Mexico: Love Thy Neighbor

Why do Mexicans leave home? …A corrupt capital and wild countryside are the norm but Mexico is not without options.  It’s time for Mexico to depart from its colonial roots and replant its capital.

Perhaps American immigration reform should include an element of taking Mexico to task. After all, most of the immigrants subject to reform are Mexicans and estimates suggest over 10% of Mexico’s 120 million citizens reside in the United States (both legally and illegally). In any context, this is an enormous proportion of citizens to flee a country.  Given Mexico is our neighbor, I’m left wondering, Mexico, you ok?

With rampant government corruption and drug cartels ruling large swathes of the country, many Mexicans vote with their feet. Contrary to popular belief, the emigration of Mexicans to the United States is not purely the stuff of American dreams, it is also a sad last resort to leave home and country.

Mexican immigration is often taken for granted in the United States. Of course people choose the USA, who wouldn’t?!  But why?  Why is Mexico so much worse off than the United States? How is it that two neighbors, founded at approximately the same time, have matured into vastly different economies?

Scientific people reject notions of any group possessing inherent superiority.  Thus, recall that humans are creatures of structure.  Some policy structures are so fundamental, they hide in plain sight.  This article suggests one policy underlies the divergence between Mexico and the United States. Surprisingly, it is not complicated, just 2 words: Capital Bias.

Science of cities
Decades ago urban geographers identified a single policy structure powerfully associated with how countries urbanize, capital city status. 
In Mexico it is the law designating Mexico City as the national capital.

Like America, Mexico carved out an exclusive territory for federal affairs, called the Distrito Federal (Federal District), surrounding Greater Mexico City.  This is where the similarity with the United States ends because both countries chose fundamentally different capital cities.

The circumstances of Mexican independence did not yield an obvious reason to replant government.  Mexico City, the colonial crown jewel of Spanish conquest in the Americas, maintained its capital status and unquestioned dominance. Meanwhile in the United States, colonial capitals were dethroned; New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah lost their capital city statuses in favor of rural locations (Albany, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Columbia, Atlanta respectively). A proclivity for small capital cities was repeated in new states and, perhaps most famous, Americans chose Washington, DC for their national capitol.

Why did Americans take independence one step further? The American revolution was a bloody, lengthy affair, a farmer’s revolt following many years of oppression and impoverishment. The majority of Americans, farmers, had grown to deeply distrust the colonial seats of government; cities themselves were seen as cesspools of corruption. Thus, government was planted in the virtuous country; farmers could be trusted. America’s choice of rural government was emotional yet had an unintended positive and innovative impact by disrupting colonial economic motion and harkening the emergence of America’s enormous urban system.

Search the term, “urban primacy” on or at the library and you will find a plethora of published academic literature describing a phenomenon whereby some cities dominate others. That is, in some countries one city becomes much larger than the rest.  As illustrated by the image below, urban primacy is so common and noticeable that urban geographers published repeated evidence that primacy usually occurs when the largest city is also the capital. 

Western Russia (left) and eastern USA & Canada (right), juxtaposing two distinct patterns of urbanization: Urban Primacy (left) vs decentralized urbanization (right).

Mexico is a textbook example of urban primacy. Mexico City is 2.4 times larger than the next two cities combined (Guadalajara and Monterrey; data source: agglomeration populations from This number is a common measure of urban primacy. 

On the face of it 2.4 is high but not extreme, 3.0 and above would be.  Still, when we consider the enormous size of Mexico, it is remarkable that one city should be so much larger and that no other regions have been conducive to comparably large cities.  Adding to the odd nature of Mexico’s few cities, note that urban primacy is less common in big territories because there’s more opportunity for several big cities to grow.  For example China (0.66), India (0.66), Australia (0.67), USA (0.80), Canada (1.08) and Brazil (1.24) have multiple large cities and therefore low primacy. In Mexico government and big business are co-located in a one-and-only world city, 2.4 times bigger than the next 2 cities combined.  Urban geographers gave the world a simple truth: This is no coincidence.

Houston, Texas.
Houston, Texas from space at night. Courtesy of

The satellite picture above illustrates that an urban sprawl is a mass of  infrastructure with every unit predicated by money, usually taxes.
Money plays a fundamental role in urbanization because cities rarely bloom without robust financial support.  However, where tax revenue is invested often depends upon the relative size of the capital city is. If the capital is dominantly large it can be expected to hoard taxes and exert capital dominance because infrastructure provision is ultimately managed by human beings who can succumb to delusions of self importance. 

Like royalty, capital cities inherit power.  Large capitals possess the might and discretion to suppress competitors, choose favorites and ultimately fortify a monopolistic leg up. Capitals control the money and when this power is juxtaposed with large commercial markets, the political process is corrupted. The cost is the unlocked potential of the economy.  

Mexico illustrates that capital dominance enables a city with an inferior natural endowment to prosper over more favorable, coastal locations. The satellite image below (click to expand) features the Mexican and American urban systems (groups of cities). The red lines denote the coastal locations of the US-Mexico border.

Left: Satellite image of North America (Source: Earth at Night 2012). Right: Map of North America featuring the lands ceded by Mexico in 1842 to the United States (Image source: Wikipedia).
Left: Satellite image of North America (Source: Earth at Night 2012). Right: Map of North America featuring the lands ceded by Mexico in 1842 to the United States (Image source: Wikipedia).

