Tracing the Historic Roots of Cooperation in Rural Mexico

“We believe in democracy, that’s why we do not do secret voting here”, says the man looking at me directly at the eye. I am in a small town in the hills of the Mexican state of Puebla, a couple of hours from one of the largest cities in the country but a world apart from urban life and -apparently- from what most political scientists would think of as a democratic process. He looks at my perplexed expression and then laugh. “Look, political parties have tried to invade us but we like things the way we have done it forever”, he says, “… parties are just to corrupt”.

In Mexico, a large portion of the population is not represented by an elected mayor in their town. Authorities are elected at a municipal level through a party system, but local-level decisions are sometimes left to the community which elects its own authorities through a communitarian assembly. As in many other countries around the world, local-level institutions take the role of collecting trash, providing water and, generally, maintaining social order. In some places, despite the lack of direct state intervention these arrangements work thanks to the social norms that reward those who cooperate and punish defectors.

Traveling across the states of Tlaxcala and Puebla, located in the central region of the Mexican territory, and to the southern state of Yucatan, I observed the variety of arrangements that help to sustain cooperation in these communities. In one community not far from the state capital of Tlaxcala, social service for young men involves becoming part of the local police for one year if they want permission to get married. In a small village in southern Yucatan, neighborhoods rotate trash collection through the year. Although most of the time these arrangements work out, these communities are not completely idyllic. Social cooperation has a dark side too. I became aware of this situation when I was interviewing a municipality official in the local police station, an announcement in the radio started buzzing around: there was a lynching in the neighboring town. These lynching are, unfortunately, not rare: general mistrust in the police and the judicial system is driving people to take justice by their own hand.

I came to rural Mexico with the support of a FSI research grant to understand why people cooperate and what role history plays in shaping this behavior. In this country these local-level institutions date from the colonial period when indigenous towns where created by the Spanish elite to segregate the native population. During the next couple of centuries, haciendas owned by the white minority started to mushroom across the territory. The indigenous population then was forced to work in these haciendas virtually as slaves. After the Mexican revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the haciendas disappeared and lands where somehow restored to these towns.

Today, after many centuries of hacienda ownership, seventy years of hegemonic party rule and two decades of electoral democracy, these local-level institutions still survive in many localities, ruling the daily life of millions of Mexicans. These institutions often coexist with the modern state in many ways. For example, in the state of Tlaxcala some localities have migrated to the party system to elect their authorities. In the state of Yucatan, although local-level authorities are not officially party affiliated they often belong to a political group. Untangling where traditional governance prevails and where the modern state start to take over is not easy.

In my fieldwork I wanted to understand why these traditional forms of community governance survive, how they evolve and what are the implications for economic development and social order. Interviewing authorities and citizens in these communities made me realize that many layers of history shape these communities. In some cases cooperation is deeply rooted in tradition. In some other cases cooperation is fragile and distrust is the norm. What is true is that if governments want to apply effective policies they must understand these norms and the local-level arrangements that predate the state itself. During the next year of my dissertation I´ll be implementing a large-N survey and a set of behavioral games to enrich our understanding of these local-level institutions and the social norms behind them. I hope then to start making sense of the words of that man in the hills of Puebla, and to use this understanding in designing better policies for development.

Note: I thank Alondra Rodríguez, Víctor Vergara and Demetrio Pech for superb research assistance during this trip.

Surveying community public goods. Locality in Puebla, Mexico
Interviewing citizens. Locality in Puebla, Mexico
Abandoned hacienda next to a village. Yucatan, Mexico

Written by Edgar Franco Vivanco, 2017 FSI Large Research Grant recipient.