Getting to the roots of a tragedy

SUN JOURNAL

Mexico: The local governments' inability to cope with growth may have contributed to the disaster that swept away part of town.

November 01, 1999|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEZIUTLAN, Mexico -- From the photos, the La Aurora neighborhood of this bustling mountain city looked like a partially shaved face.

The photos were circulated to news agencies after the disaster Oct. 5 in which half of La Aurora slid down a hill during torrential rains. They showed homes on either side of the sheared hill, with the houses that used to be in the middle slumped at the bottom in a mass of rubble.

What the aerial photos didn't show was why it happened.

Natural disasters have a way of baring the weaknesses in Mexico's centralized and authoritarian political system. Local government is one principal weakness. The concentration of power in the central government in Mexico City leaves local governments starved for funding and served by a rudimentary civil service.

The rain that fell in three days on Teziutlan, in the central state of Puebla, was more than it usually receives in a year. But what made it a disaster was Teziutlan's inability to control economic and demographic growth.

"Globalization grabs us. It develops us very quickly," says Jose Luis Olvera, Teziutlan's director of public works. "But as a government we haven't been able to take the measures necessary to keep up." It is a national problem, he says: "Many places in the country are like this."

The result was the worst tragedy in the city's history: nearly 200 people killed in landslides, 500 homes destroyed, another 1,200 damaged or unlivable, thousands of people homeless. The La Aurora slide took dozens of homes and possibly 150 people with it.

Teziutlan might seem wealthy enough to protect itself. The city has become an enormous sewing center and one of Mexico's great success stories under the North American Free Trade Agreement. American Eagle jeans and Oscar de la Renta shirts are among the lines produced here.

Since the 1920s, the garment industry had been developing here at a moderate pace, with infrastructure development and economic growth in balance. By 1994, when NAFTA reduced U.S. tariffs on clothes made in Mexico, Teziutlan had a trained labor force, supplemented by an enormous pool of cheap, unskilled workers in hundreds of nearby impoverished villages.

The result was a mountain boom town. More than 100 sewing plants -- known as maquiladoras -- came to Teziutlan. About 15,000 workers arrived, bringing to 34,000 the town's garment-trade work force.

"Help Wanted" signs are posted all over town. Plant owners forecast a 100,000-member work force in 10 years, with maquiladoras set up in houses, in historic downtown buildings, anywhere there's space. No one knows how many maquiladoras are in town; estimates run from 250 to 500.

Amid this change, what did not change was the way Teziutlan was governed. It functioned as it always had -- weakly, with little administrative expertise. Nor did the maquiladora boom enrich Teziutlan's treasury.

In Mexico, tax proceeds go to the central government, which keeps about 80 percent of the revenue. Only 5 percent of the taxes make it back to municipal governments.

"We have just enough for the staff, the basic services and a few extras," says Teziutlan Mayor Jose Sanchez.

Growing cities like Teziutlan are awash in unmet infrastructure needs. This is one reason why Mexican cities -- including Teziutlan -- are usually ringed with shantytowns.

Maquiladoras give rural folk steady work, health benefits, the ability to educate their children. But because of the city government's inherent weaknesses, the trade-off is living in danger. Unable to afford rising rents, workers found land on the city's rugged terrain -- in ravines or on the side of hills -- giving Teziutlan the look of a crooked wedding cake.

As the city boomed, its government could not keep up. Installing the most basic infrastructure, such as storm drains or retaining walls for hillside neighborhoods, became all but impossible.

Moreover, under the Mexican political system, mayors and city councils are in office for only three years and cannot be re-elected. Most of the city staff leaves with them.

The result is constant improvisation at the local level. Falling through the cracks amid this constant turnover are efforts to stop development in dangerous areas, or to extend services, like storm-water drainage, that might prevent such disasters.

"Only four towns in the state of Puebla have any urban planning," says Olvera, who co-wrote Teziutlan's urban-development plan in 1996. "And though we're among those four, we're really behind. We try to implement these plans, but when our term is over, we're returning to the private sector, and the next government likely won't follow up on what we're trying to do."

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