Observe urbanization along the US coastlines which ends at the border, illustrating Mexico’s undeveloped coasts.  Further south, Mexico City’s enormous size is evident.  Strangely, Mexico City, an enormous urban sprawl, is nestled inland, at high altitude, in mountains, not necessarily the worst location for a city but an uncompetitive natural endowment.  It is unlikely that under fair competition this city would maintain extreme commercial dominance over coastal rivals.

It is the differential patterns described above that led urban geographers to discover capital dominance and prove its existence. Maps of these systems look like funnels with infrastructure leading to the primate city. The territory serves the capital, not the other way around. Conversely, decentralized urban systems are characterized by servant capitals, more evenly sized cities and an appearance suggestive of geography. The United States, Canada, South Africa,China, Israel, Italy, Saudi Arabia are good examples of decentralized urban systems.

Interestingly, neighboring decentralized systems have a tendency to integrate (e.g. share infrastructure, more open terms of trade) and compliment one another. The satellite image above illustrates this in that it is difficult to see the US-Canada border. Meanwhile the US-Mexico border is more pronounced. 

Lucky El Norte
In Mexico the term “El Norte”, literally translated to “the north,” commonly refers to the United States and apparently where at least 10% of Mexicans aspire to be. Another meaning also intertwined with this term is common knowledge that much of the United States was Mexico and therefore el Norte is, in spirit, part of Mexico.

The US states California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma were all once part of Mexico. Sidestepping the circumstances surrounding this territorial change of hands, I mention el Norte to highlight that Mexico was essentially split in two in the 19th century. Let the subsequent economic divergence of el Norte from Mexico serve as an example of the mega-economic impact of rural government vs urban government.

Prior to ceding its land to the USA, Mexico extended as far north as Oregon. These northern regions were considered wastelands of little use beyond missionary work. Even at this time, Mexico City was dominant and always had been, exacting a draconian stronghold over its northern reaches. There are stories of trade being restricted in coastal California unless goods first moved overland through Mexico City. In keeping with capital dominance, the capital ruled as unquestioned king. Northern Mexico was rendered remote, undeveloped and vulnerable to invasion by Americans.

When the dust settled and el Norte became the United States, urbanization in the region changed radically. Areas once considered inhospitable were reimagined, engineered and transformed by a rural capital in the District of Columbia that invested taxes innovatively and remotely. In el Norte, rural government was not only imposed federally but in state capitals (California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas), reinforcing the notion of a separation between power and commerce.

The Southwest portion of the American urban system owes its existence to America’s annexation of El Norte. A wasteland ignored by a corrupted capital now includes San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.  

Painting by George Wilkinson III
Painting by George Wilkinson III

Trapped in Colonization
To urban geographers the solution is simple, dominant capitals should be avoided.  The relative size of a capital city is the salient variable and must be actively managed, monitored and enshrined in law.

To address the conditions that have driven millions of Mexicans from their homes, Mexico City must be dethroned. Without this conscious, deliberate approach Mexico can expect chronic and continuous waves of dysfunction, corruption, and violence – a radical fate.

Capital dominance is the root cause of Mexican inequality and therefore Mexican emmigration. The sheer shape of the Mexican urban system demonstrates how taxes are invested there. This in turn has a magnetic effect as residents seeking opportunity migrate to the congested capital.  Policy makers’ positive beliefs about the city are reinforced by its popularity.  Residents assume the Federal District is the only location capable of greatness.  

Meanwhile in the periphery, let Mexican drug cartels evince what becomes of neglected lands. The federal government repeatedly pledges to crack down on the cartels but in this action is the admission of neglect. The cartels themselves are comprised of opportunistic, lawless local farmers with few options.  They seize lawless lands, not unlike the 19th century American government.

The characterization of Mexico as having a disproportionate share of an illicit drug economy is true in that the United States has the same drug economy (most consumers are there) but it is buried beneath and tangled within a rich economy full of many other activities. In other words, the cartels dominate because they are the oasis of economic activity.

No one is to blame
There’s a silver lining to Mexico’s problems: No one is to blame. 
Individuals within the Mexican political class can hardly be blamed for adopting deeply entrenched and structurally reinforced cultural beliefs about Mexico City and its role within Mexico. It is likely these individuals want to do the right thing for the country but don’t know what that is.

While capital dominance originates in policy, it is also psychological.  The capital’s unquestioned dominance limits cultural imagination. Policy makers subconsciously apply a capital-centric approach to territorial administration. 

In addition to the innocent psychological aspects that make capital dominance persistent, there is also the matter of big capitals attracting the wrong kind of politician. It is questionable to judge opportunistic individuals given the buffet before them a big capital city. By day, the juxtaposition of big business and the state is literally across the street.  After hours, the relationship is more intimate; corporates have rubbed elbows with legislators since they were children, students, fellow club members, etc.  One unintended, positive result of a relatively small capital is that it is often so remote and undesirable that it repels the self-interested. 

Painting by George Wilkinson III

Off with his head
Mexicans may believe they wrested independence and left monarchy behind with colonization.  This should be reexamined. Independence was on paper but the colonial capital remained master.  As a result, colonial economic motion was undisturbed.  As such
, Mexico City should be stripped of its federal charter, a new, relatively small capital city planted and the perpetual, strategic management of capital city status enshrined in policy.  

In conclusion, those who subscribe to the idea that the power of human beings should be managed might consider the other human being.  Cities also have kings. Today a king rules Mexico. Undo this and Mexico will be a place few flee.