Mexico: Will political changes lead to better public works management?

Bernardo Garcia, P.E.
Director of Public Works
Hillsborough County, FL

Edward S. Castoria, M.A., J.D.
Executive Vice-President
TeleTran Tek Services
San Diego, California

For over 300 years, a foreign nation, dictatorship or political monopoly has controlled both political power and government resources in Mexico. Centralized control has been the benchmark of the PRI Party that has dominated Mexico's political scene for the last 70 of those years. Under the PRI, local governments in Mexico have traditionally worked with insufficient financial resources unless politically favored by federal or state elected officials. In addition, short-term limits for local officials under Mexican law have impeded continuity of management, professional staff development, and effective interagency coordination.

Since the election of Vicente Fox of the PAN Party as President last year, local officials in Mexico have expressed increasing hope that they will finally receive the resources they need to construct and maintain required infrastructure. Public works managers in the United States are watching this situation with growing interest. In 1998, the American Public Works Association signed a Partnering Agreement with the Association of Municipalities of Mexico (AMMAC) to exchange information, technology, and professional education. Given this increased interest, it will be helpful for American public works professionals to understand the similarities and differences American public works organizations have with their Mexican counterparts.

Mexico is divided into a number of states, which are further divided into municipalities similar to American counties. Each municipality is headed by a President and includes one or more cities, as well as unincorporated areas called delegations. For example, the State of Baja, California, begins at the international border near San Diego, California, and continues south for nearly 1,500 miles to Cabo San Lucas. The Municipality of Tijuana, with a population of over 1,500,000, includes the City of Tijuana and six unincorporated delegations.

Public works responsibilities are similarly divided. The federal government builds and maintains Mexico's interstate highway system, under the management of the Secretary of Communications and Transportation. The state manages the local roads and bridges within its borders, as well as the water distribution systems for its cities and municipalities. The cities and delegations manage their own streets and alleys.

Each city has a Department of Public Works headed by a Director of Public Works and Services. In Tijuana, two Subdirectors report to the Director. The Subdirector of Public Works is responsible for construction, maintenance, traffic engineering, urban development, environmental analysis, and administrative management. The Subdirector for Services is responsible for equipment maintenance, street cleaning, trash collection, lighting, and green spaces. Each unincorporated delegation has a Chief of Public Works, also supported by Subdirectors. The city Director of Public Works and Chiefs of Public Works in the delegations all report to the Municipal President, and coordinate their efforts through that office. Occasionally, agreements are created ("Works of Participation") between the Federal, state and local levels where any one of the participants can manage a project. On such projects, the accounting details, engineering standards, plans and specifications, and procedures are more strictly followed and enforced.

While the public works management structure described above appears similar to that of a typical American county and its cities, there is a major difference that has limited the effectiveness of Mexican public works operations. Under current Mexican law, the President of the Municipality can serve only one three-year term. Since the Municipal President appoints the Director of Public Works, there has been a regular turnover within Public Works management with each election, and therefore a reduction in the experience levels achieved within local Public Works organizations.

According to Zeferino Sanchez, the former Director of Public Works for Tijuana, there are several reforms that he hopes President Fox and the PAN will institute: (1) requiring local government officials to possess an appropriate professional degree and applicable experience (as President Fox has done with his own Cabinet selections); (2) allowing public works managers and principal staff to retain their positions beyond the triennial elections; and (3) allowing greater local control of public funds for infrastructure construction and maintenance.

Bernardo Garcia, a member of the APWA International Affairs Committee, can be reached at 813-272-5912 Edward S. Castoria can be reached at 512-888-0490 or

The American Public Works Association has formed a collaborative alliance with the Slovak Public Works Association (SPWA) to identify ways to better serve our organizations and members through collaboration and exchange of information in education, training, technology, and management practices; to encourage international dialogue and understanding of our respective governmental systems and methods employed to influence informed decision making; and to seek opportunities, collaboration, and partnership in securing grants and implementing programs consistent with the strategic goals and objectives of each organization. To that end, the International Affairs Committee will be appointing a three-person task force to oversee these objectives. All work will be accomplished through e-mail. If you are interested in serving on this task force, please contact Kaye Sullivan, APWA Deputy Executive Director, at by March 1, 2001.