Mexico City: a Pinata Full of Big Troubles - And Many Delights

Voters often wonder why politicians would even want the elected posts they seek. In the case of Mexico City, that bewilderment seems all the more understandable.

The rapid population growth, pollution, crime, faulty services, congestion, lack of clean water, wide income gap between rich and poor, social conflicts, and corruption that typify Mexico's political and economic heart also make it a microcosm of the developing world. A very large microcosm, because with its 9 million people in the city proper and 18 million in the metropolitan area, Mexico City is bigger than many developing countries.

Still, Chilangos, as Mexico City's residents are known in Mexico, like to brag about living in "the world's largest city" - even though Tokyo and So Paulo still wear the winner and runner-up crowns, according to demographers. It's a bravura that helps cement the conviction that - to paraphrase another big city's anthem - if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. For example:

Population. In 1921, the city had 250,000 residents and was not significantly larger than the Aztec capital, Tenochtlitln, which Mexico City replaced. Yet even though the city now takes up most of the volcano-rimmed basin it occupies, 9 million more residents are expected by 2020; 80 percent of the current population is under 44 years of age.

Poverty. Mexico City generates more than 25 percent of Mexico's wealth. But it was severely hit by the 1994 peso devaluation and ensuing recession. More than 22,000 small businesses closed. Today more than 3.5 million Chilangos live on less than $7 a day. One million live in "extreme poverty."

Wealth. On the other hand, 10 percent of the city's families hold 70 percent of its wealth, with 3 percent living in extreme wealth. (Mexico ranks fourth worldwide in the number of billionaires).

Housing shortage. Officials estimate the city lacks 800,000 housing units to satisfy the current population - a statistic that helps account for the overcrowding. Families that can't find or afford other housing squeeze into crowded apartments.

Air pollution. Since 1990, Mexico City has enjoyed only 255 days of officially "clean" air, or less than one year's worth. Cars are singled out for 70 percent of the pollution, but inefficient natural-gas distribution systems, sooty factories, fecal dust, and other airborne particles share in the blame.

Education. More than 114,000 teachers teach 2.5 million schoolchildren. A graduate takes an average of one year to 18 months to find a job. At the same time, the capital boasts the country's lowest illiteracy rate, at 3 percent of the population.

Culture. With 120 bookstores, Mexico City accounts for almost half of all the bookstores in Mexico. It also has 161 museums, four pre-Colombian archaeological sites, and two sites on UNESCO's list of mankind's universal heritage: the city's historic center, including the last remaining ruins of the great temples of Tenochtlitln; and the ancient canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco.

Crime. Since the recession of the mid-'90s, crime has spiraled upward. The city averages five murders and 218 violent robberies a day. An estimated 60,000 cars were stolen last year, most sold in Central America. Mexico City has 1 police officer for every 150 residents - but 8 out of every 10 residents don't trust the police, according to surveys.

Food. They do, on the other hand, appear to have full confidence in the squeaky, outdated tortilla presses that dot neighborhoods and roll out tons of the flat, round staple that has been a fixture of Mexican kitchens for millennia. Chilangos consume more than 100 million tortillas every day.

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