Mexico’s Curiously Subtle Conflict

In this blog post I refer to my experiences of road infrastructure in the south of Mexico (Mexico City and the Oaxaca province), discussing how the concept of the state is questioned within the Mexican context. Interestingly, Mexican road infrastructures resemble social structures close to Anand’s (2011) ethnography, where negotiations over constructing and controlling infrastructure are seen as a struggle for official recognition and citizenship rights (p.547). However, Mexican roads differ in the sense that they appear “invisible” to the wider public who uses them on a daily basis, despite them being constantly negotiated by different political entities.

For example, when vehicles are stopped by drug cartels and asked for a“toll” or for a vehicle search, no one seems to hesitate paying or giving them permission despite them not having an “official” status.  Of course, both the state and drug cartels are heavily militarised entities that are dangerous to oppose, however no one seems to even notice a difference between them, and both are treated identically. Furthermore, depending on the road near which one resides, she receives recognition, privileges and ‘tax’ money for public works by the entity that controls the nearest roads. As for those that merely use the road, they respect the local authority (statal or not) without any comments or protest. One may argue that this reaction is based out of fear for the cartel’s and the state’s armed power, however similar situations are also found in less militarized contexts.

For example, side roads in the capital are often barricaded by residents, in order to protect themselves from outsiders and to establish the boundaries of their own communities. In this case, even though a road may have been built using state money, its actual control and regulation is overtaken by local residents, converting the road from a public entity to a private one that the general public cannot ultimately access despite having paid for its construction. Yet, no one living in these neighbourhoods seems to oppose or even notice this behaviour and state authorities do not appear to intervene either. In fact, Mexican friends and acquaintances consistently seemed to notice the conflict between who owns and controls a road, only after I had mentioned it myself.

Consequently, just like in Anands’ (2011) ethnography, roads in Mexico can “produce regimes of management and marginalization” (p. 545). Yet, unlike Anand’s case, this type of struggle for domination is often invisible to the locals despite the arms, barricades and even tax systems involved. Just like water pressure in Anand’s (2011) ethnography, roads seem to “exceed the technopolitical systems that [officially] govern them” (p. 559) with the difference that the entire process occurs in a significantly subtle way. This exemplifies that in the Mexican case, the coexistance of multiple distinct state-like authorities is something widely accepted and thus, road infrastructures are not solely associated with the state as it may have been otherwise assumed.  


Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: the politechnics of water supply in Mumbai”. Cultural Anthropology. 26 (4): pp.542-564.

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