|FLOODS IN MEXICO|
October 21, 1999
Victims of floods in southern Mexico say the disaster was not only the fault of torrential rains -- but of poor zoning codes and corrupt politicians. Jeffery Kaye of KCET-TV, Los Angeles, reports.
JEFFREY KAYE: In the small Indian community of Hueyhueymico in southern Mexico, villagers trekked through the mud to a funeral mass.
(PEOPLE SINGING AT MASS)
JEFFREY KAYE: Standing on a bridge this past Sunday, they came to mourn 23 neighbors killed when a mudslide wiped out their homes nine days earlier.
INÉS CASIANO: (speaking through interpreter) You can only see the top of my house; the rest is all caved in. And that's where three of my children lost their lives.
survivor, without her family
KAYE: Inés Casiano returned for the first time to her half-buried
house, where she herself had been rescued from the mud. Mexico is grieving
for hundreds of people killed by floods and mudslides. The search for
bodies continues. The official death toll is about 400, but that number
is certain to rise as communities keep digging out. Rains drenched central
and southeast Mexico for 10 days earlier this month. Storms dropped
as much water as normally falls in a year. The rains drove hundreds
of thousands of people from their homes... ruined half a million acres
of crops... and washed away roads. More than a quarter of a million
people have been left homeless.
PRESIDENT ERNESTO ZEDILLO, Mexico: (speaking through interpreter) The fundamental problem is the isolation of many communities, some very small, others bigger. Over the last few days we have transported the most necessary items by air to those communities. The deployment has been enormous and much needed.
JEFFREY KAYE: President Zedillo has visited the worst-hit areas, among
them the town of Tezuitlan in the eastern Sierra Mountains. More than
100 people died in Tezuitlan, when mudslides swept away homes built
on the sides of steep ravines. This week, in one hillside community,
City Mayor José Sanchez says that during the downpour, authorities broadcast radio messages warning residents to move to safe ground.
JEFFREY KAYE: Could this have been prevented?
MAYOR JOSÉ SANCHEZ: (speaking through interpreter) This I believe could not have been foreseen. It was really the kind of rain that no one was expecting. None of the residents here remembers ever having seen anything like it.
|Were deaths preventable?|
JEFFREY KAYE: Although many are describing this catastrophe as a natural disaster, that's only one aspect of the story. Some Mexicans are saying that this tragedy was preventable, at least in part. Even before the deluge, city officials had classified four thousand hillside homes as high risk: likely to collapse during heavy rains. Throughout Mexico, authorities often turn a blind eye to unsafe building practices, says writer Homero Aridjis, one of the country's leading environmentalists. He says unregulated construction is the norm.
HOMERO ARIDJIS: It is the Mexican way to build. But sometimes you have a house or factory and next day you have another one, and there is no planning. The local authorities, they have - they are very inefficient. They have not vision of what can happen to these people, and sometimes they don't care.
JEFFREY KAYE: Tezuitlan is a boomtown. The population of 120,000 doubled in the past five years. Workers are drawn to this industrial hub by plentiful jobs in garment factories. With little flatland, workers like Jesús Salazar and his sister - who perished in the mudslides -- built and lived in homes on hillsides. When his relatives searched the area where his home once stood, they found Salazar's pay stub. He earned the average wage of a worker here -- $25 a week, sewing pockets on pants.
NICOMEDA SALAZAR: (speaking through interpreter) My brother went to school on the weekends and worked during the week. He worked in a factory.
JEFFREY KAYE: Tezuitlan has 280 clothing factories. The industry has mushroomed in the past five years -- a result not only of the cheap labor but also of NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement -- which reduced tariffs paid by U.S. importers.
FELIPE HADDAD: NAFTA has been something that has benefited Mexico and the United States.
JEFFREY KAYE: Felipe Haddad owns the city's largest and oldest garment factories or maquiladoras; he employs 2,000 workers.
FELIPE HADDAD: We have got today between thirty-five and thirty-eight thousand workers in Tezuitlan.
JEFFREY KAYE: Thirty-five and how many?
FELIPE HADDAD: And thirty-eight thousand.
JEFFREY KAYE: And thirty-eight thousand.
JEFFREY KAYE: So most of the people who work, work in the maquiladoras?
FELIPE HADDAD: That's right.
JEFFREY KAYE: And how has the maquiladora industry grown, say, in the last five years?
FELIPE HADDAD: In a very fast pace.
|Zoning law dangers|
JEFFREY KAYE: An uncontrollably fast pace. Building and zoning laws have only recently been enacted, and there's been little enforcement. Architect José Luís Olvera is the city's recently appointed planning director. He showed us a neighborhood which the city evacuated during the recent rains just before six homes slid down the hill.
JOSÉ LUÍS OLVERA: (speaking through interpreter) It's very difficult to regulate settlements in areas that are unsuitable for building. People look for cheap land in the city, near services and work. And that's very difficult for local government to control.
JEFFREY KAYE: Difficult because of Mexico's rampant political corruption, according to Olvera, who would like the system cleaned up. He explained how it works.
JOSÉ LUÍS OLVERA: (speaking through interpreter) If I'm a bureaucrat, and I know I'm going to be in office only three years, it's not in my interest to work for society or my party. If I'm an irresponsible person and I tell someone you can't build there, and he offers me money, probably I take the money and since I know I know I'm going to be out of office soon, there's no problem. This is not just a problem in Tezuitlan. It's not a secret -- there's a lot of corruption. And if I don't let this group of citizens build, my political opponents will make it possible for them to build when they get to power.
JEFFREY KAYE: In rural areas, uncontrolled deforestation contributed to the floods and mudslides, according to environmental experts. Back in Hueyheuymico, villagers complained they too were the victims of government neglect. A road built to support a growing population had an embankment with poor drainage. Saturated soil collapsed on the homes below. Residents had warned the government they were in danger and the town's two leaders say they're still afraid.
JEFFREY KAYE: Afraid of what, afraid that the same thing will happen again?
CECILIA ESPINA, Village Leader: ((speaking through interpreter) Afraid that the slides will continue because we know it's loose dirt. We know it's not well-built.
JEFFREY KAYE: Government officials did not dispute the community's complaints. Tezuitlan's Mayor Sanchez says his newly elected administration is trying to prevent the construction of shoddy houses.
|Measures being taken?|
MAYOR JOSÉ SANCHEZ: (speaking through interpreter) Currently, they are no longer being permitted. In my administration we haven't allowed construction of one single house like this. This won't happen again in Tezuitlan. It might happen in one of the neighborhoods like this, though we're taking measures now to relocate people in those areas.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sanchez is also feeling pressure from the business community. Earlier this week, Felipe Haddad joined other factory owners to form a development commission. Because factories were forced to close during the storms, they want improved roads and better housing for their workers. As for Inés Casiano, this week, she and other Hueyhueymico villagers came to city hall to register for new homes and building assistance promised by President Zedillo. Officials say the government will soon build hundreds of new homes on flat land in the Tezuitlan area. In the meantime, authorities are predicting more rain over the next few days for some of the already devastated regions.