Will Mexico City Become a State?

The United States isn't the only country that can't figure out what to do with its capital.

To the casual observer, it might seem as though Mexico were going through an identity crisis.

In one of his last acts before leaving office on December 1, former President Felipe Calderón proposed that the country change its official name from the “United Mexican States” to simply “Mexico.” It was a signal to the world that Mexico no longer needs to emulate its northern neighbor and a move that created a stir on both sides of the border.

Ten days earlier, however, in an announcement that went unnoticed in the U.S. media, Miguel Ángel Mancera, the incoming mayor of Mexico City, proposed an official name change for his own jurisdiction: from “Federal District” to “Capital City.” Unlike Calderón’s proposal, Mancera’s idea has nothing to do with symbolism, or the United States. Rather, it seeks to change Mexico City’s legal status from a dependency of the federal government (like Washington, D.C.) to an autonomous political unit with a governor, a legislature and a constitution—all of the institutions of a Mexican state.

Supporters of the plan argue that the capital’s residents are getting a raw deal from the federal government. Although the Federal District’s roughly nine million residents enjoy full representation in the Mexican Congress and can vote in presidential elections, they have little control over their own laws. The federal government establishes the city’s debt ceiling and appoints its chief of police and attorney general. It also determines its budget—perhaps the biggest source of frustration for chilangos, as people who live in the capital call themselves. As Mexico’s largest city and its commercial and financial hub, the Federal District contributes over half of the country’s total income tax revenue and nearly half of its Value Added Tax receipts. Yet for every peso that Mexico City pays in federal taxes, it receives a paltry seven cents in return. The city is a veritable cash cow for the federal government, and many of its public services are seriously underfunded as a result.

This imbalance is partly due to the fact that Mexico City, for the past two decades, has been a bastion of support for Mexico’s leftist opposition party, the PRD. Both the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century and was just returned to the presidency last year, and the conservative PAN, the party of Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, had little interest in conceding power to their political adversaries in the local government. Yet the roots of this inequity run much deeper and speak to an unresolved kink in the federal system, which affects countries from Australia to Argentina to the United States: the question of what to do with the federation’s capital.

The issue at stake is how to create a seat for the national government that does not give an unfair advantage to a particular state but nonetheless ensures that the citizens who live in the capital district have the same political rights as those in every other state.

In Mexico, as in the United States, national governments historically dealt with this problem by simply denying residents of the capital those rights. When Mexico’s framers established the Federal District in 1824, shortly after the country’s independence from Spain, they preserved the city’s colonial-era city council, an elected body, but left the jurisdictional boundary between the local and national governments ill defined. Authoritarian governments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resolved this ambiguity by systematically whittling away at the council’s autonomy until finally dissolving the body altogether in 1928, replacing it with a regent appointed by the president. For most of the twentieth century, then, Mexico City had no local government at all. It was not until 1997 that the city was able to elect its own head of government, a position comparable to, but with less authority than, a mayor (though it is commonly referred to as such, in both English and Spanish). The Federal District also has an elected legislative assembly, with similarly circumscribed powers.

Mancera wants to see this historic injustice rectified and to give Mexico City its own constitution and control over its purse strings for the first time. Yet he has been somewhat vague about the exact legal identity he is seeking for the Federal District. Although he previously expressed support for transforming Mexico City into the country’s 32nd state, he told participants at a forum in November that his goal was actually something slightly different: he wants to give the capital “a juridical character distinct from the rest of the states but with homologous rights.” It would continue to serve as the nation’s capital but no longer be controlled by the federal government—hence the politically significant if linguistically uninspiring new designation, “Capital City.”

The difficulty of coming up with an appropriate name for this entity speaks to just how vexing the problem is. Mancera, though, appears to have the wind at his back. Fresh off a landslide win in which be bested his closest opponent by 44 points, he has declared that resolving Mexico City’s legal status is, along with public safety, his top priority, and has promised to deliver a major political reform within his first year in office. That may be overly optimistic, but the issue is certainly gaining traction.