Saturday, March 17, 2018

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions


Christopher Wylie, who helped found the data firm Cambridge Analytica and worked there until 2014, has described the company as an “arsenal of weapons” in a culture war. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
LONDON — As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.
The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.
An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm — and wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics — under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.


Both Congress and the British Parliament have questioned Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, about the firm’s activities. Credit Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”
“They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
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Details of Cambridge’s acquisition and use of Facebook data have surfaced in several accounts since the business began working on the 2016 campaign, setting off a furious debate about the merits of the firm’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques.
But the full scale of the data leak involving Americans has not been previously disclosed — and Facebook, until now, has not acknowledged it. Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove.
Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.
During a week of inquiries from The Times, Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control. But on Friday, the company posted a statement expressing alarm and promising to take action.
“This was a scam — and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the social network, said in a statement to The Times earlier on Friday. He added that the company was suspending Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Wylie and the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, from Facebook. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties,” Mr. Grewal said.
Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and other officials had repeatedly denied obtaining or using Facebook data, most recently during a parliamentary hearing last month. But in a statement to The Times, the company acknowledged that it had acquired the data, though it blamed Mr. Kogan for violating Facebook’s rules and said it had deleted the information as soon as it learned of the problem two years ago.
In Britain, Cambridge Analytica is facing intertwined investigations by Parliament and government regulators, who are scrutinizing possible data privacy violations and allegations that it performed illegal work on the “Brexit” campaign. In the United States, Mr. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, a board member, Mr. Bannon and Mr. Nix received warnings from their lawyer that it was illegal to employ foreigners in political campaigns, according to company documents and former employees.


The conservative donor Robert Mercer invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica, where his daughter Rebekah is a board member. Credit Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

Congressional investigators have questioned Mr. Nix about the company’s role in the Trump campaign. And the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has demanded the emails of Cambridge Analytica employees who worked for the Trump team as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election.
While the substance of Mr. Mueller’s interest is a closely guarded secret, documents viewed by The Times indicate that the firm’s British affiliate claims to have worked in Russia and Ukraine. And the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, disclosed in October that Mr. Nix had reached out to him during the campaign in hopes of obtaining private emails belonging to Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The documents also raise new questions about Facebook, which is already grappling with intense criticism over the spread of Russian propaganda and fake news. The data Cambridge collected from profiles, a portion of which was viewed by The Times, included details on users’ identities, friend networks and “likes.”
“Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do,” Mr. Grewal said. “No systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”
Still, he added, “it’s a serious abuse of our rules.”

Reading Voters’ Minds

The Bordeaux flowed freely as Mr. Nix and several colleagues sat down for dinner at the Palace Hotel in Manhattan in late 2013, Mr. Wylie recalled in an interview. They had much to celebrate.
Mr. Nix, a brash salesman, led the small elections division at SCL Group, a political and defense contractor. He had spent much of the year trying to break into the lucrative new world of political data, recruiting Mr. Wylie, then a 24-year-old political operative with ties to veterans of President Obama’s campaigns. Mr. Wylie was interested in using inherent psychological traits to affect voters’ behavior and had assembled a team of psychologists and data scientists, some of them affiliated with Cambridge University.
The group experimented abroad, including in the Caribbean and Africa, where privacy rules were lax or nonexistent and politicians employing SCL were happy to provide government-held data, former employees said.
Then a chance meeting bought Mr. Nix into contact with Mr. Bannon, the Breitbart News firebrand who would later become a Trump campaign and White House adviser, and with Mr. Mercer, one of the richest men on earth.

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Mr. Nix and his colleagues courted Mr. Mercer, who believed a sophisticated data company could make him a kingmaker in Republican politics, and his daughter Rebekah, who shared his conservative views. Mr. Bannon was intrigued by the possibility of using personality profiling to shift America’s culture and rewire its politics, recalled Mr. Wylie and other former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Bannon declined to comment.
Mr. Mercer agreed to help finance a $1.5 million pilot project to poll voters and test psychographic messaging in Virginia’s gubernatorial race in November 2013, where the Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, ran against Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic fund-raiser. Though Mr. Cuccinelli lost, Mr. Mercer committed to moving forward.
The Mercers wanted results quickly, and more business beckoned. In early 2014, the investor Toby Neugebauer and other wealthy conservatives were preparing to put tens of millions of dollars behind a presidential campaign for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, work that Mr. Nix was eager to win.
When Mr. Wylie’s colleagues failed to produce a memo explaining their work to Mr. Neugebauer, Mr. Nix castigated them over email.
“ITS 2 PAGES!! 4 hours work max (or an hour each). What have you all been doing??” he wrote.
Mr. Wylie’s team had a bigger problem. Building psychographic profiles on a national scale required data the company could not gather without huge expense. Traditional analytics firms used voting records and consumer purchase histories to try to predict political beliefs and voting behavior.
But those kinds of records were useless for figuring out whether a particular voter was, say, a neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal or a fan of the occult. Those were among the psychological traits the firm claimed would provide a uniquely powerful means of designing political messages.


Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, built an app that helped the firm harvest Facebook data.

Mr. Wylie found a solution at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre. Researchers there had developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. The researchers paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from the their profiles and those of their friends, activity that Facebook permitted at the time. The approach, the scientists said, could reveal more about a person than their parents or romantic partners knew — a claim that has been disputed.
When the Psychometrics Centre declined to work with the firm, Mr. Wylie found someone who would: Dr. Kogan, who was then a psychology professor at the university and knew of the techniques. Dr. Kogan built his own app and in June 2014 began harvesting data for Cambridge Analytica. The business covered the costs — more than $800,000 — and allowed him to keep a copy for his own research, according to company emails and financial records.
All he divulged to Facebook, and to users in fine print, was that he was collecting information for academic purposes, the social network said. It did not verify his claim. Dr. Kogan declined to provide details of what happened, citing nondisclosure agreements with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, though he maintained that his program was “a very standard vanilla Facebook app.”
He ultimately provided over 50 million raw profiles to the firm, Mr. Wylie said, a number confirmed by a company email and a former colleague. Of those, roughly 30 million contained enough information, including places of residence, that the company could match users to other records and build psychographic profiles. Only about 270,000 users — those who participated in the survey — had consented to having their data harvested.


An email from Dr. Kogan to Mr. Wylie describing traits that could be predicted.

Mr. Wylie said the Facebook data was “the saving grace” that let his team deliver the models it had promised the Mercers.
“We wanted as much as we could get,” he acknowledged. “Where it came from, who said we could have it — we weren’t really asking.”
Mr. Nix tells a different story. Appearing before a parliamentary committee last month, he described Dr. Kogan’s contributions as “fruitless.”

An International Effort

Just as Dr. Kogan’s efforts were getting underway, Mr. Mercer agreed to invest $15 million in a joint venture with SCL’s elections division. The partners devised a convoluted corporate structure, forming a new American company, owned almost entirely by Mr. Mercer, with a license to the psychographics platform developed by Mr. Wylie’s team, according to company documents. Mr. Bannon, who became a board member and investor, chose the name: Cambridge Analytica.
The firm was effectively a shell. According to the documents and former employees, any contracts won by Cambridge, originally incorporated in Delaware, would be serviced by London-based SCL and overseen by Mr. Nix, a British citizen who held dual appointments at Cambridge Analytica and SCL. Most SCL employees and contractors were Canadian, like Mr. Wylie, or European.
But in July 2014, an American election lawyer advising the company, Laurence Levy, warned that the arrangement could violate laws limiting the involvement of foreign nationals in American elections.
In a memo to Mr. Bannon, Ms. Mercer and Mr. Nix, the lawyer, then at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, warned that Mr. Nix would have to recuse himself “from substantive management” of any clients involved in United States elections. The data firm would also have to find American citizens or green card holders, Mr. Levy wrote, “to manage the work and decision making functions, relative to campaign messaging and expenditures.”
In summer and fall 2014, Cambridge Analytica dived into the American midterm elections, mobilizing SCL contractors and employees around the country. Few Americans were involved in the work, which included polling, focus groups and message development for the John Bolton Super PAC, conservative groups in Colorado and the campaign of Senator Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican.
Cambridge Analytica, in its statement to The Times, said that all “personnel in strategic roles were U.S. nationals or green card holders.” Mr. Nix “never had any strategic or operational role” in an American election campaign, the company said.
Whether the company’s American ventures violated election laws would depend on foreign employees’ roles in each campaign, and on whether their work counted as strategic advice under Federal Election Commission rules.
Cambridge Analytica appears to have exhibited a similar pattern in the 2016 election cycle, when the company worked for the campaigns of Mr. Cruz and then Mr. Trump. While Cambridge hired more Americans to work on the races that year, most of its data scientists were citizens of the United Kingdom or other European countries, according to two former employees.
Under the guidance of Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s digital director in 2016 and now the campaign manager for his 2020 re-election effort, Cambridge performed a variety of services, former campaign officials said. That included designing target audiences for digital ads and fund-raising appeals, modeling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads and determining where Mr. Trump should travel to best drum up support.


