[This article has been updated from the original that appeared in Upside Down World in order to reflect new death tolls.]
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. Five bodies have been pulled from the mud, and another six people are missing. 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.
|The mudslide washed away 4-6 houses.|
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.
|About 3km of dirt road connect Tlahuitoltepec to the|
nearest paved road.
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.
|This bridge, located about two hours from Tlahuitoltepec,|
collapsed, delaying rescue efforts for hours.
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.