TANCÍTARO, Mexico — The road to this agricultural town winds through the slums and cartel-controlled territory of Michoacán, ground zero for Mexico’s drug war, before arriving at a sight so strange it can seem like a mirage.
Fifteen-foot stone turrets are staffed by men whose green uniforms belong to no official force. Beyond them, a statue of an avocado bears the inscription “avocado capital of the world.” And beyond the statue is Tancítaro, an island of safety and stability amid the most violent period in Mexico’s history.
Local orchard owners, who export over $1 million in avocados per day, mostly to the United States, underwrite what has effectively become an independent city-state. Self-policing and self-governing, it is a sanctuary from drug cartels as well as from the Mexican state.
But beneath the calm is a town under tightfisted control, enforced by militias accountable only to their paymasters. Drug addiction and suicide are soaring, locals say, as the social contract strains.
Tancítaro represents a quiet but telling trend in Mexico, where a handful of towns and cities are effectively seceding, partly or in whole. These are acts of desperation, revealing the degree to which Mexico’s police and politicians are seen as part of the threat.
Visit three such enclaves — Tancítaro; Monterrey, a rich commercial city; and Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, just outside the capital — and you will find a pattern. Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. But their gains are fragile and have come at significant cost.
They are exceptions that prove the rule: Mexico’s crisis manifests as violence, but it is rooted in the corruption and weakness of the state.
It began with an uprising. Townspeople formed militias to eject both the cartel, which effectively controlled much of Michoacán, and the local police, who were seen as complicit. Orchard owners, whose families and businesses faced growing extortion threats, bankrolled the revolt.
This left Tancítaro without police or a government, whose officials had fled. Power accumulated to the militias that controlled the streets and to their backers, an organization of wealthy avocado growers known as the Junta de Sanidad Vegetal, or Plant Health Council. Citizens sometimes call it the Junta.
Nearly four years in, long after other militia-run towns in Michoacán collapsed into violence, the streets remain safe and tidy. But in sweeping away the institutions that enabled crime to flourish, Tancítaro created a system that in many ways resembles cartel control.
Their rule began with a purge. Young men suspected of involvement in the cartel were expelled. Low-level runners or informants, mostly boys, were allowed to stay, though the cartel murdered most in retaliation, a militia commander said.
Though violence eventually cooled, the wartime power structure has remained. The militias now act as the police, as well as guards for the town perimeter and the avocado orchards.
Cinthia Garcia Nieves, a young community organizer, moved into town shortly after the fighting subsided. Idealistic but clear-minded, she wanted to help Tancítaro develop real institutions.
But lines of authority had “blurred,” she said in a cafe near the town center.
Ms. Nieves set up citizens’ councils as a way for local families to get involved. But militia rule has accustomed many to the idea that power belongs to whomever has the guns.
She has high hopes for community justice forums, designed to punish crimes and resolve disputes. But, in practice, justice is often determined — and punishments administered — by whichever militia commander chooses to involve himself.
“We took them out in the street and gave them a beating,” Jorge Zamora, a militia member, said of some men accused of dealing drugs. Their lives were spared because two of them were his relatives, he said. Instead, “we expelled them from the town.”
Though his militia is tasked with guarding orchards, not policing, its proximity to the junta’s interests gives it special power. “For those people, it’s not a burden at all to spend a million or two on weapons,” Mr. Zamora said.
Officially, Tancítaro is run by a mayor so popular that he was nominated by the unanimous consent of every major political party and won in a landslide. Unofficially, the mayor reports to the farm owners, who predetermined his election by ensuring he was the only viable candidate, according to Falko Ernst and Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, security researchers who study Tancítaro.
The citizens’ councils, designed as visions of democratic utopianism, hold little power. Social services have faltered.
Though the new order is popular, it offers few avenues for appeal or dissent. Families whose sons or brothers are expelled — a practice that continues — have little recourse.
The central government has declined to reimpose control, the researchers believe, for fear of drawing attention to the town’s lesson that secession brings safety.
Ms. Nieves remains a believer in Tancítaro’s model, but worries about its future.
“We have to work together,” she said, or risk a future of “oppressive authority.”
If Tancítaro seceded with a gun, then the city of Monterrey, home to many top Mexican corporations, did it with a Rolodex and a handshake.
Rather than ejecting institutions, Monterrey’s business elite quietly took them over — all with the blessing of their friends and golf partners in public office.
But their once-remarkable progress is now collapsing. Crime is returning.
“I’m telling you, I have a long career in these matters, and the project I am more proud of than anything is this one in Monterrey,” said Jorge Tello, a security consultant and former head of the national intelligence agency.
“It’s very easy to lose it,” he warned, adding that it may already be too late.
Monterrey’s experiment began over a lunch. Mr. Tello was dining with the governor, who received a call from José Antonio Fernández, the head of Femsa, one of Mexico’s largest companies.
Femsa’s private security guards, while ferrying employees’ children to school, had been attacked by cartel gunmen, he said. Two had died repelling what was most likely a kidnapping attempt.
The governor put the call on speaker. It was the first of many conversations, joined by other corporate heads who faced similar threats.
A club of corporate executives who call themselves the Group of 10 offered to help fund and reform the state’s kidnapping police. The governor agreed.
