on the morale and absenteeism, etc. Now, because of this level of problems, businessmen wanted a much more radical departure, a shake-up, from the past pattern.

CARTY: Now here's an ironic situation. Part of the Mexican business community has welcomed Cuauhtemoc Cardenas as mayor, despite his left-of-center credentials. And not only that, they say he's being too cautious. They want him to make change faster. For his part, Mayor Cardenas has just launched a program to plant 12 million trees over the next 90 days. It's a massive effort to improve air quality, contain soil erosion, and replenish underground water supplies. Meanwhile, Cardenas is also working on programs to reduce motor vehicle emissions.

(Music in the background)

CARDENAS: We are substituting polluting cars for non-polluting cars, old cars for new cars. We are trying to introduce the use of natural gas in our public transportation. If we could change the whole of our public transportation to gas, that would mean that we could reduce about 40% air pollution in the valley of Mexico. We expect and we would be optimistic that we will be able not to be an ecological disaster but to improve the quality of life in this valley of Mexico.

CARTY: For Cardenas, improving the quality of life means, firstly, changing the way environmental programs were run by previous administrations. Last December, when his officials took office, they found the city's environment program in a state of chaos. Civil engineer Jose Alvarez Icaza.

ICAZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The former mayor invented a program of environmental monitoring. And they gave the job to relatives of the administration employees. They paid them salaries for the first month, the second month, and the third month of work. But after the first month they said the job is done. So people went home, with two extra months of salary in their pockets. There were 8,000 of them and they did absolutely nothing. This was the ecological program of the valley of Mexico before Cardenas.

CARTY: For Mayor Cardenas, the front line of environmental change is the fight against corruption. For the first time, the new mayor and his top officials publicized their salaries and took a 30% pay cut. But the biggest challenge is not the physical environment; It's the social environment. More than anything else, the residents of Mexico City are worried about crime.

(Television newscast)

CARTY: The nightly tabloid television show "Hard and Direct" is a relentless litany of murders, fistfights, and robberies. Every day in Mexico City there are 2 killings, 1 kidnaping, 4 rapes, 160 stolen cars -- an average of 722 crimes a day. Only 10% are solved. And foreigners are not immune. There are 26 assaults on foreigners reported each day. Newspapers carry stories of businessmen, arriving at the airport, being kidnaped or mugged in taxi cabs on the ride downtown. Economist Rogelio de la O says his business colleagues are terrified.

DELAO: Completely afraid. I myself am afraid. There is a tremendous sense of insecurity the moment one puts a foot in Mexico City, regardless of where the foot is, regardless of the level of hotel or the quality of the neighborhood. I think it has damaged very seriously the reputation of Mexico as a place that attracts foreign investors.

(Newscast continues)

CARTY: Mexico City's crime wave is the product of growing poverty and a judicial system that doesn't work. Those are largely the responsibilities of the federal government. Where Cuauhtemoc Cardenas can make a difference is in a shake-up of the city police. He's fired officers linked to human rights abuses and replaced corrupt officials with ones he trusts. He's launched a program of neighborhood policing. So far, the crime rate has fallen 10%. Progress -- but nothing to celebrate.

(The band continues playing)

CARTY: Back on his tour of Masatepec, Mayor Cardenas is handing out land titles to a group of 30 men in cowboy hats.

(Cardenas calls name, papers are passed)

CARTY: The men are squatters. They're former peasants who have come to the city to exchange rural poverty for urban opportunity. And this is the core of so many of Mexico's social and environmental problems. The city is a human magnet. It will continue to grow beyond its ability to provide the necessities of a sane and healthy life until it becomes more attractive for people to stay in the countryside or to move to other centers. And so, unlike mayors in any other part of the world, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is asking the federal government to spend more money not in his city, but elsewhere.

CARDENAS: The government, the national government, should have a decentralization policy. But that means investments in industry, in creation of jobs, and in infrastructure - housing, schools, universities, hospitals, etc. - in other parts of the country where we have cheap water and energy. That means we have to make high investments in our coastal regions. But we don't see up to now this policy in the interest of the present national government.

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's first months in office have been ones of gradual, not revolutionary, change. And he has stumbled on occasion. Several of his officials have had to resign over suspected links to criminals. Because of a combination of smog and smoke from forest fires, the rain recently came down brown and muddy. The mayor's approval rating dropped. And there are lingering questions whether someone of his political generation can inspire the changes this city needs. Sergio Aguayo does not have great expectations, but he is hopeful.

AGUAYO: I think he's a decent human being. And now he has to deliver. And that's a question -- I mean, if the decent human being will be the efficient manager capable of dealing with the disaster of Mexico City. I mean Mexico is a major urbanistic, demographic, environmental disaster. Mr. Cardenas will have to deliver at least honesty. And the moment that I detect inefficiency, corruption, then we will criticize him. I hope that he succeeds.

(The band continues to play)

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas only has a 3-year term to try to make Mexico City more livable. If he succeeds, he will have a very good chance of becoming Mexico's next president in the year 2000. If he fails, his political career will be over. And for Mexico City's environment, it will be an opportunity lost. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Mexico City.



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