On Tuesday morning, the world awoke to the news that a mudslide had buried 80% of Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, a municipality of 10,000 people. Tearful Tlahuitoltepec officials told the press that 300-500 people were feared buried under the mud, while Oaxaca’s Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz placed the number of possible deaths at “up to 1,000.”
On Tuesday morning, the world awoke to the news that a mudslide had buried 80% of Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, a municipality of 10,000 people. Tearful Tlahuitoltepec officials told the press that 300-500 people were feared buried under the mud, while Oaxaca’s Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz placed the number of possible deaths at “up to 1,000.” The federal government deployed the military and federal police to the zone, and even the United States offered its assistance in digging out Tlahuitoltepec residents.
Now, as more rescue crews are gaining access to the municipality, the government has toned down its assessment of the damage. Eleven people are reported missing, with no confirmed deaths. However, rescue crews have still not reached six communities in Tlahuitoltepec. Electricity and phone service are down in the majority of the municipality, and many roads are covered with debris or have washed away.
Regardless of its final death toll, the disaster was foreseeable and highlights the deadly consequences of the state’s notorious, rampant corruption in public works.
The 2010 hurricane season has caused record rainfall in southern Mexico, leading to flooding, mudslides, and deaths in several states, including Oaxaca.
A report published by the federal government’s Mineral Resources Council in 2001 warned that as a result of deforestation, Tlahuitoltepec regularly suffers major landslides during hurricane season. The report, entitled “Natural Dangers,” warns that Tlahuitoltepec’s mudslides tend to affect both roads and houses. The government has done nothing to address the mudslide problem in Tlahuitoltepec, where many residents live on the slopes of steep hills.
The mudslide that shocked the world on September 28 didn’t happen overnight. The mud began to slide on September 13, causing the walls of nearby houses to crack as the earth began to move. At that time, Mexico’s Civil Protection (similar to the US government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency) told the municipal president to evacuate the town. However, neither the state nor the federal government appear to have helped with the evacuation, nor did they offer Tlahuitoltepec residents a refuge. It was only after local officials apparently exaggerated the magnitude of the September 28 mudslide that state police began to escort residents out of Tlahuitoltepec.
As rescue crews continue to arrive and evaluate the situation in the entire indigenous Mixe region (where Tlahuitoltepec is located), they will decide if they will evacuate up to 30,000 people. “In that zone it rains a lot. The land is unstable and there could be more mudslides,” Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz told El Universal. “It’s better to act, because something could happen.”
Oaxacan Roads Paved With Corruption
Unfortunately, Gov. Ruiz decided to act only when Tlahuitoltepec officials grossly exaggerated the September 28 mudslide. Local officials have been warning the state government that the mudslides could provoke a humanitarian disaster since August, when they complained that 50% of the highways in their region were damaged. “If they aren’t repaired, we’ll run the risk that various towns will be completely cut off in the coming days,” state Congressman Floriberto Vásquez Vásquez told the state government and press. The state government ignored his pleas.
On September 8, Vásquez’s warnings became reality. On that day, a Oaxaca state official reported that 80% of the state’s 22,000 km of highways were damaged due to both mudslides and shoddy construction, cutting off over thirty communities from the outside world. The Mixe was one of the most affected regions.
Roads and Runways of Oaxaca (CAO), the state agency in charge of building and maintaining Oaxaca’s roads, responded to concerns over the highways’ dire conditions by saying that it couldn’t repair them because it had no money left in its budget. Adiario, a Oaxacan newspaper that openly supports the state’s ruling party, wrote in an op-ed (PDF):
“CAO officials’ statements that ‘there aren’t any resources’ to fix the 80% of the highways that are currently damaged in Oaxaca are surprising. One asks why the CAO…has a multi-million peso annual budget that is mismanaged. That, sirs, is called incompetence. If there are dozens of communities that are completely cut off by mudslides and collapsed highways, it is a priority to come up with the money to solve the problem….Audits are necessary, because, despite the allocation of resources, the money doesn’t reach the victims the majority of the time.”