They hired a consultant, who advised top-to-bottom changes and replaced nearly half the officers. They hired lawyers to rewrite kidnapping laws and began to coordinate between the police and the families of victims.
When the governor later announced an ambitious plan for a new police force, intended to restore order, he again invited business leaders in. C.E.O.s would now oversee one of the most central functions of government. They hired more consultants to put into effect the best and latest thinking in policing, community outreach, anything that could stop the violence tearing through their city. They bankrolled special housing and high salaries for officers.
Their payroll and human resources departments serviced the force. Their marketing divisions ran a nationwide recruitment campaign. When government officials asked to approve the ads before they ran, corporate leaders said no. Perhaps most crucially, they circumvented the bureaucracy and corruption that had bogged down other police reform efforts.
Crime dropped citywide. Community leaders in poorer areas reported safer streets and renewed public trust in the police.
Monterrey’s experience offered still more evidence that in Mexico, violence is only a symptom; the real disease is in government. The corporate takeover worked as a sort of quarantine. But, with the disease untreated, the quarantine inevitably broke.
A new governor, who took office in late 2015, let reforms lapse and appointed friends to key positions. Now, crime and reports of police brutality are resurging, particularly in working-class suburbs. Business leaders, whose wealthy neighborhoods remain safe, have either failed or declined to push the new governor.
“Things got better, people felt comfortable, and then they destroyed the whole thing,” Mr. Tello said.
Mexico’s weak institutions, he added, make any local fix subject to the whims of political leaders. Countries like the United States, he said, “have this structure that we don’t have. That’s what’s so dangerous.”
Adrián de la Garza, who is mayor of Monterrey’s municipal core, said the city could do only so much to insulate itself. “This isn’t an island,” he said.
Any Mexican city, he said, is policed by multiple forces. Some report to the mayor, some to the governor and some to the federal government. And any one of those political actors can derail progress through corruption, cronyism or simple neglect.
Even Mexico’s most powerful business leaders could cut them out only briefly.
“It’s a big problem,” Mr. de la Garza said. Managing it, he said, is “just political life in Mexico.”
“You don’t expect to see a bright light in a place like Neza,” said John Bailey, a Georgetown University professor who studies Mexican policing.
Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, a million-resident sprawl outside Mexico City, was once known for poverty, gang violence and police corruption so widespread that officers sometimes mugged citizens.
Today, though still rough, it is far safer. Its police officers are considered “a really promising model,” Mr. Bailey said, in a part of the country where most are seen as threats.
Unlike Tancítaro or Monterrey, Neza has no militia or business elite to seize or win power. Its government appears, on the surface, normal.
But the police chief who has overseen this change, a grandfatherly former academic named Jorge Amador, is not normal. For years he has treated Neza as his personal laboratory, trying a wild mix of hard-nosed reforms, harebrained schemes and fanciful experiments.
Many failed. Some drew arch amusement from the foreign press. (A literature program provided officers with a new book each month — mostly classics, all mandatory — and rewarded officers who wrote their own.) But some worked.
Mr. Amador was free to experiment — and his successes stuck — because Neza’s government is not normal, either. It has seceded from a part of the state that Joy Langston, a political scientist, called Mexico’s key point of failure: its party system.
Neza inverted Monterrey’s model: Rather than establishing an independent police force and co-opting the political system, Neza established an independent political system and co-opted the police.
Mexico’s establishment parties are more than parties. They are the state. Loyalists, not civil servants, run institutions. Officials have little freedom to stretch and little incentive to investigate corruption that might implicate fellow party members. Most are shuffled between offices every few years, cutting any successes short.
Neza, run by a third party, the left-wing P.R.D., exists outside of this system. Its leaders are free to gut local institutions and cut out the state authorities.
Mr. Amador is doing both. He fired one in eight police officers and changed every commanding officer. He shuffled assignments to disrupt patronage networks. Those who remain are under constant scrutiny. Every car is equipped with a GPS unit, tracked by dozens of internal affairs officers.
The state police are treated like foreign invaders. Neza’s leaders believe state officials are quietly undermining their efforts in a bid to retake power.
Neza’s bureaucratic secession allowed Mr. Amador to remake the force in his image. Corruption and crime would always pay more than he could, Mr. Amador knew. So he would offer something more valuable than money: a proud civic identity.
Essay contests, sports leagues and scholarships come with heavy messaging, cultivating a culture that can feel cultlike. Awards are handed out frequently — often publicly, always with a bit of cash — and for the smallest achievements.
“We have to convince the police officer that they can be a different kind of police officer, but also the citizen that they have a different kind of officer,” Mr. Amador said.
Yazmin Quroz, a longtime resident, said working with police officers, whom she now knows by name, had brought a sense of community. “We are united, which hadn’t happened before,” she said. “We’re finally all talking to each other.”
But Neza’s gains could evaporate, Mr. Amador said, if crime in neighboring areas continued to rise or if the mayor’s office changed party. His experiment has held drug gangs and the Mexican state at bay, but he could solve neither. He compared Neza to the Byzantine Empire, squeezed between larger empires for centuries before succumbing to history.
“The question is,” he said, “how long we can hold this?”
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