Tope-Julio-Penagos-Flickr-CCBY2.0

-By Tom Miller

Driving back to our condo after viewing the Patriot’s historic comeback at Super Bowl 51, I forgot where that last tope (pronounced toe-pay) was. A tope is a Mexican speed bump and it can be built anywhere unannounced. If you’re driving at night when you’re likely to fail to see one coming, it will dismantle your chassis.

Topes are real impediments to unfettered mobility but they also are metaphors for the way local government runs, at least in this small town on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan, where I’ve just taken a brief respite. Any resident can build a tope on a public street in front of his house, at any dimension and without any permissions. As well as the impediment to forward progress, the tope’s nefarious night life represents the black box nature of how projects get approved and exceptions are granted here.

day1 006-Bugeater-Flickr-CCBY2.0

This beach community south of Cancun is outside the larger municipality that surrounds it and many foreigners have property here. The municipality has an elected president (same as mayor) and representatives, but those who live outside of the municipal territory do not receive many government services – sewer, water, street lights, street construction or repair – despite voting and paying taxes. So locals must create their own quasi-government to get basic services and, inconsistently, seek approval from the state or the municipality on actions that on occasion require official approval.

So this little pueblo has two increasingly problematic issues that afflict its citizens. Firstly, Locals who largely must create their own governance have to find a way to build community and accomplish necessary tasks without formal authority. Secondly, secret deals and favors tend to be the currency of daily operations, such that one Mexican local told me, “I vote, but I don’t trust anyone in government.” Which sounds too much like the U.S.

And yet, this is not like the U.S. It’s been eye opening to see these two mutually energizing maladies undermine the quality of life among locals.  The failure to find common ground among neighbors in the absence of police power means that roads are repaired in front of some properties but remain mine fields in front of others.

Need a police officer? Buy one. Every housing unit that wants security hires its own guards. Ambulance? You’re welcome to chip in to pay for the van, attendants, uniforms, gas but you don’t have to. And because the EMS attendants don’t know if you’ve contributed, the day you lie panting on the beach, you’ll get service, payment or not. So why bother to chip in if others will? And if you want topes done right, you can buy your own well-constructed speed bump and brand it with your name or the name of a relative whose jaw was broken bouncing over one of the poorly designed cement hurdles.  

Speed bump signs-a200a77Wells-Flickr-CCBY2.0

The absence of government may sound alluring to some, but the consequence in Mexico amounts to anarchy.

With the inability to require consensus or even enforce a majority vote, comes corruption on a scale even cynics wouldn’t claim in the U.S. Today’s paper reports the newly inaugurated “Corruptour” bus that takes riders to 27 sites of government corruption in the capital city.

In this sleepy outskirt site, tales are told of payments made to traffic cops who will not hesitate to let you drive off without a citation if you offer a gratuity “for the family.” The house down the block was purchased by a transport company whose vans now encamp between a line of single family homes, thanks to a functionary in Cancun who approved this illegal use and is reputedly seen riding in the new commercial vans for his own purposes. With a simple pay off, new buildings grow an extra floor where three floors were officially the maximum. The richest land owner in these parts decided to close off public access to the main beach, sparking massive demonstrations and a complete shutdown of entry to town. At the turn of each new mayoral term, there regularly is coercion to maximize tax collections – often with threats to re-measure property lines where more square meters would mean higher bills. And the relative of a local was the most recent mayor to be caught stealing thousands of pesos from the city treasury.

As the peso plummets against the dollar and national editorials wax more forcefully about confronting an ill-behaved neighbor to the north, locals on this side of the Caribbean have their hands full with challenges that start at the curb, rising and falling by fate if not forecast.

Topes-Karyn Christner-Flickr-CCBY2.0

 And I have a car repair bill to pay.

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