Claims of corruption in Oaxaca’s highway projects and other public works are as old as the highways themselves. The suspicions stem from the projects’ high costs and shoddy results. Some highways fall apart within months.
Public officials often award no-bid construction contracts to their friends and fellow party members. Citizens suspect that funds from many of these contracts are used to fund political campaigns. Such is the case in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, where Jesús Hiram Mortera funded his campaign for municipal president with his earnings from public works projects. Two successive municipal presidents awarded him the majority of the public works contracts in the town. The government is now auditing the two former municipal presidents over alleged embezzlement of funds through Mortera’s construction projects. Of particular concern is Mortera’s “rehabilitation” of a four-lane highway in Salina Cruz. The highway has collapsed three times since Mortera “rehabilitated” it.
So far no one has proven that Oaxacan politicians and contractors embezzle money from highway projects by using cheap materials and pocketing the difference. In 2008, state auditors concluded that Carlos Alberto Ramos Aragón used a boulevard construction project to embezzle money when he served as municipal president of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca, but they never discovered exactly how: Ramos Aragón simply didn’t hand over receipts to the auditors. Ramos Aragón was never punished for this presumed embezzlement. He currently serves as director of Oaxaca’s State Civil Protection Institute, one of the agencies in charge of Tlahuitoltepec rescue efforts.
While details on how politicians embezzle money from completed highway projects are vague or unproven, a recent scandal in the federal program “Firm Ground” demonstrates how many Oaxacans suspect contractors and politicians are stealing money from highway projects. The federal government provided funding to states such as Oaxaca through the “Firm Ground” project to install concrete floors in homes that had dirt floors. The federal government calculated the amount of cement it sent to the states based on the quantity and dimensions of the homes that would receive new floors through the program. In Guerrero, another state that received cement through “Firm Ground,” a federal audit found that state and local politicians watered down the donated cement with cheaper sand so less cement was needed to install the floors. Beneficiaries were left with low-quality floors, while local politicians turned around and sold the excess cement. Guerrero politicians and contractors embezzled $149 million pesos through the scheme, according to the federal audit.
Some Oaxacan communities are demanding a similar audit of the “Firm Ground” program in their state. Residents claim that local politicians are using the same scheme to deliver less cement to beneficiaries, and that the politicians use the excess cement to buy votes. Angry residents also claim that politicians pay the workers in charge of installing the floors half of what the federal government budgeted for their salaries, and that the politicians pocket the other half.
While audits have yet to uncover embezzlement schemes connected to the materials used to construct Oaxaca’s notoriously terrible highways, “phantom” highway projects are common. In phantom projects, the government pays for a roadway to be constructed or paved. The local officials claim that the project was completed and collect the cash, but in reality the project was never even initiated. Just this past August, the federal government fired nine Oaxacan officials for embezzling $930,000 pesos through phantom roadway projects. In April, authorities from sixty towns marched in San Juan Mixtepec to protest the municipal president’s alleged embezzlement of $10 million pesos in federal funds through phantom road, bridge, and potable water projects.
The consequences of corruption and embezzlement in public works is costly and deadly, as the disaster in Tlahuitoltepec demonstrates. Exaggerated reports of the mudslide’s magnitude circulated for over ten hours before the first rescue crews could reach the devastated town, which is located only two-and-a-half hours from Oaxaca City. The first rescue crews arrived on foot because the roads were impassable. Heavy equipment such as bulldozers arrived much later. While the world watched in horror as collapsed highways and bridges delayed rescuers and equipment, no one in Oaxaca was surprised—bad road conditions have become a fact of life.
While massive loss of life appears to have been avoided in Tlahuitoltepec, the mudslide should serve as a warning to the state and federal government that more oversight and accountability are needed to avoid a future catastrophe.