Change of Guard in Chihuahua Brings Little Hope

Change of Guard in Chihuahua Brings Little Hope

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CHIHUAHUA, Mexico—There’s a new governor in the land of Pancho Villa.

But only a handful of citizens are excited about César Duarte’s new administration.

Chihuahua is Mexico’s largest state and home to one of its most violence-wracked border cities: Ciudad Juarez.

The state has a proud history as the bastion of Villa’s revolutionary army during the 1910s. Today, it is a part of Mexico that is considered nearly ungovernable.

The slang term “hueso” goes a long way toward explaining the pessimism to be found in Chihuahua. Aside from its literal meaning in Spanish, which is bone, in Mexico hueso refers to a job in government, which is often very well remunerated.

A lot of people spend a great deal of money trying to get hueso and then, once in power, to recoup their investment by dealing more hueso to friends and relatives. It is part of a culture of patronage that is hated by those out of the loop. But when pressed, many who say they hate this culture admit that they would like to be part of it.

More than 70 percent of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5 a day, while elected officials and civil servants at the state and federal level earn healthy annual salaries that in some cases reach as high as $500,000.

A change of government is always an opportunity for those on the outside to gain access to the rewards of exercising power in Mexico.

In Chihuahua’s state capital, which is also called Chihuahua, Duarte's inauguration this Monday was carried out with the usual pomp. But most citizens saw it as merely a change of who is in line to get hueso, and not a change in direction for the state.

Long List of Promises

During his inauguration speech, Duarte made a long list of promises to Chihuahua’s citizens.

The issues of crime and violence topped the agenda, with promises to end impunity and combat arms trafficking, in part by imposing life sentences for certain crimes.

Duarte also promised to reactivate the state’s moribund economy. A social program called Chihuahua Vive would improve education and seek to create jobs in areas such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing.

But a deeper problem went unaddressed in his speech. In Mexico, elected officials lack even a minimum of credibility.

Ordinary citizens believe that, by definition, politicians in Mexico are corrupt and act only out of self-interest.

“You can’t believe in what they say,” declares Guadalupe Grajeda. She says she has been a high school teacher for 15 years and that every administration in Chihuahua has been worse than its predecessor.

When asked about hope, she declares that the only hope she has is that she’ll get to work and back home safely.

“It is 8 o’clock in the evening and the streets are almost empty. Why do you think that is?” Grajeda asks. “This used to be a city with people walking or driving at night. This is just like Juarez and everywhere else in the country—there is no security at all.”

Discontent at Every Leve

And public discontent is pretty much the same at every level. Whether it is a taxi driver or a professional, most people admit openly that if they could move to the United States, they would do so. The motivation is not so much to get better jobs or better pay, but the belief that up north, there is some respect for the law.

“Here the law is in your pocket,” says Felipe Salcido, a taxi driver who complains that because of the insecurity reigning in the streets, he has decided not to drive after 10 p.m. “If you have money, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Why do you think a lot of young people believe that the way to make it is by selling drugs or becoming narcos?’’

Aside from the small towns, where everybody knows everybody, people in the big cities like Chihuahua or Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, distrust everybody.

"Esta cabrón,’’ says Pablo Montoya, an electrical engineer and a small business owner —or, loosely translated, "It’s all messed up."

“I am afraid any day some gangster will come and ask me for the cuota,’’ he says, referring to the extortion suffered by thousands of small businesses in Mexico. Businesses must pay
criminal gangs protection money or suffer the consequences.

The bottom line: Mexico’s culture of corruption now has many facets, not just the common one of the law officer on the take.

“Corruption is rampant and is breaking every sector of the economy. The problem is that you are never quite sure where it is coming from,” says Alejandro Bruguez Rodríguez, an economist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, based in Juarez. “Long gone are the days when you knew that to speed up a process or solve a problem, you had to give a mordida to a public official. Now it’s everywhere, and the bite can come from everybody.”