The White House advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway with Ms. Mercer at the 2017 inauguration. The firm helped the Trump campaign target voters.

Cambridge executives have offered conflicting accounts about the use of psychographic data on the campaign. Mr. Nix has said that the firm’s profiles helped shape Mr. Trump’s strategy — statements disputed by other campaign officials — but also that Cambridge did not have enough time to comprehensively model Trump voters.
In a BBC interview last December, Mr. Nix said that the Trump efforts drew on “legacy psychographics” built for the Cruz campaign.

After the Leak

By early 2015, Mr. Wylie and more than half his original team of about a dozen people had left the company. Most were liberal-leaning, and had grown disenchanted with working on behalf of the hard-right candidates the Mercer family favored.
Cambridge Analytica, in its statement, said that Mr. Wylie had left to start a rival firm, and that it later took legal action against him to enforce intellectual property claims. It characterized Mr. Wylie and other former “contractors” as engaging in “what is clearly a malicious attempt to hurt the company.”
Near the end of that year, a report in The Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica was using private Facebook data on the Cruz campaign, sending Facebook scrambling. In a statement at the time, Facebook promised that it was “carefully investigating this situation” and would require any company misusing its data to destroy it.
Facebook verified the leak and — without publicly acknowledging it — sought to secure the information, efforts that continued as recently as August 2016. That month, lawyers for the social network reached out to Cambridge Analytica contractors. “This data was obtained and used without permission,” said a letter that was obtained by the Times. “It cannot be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately.”
Mr. Grewal, the Facebook deputy general counsel, said in a statement that both Dr. Kogan and “SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica certified to us that they destroyed the data in question.”


Cambridge Analytica harvested over 50 million Facebook users’ data, one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But copies of the data still remain beyond Facebook’s control. The Times viewed a set of raw data from the profiles Cambridge Analytica obtained.
While Mr. Nix has told lawmakers that the company does not have Facebook data, a former employee said that he had recently seen hundreds of gigabytes on Cambridge servers, and that the files were not encrypted.
Today, as Cambridge Analytica seeks to expand its business in the United States and overseas, Mr. Nix has mentioned some questionable practices. This January, in undercover footage filmed by Channel 4 News in Britain and viewed by The Times, he boasted of employing front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients around the world, and even suggested ways to entrap politicians in compromising situations.
All the scrutiny appears to have damaged Cambridge Analytica’s political business. No American campaigns or “super PACs” have yet reported paying the company for work in the 2018 midterms, and it is unclear whether Cambridge will be asked to join Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
In the meantime, Mr. Nix is seeking to take psychographics to the commercial advertising market. He has repositioned himself as a guru for the digital ad age — a “Math Man,” he puts it. In the United States last year, a former employee said, Cambridge pitched Mercedes-Benz, MetLife and the brewer AB InBev, but has not signed them on.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Losing Faith in the State, Some Mexican Towns Quietly Break Away

BY THE GUN José Santos at a checkpoint near the entrance to Tancítaro. Fed up with both the cartels and the government, the people of Tancítaro pushed out both.CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times
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 periodin 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.
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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.
Guarding the town’s avocado orchards. CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times

Tancítaro: ‘A Million or Two on Weapons’

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.”
Emilio Aguirre Rios at his farm outside Tancítaro. CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times
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.”
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BY THE CHECKBOOK Taking portraits for a quinceañera, or coming-of-age, celebration in Monterrey. The city’s business elite quietly took over public institutions. CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times

Monterrey: ‘They Destroyed the Whole Thing’

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.
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.”
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BY THE BALLOT Police officers in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl. The chief has been free to experiment because the government is not part of the entrenched party system. CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times

Neza: ‘How Long Can We Hold This?’

“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.
Police officers monitoring cameras that are trained on the streets of Neza.CreditBrett Gundlock for The New York Times
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?”