Caciquismo (Mexico)

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Caciquismo 🇲🇽
Mexico map.png
Location: Mexico
Definition: The exercise of political, economic and social influence with measures of control and co-optation
Keywords: Mexico North America Central America Latin America Brokerage Patronage Coercion
Clusters: Patron-client networks Co-optation Control
Author: Fausto Carbajal Glass
Affiliation: Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London, UK

By Fausto Carbajal Glass, Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London, UK

Caciquismo refers to the exercise of political, economic and social influence in a geographic area, based on informal control and co-optation mechanisms. It is a widespread phenomenon in Latin American countries, probably as the result of pre-Columbian power hierarchies and a shared colonial past. The Spanish crown kept the indigenous social structures so that caciques remained political chiefs (Hobsbawm 1971: 90). Since the 19th century, the term evolved to denote those individuals – predominantly men – who exercised power to the point of consolidating subnational regimes (O’Donnell 2004: 183). In Mexico, caciquismo still refers to a person that exerts influence in public affairs in a geographic area, starting at the local level of municipality, the lowest politico-administrative unit in Mexico preceding state and federal authorities (Ugalde 1973: 124). Until present-day, caciquismo has been a distinctive trait in the Mexican state-making process as it has been a source of para-institutional power of social and political control (Pansters 2012:25). The caciques have influenced, if not shaped, most major transformations of the twentieth-century Mexico, such as the 1910 revolution, as well as the early 21st century democratization process and the contemporary security crisis.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, president Porfirio Díaz managed to align his presidency with both the formal and informal power brokers (Krauze 1998:10). During the Porfiriato, as this period is commonly known, caciques became an oligarchic network that produced a new breed of magnates, for it gathered landowners, industrials, merchants, and lenders into a single network that appeased the Mexican society and maintained power (Meyer 2000). Although the Revolution ousted Díaz in 1911 after a 35-year dictatorship, caciquismo has survived the civil war. Once the revolution´s political and social turmoil ended in the 1930s, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ‘routinized’ the post-revolutionary regime in the 1940s, caciquismo was yet again a fundamental way to bring about peace and effective governance to the country. The cacique became once again the informal intermediary that connected local politics to the national political project (Meyer 2000).

In essence, the post-revolutionary regime was characterized by a single-party government; a centralized authority of the president; a corporatist pact among the party, interest groups, and bureaucratic leaders; and a clientelist pyramid composed of political officials and local powerbrokers – caciques – to enhance state capacity in remote areas (McAdam et al 2001:294). Through this period, caciques were selected, controlled, and funded by the central government. They were responsible, on the one hand, for providing solid electoral results and, on the other, for maintaining peace and order in their stronghold (ibid.).

Caciques would ensure electoral support of the population in exchange for access to public benefits and state resources. Such practices became known as clientelismo, whereby the cacique became the patron and the population its client (O’Donnell 2004: 182). In this sense, caciquismo is a paternalistic relationship where a local magnate holds power on the basis of influence over those who put themselves under his protection (Hobsbawm 1971: 57). This informal institution is similar to the padrino system in the Philippines (Pak-Nung and Joyce 2018:380-382). Both systems presume co-optation practices based on distribution of goods, services, employment or political positions. Caciquismo reinforces itself by a collective attitude of social consent and cooperation. Although caciquismo is an undemocratic way to concentrate power, paradoxically, it has been also a mechanism of serving democratic needs and power re-distribution, albeit discretional and arbitrary. The way caciques mediate relations between citizens and the state also resembles the dalali brokers in India who alleviate complexity for the federal authorities (Martin 2018:211-213).

To maintain peace in remote areas, the federal government endowed caciques with control over the public order with the help of the military (Benítez, 2017). In other cases, caciques would exert control primarily through the engagement of private militias or paramilitaries that quickly supress any uprising (Maldonado 2013: 48). Even nowadays, local landowners-cum-patrons-cum-politicians treat the municipal police forces as private armies (Felbab-Brown 2013:14).

Caciques were empowered to compensate for the defects and insufficiencies of the national government, but their influence spread to the detriment of municipal level institutions. Their informal power undermined the effectiveness of law enforcement that exacerbates Mexico´s ongoing security and violence crisis, even more so in association with the criminal underworld becoming increasingly fragmented, diverse, and localised (Carbajal-Glass, 2019). The coercive nature of caciquismo is inevitably coupled with repression and impunity (Pansters, 2012:25). In its darkest aspects, caciquismo shares similarities with the Indian Goonda Raj (Michelutti 2018: 383-385) and the Russian krysha (Zabyelina and Buzhor 2018: 256-259).

In 2000, the centre-right National Action Party (PAN), the main opposition party at the time, ousted the PRI, thus ending its federal hegemony of over 70 years. The political changes associated with the democratization “undermined the pyramidal composition of power structures (i.e. single-party government and centralized authority of the president) meaning the loss of social control” (Villarreal 207: 484). In this new context, caciques adopted a more competitive approach. The democratization made even more evident that caciquismo was in reality a subsystem operating within the context of a national polity and economy (Anderson and Cockcroft 1972: 12). The dissolution of the centralized top-down one-party structures gave more autonomy to local state and municipal authorities often controlled by the caciques themselves (Maldonado 2013: 52). The democratization and the redistribution of power gave way to a ‘federalización caciquista’ (cacique-like federalization), as was predicted years before (Castillo-Peraza 1995).

Caciquismo operates on the basis of multiple elements of coercion, co-optation, patronage, and consensual interaction between patrons and clients. Its core is best grasped by related concepts of corporatism, patrimonialism, clientelism, and personalism (Powell 2012). With deep historical and political roots, caciquismo is ubiquitous in Mexico. It will be interesting to study how this informal institution evolves under increasing democratization, deep security challenges, and a lack of institutional design at the local level.


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