Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rampant Corruption Leaves Major Chiapan City Without Running Water

The Federal Government Cut Power to San Cristobal's Water Pumps Because the City Owed Money

On March 11, most of San Cristobal de las Casas' 200,000 residents bathed themselves out of buckets and left the dishes to pile up in the sink as they have all week. For most of them, it was their sixth day without running water. For some, it's been over a month.

At first, friends complained that water had stopped running to their houses. But we didn't think anything of it, because a few hours or days without water are common, especially during the tourist season.

But then the lady who washes our laundry stopped accepting our clothes; she didn't have any water to wash them with. So we tried to wash them by hand at home, but our sink didn't have water. We looked for a laundromat, but there were none open in our neighborhood. We had to walk a half a mile to find one that was open; we'd passed three closed laundromats on the way.

Then the bars and restaurants started closing. Many of those that remained open did so without functioning bathrooms or sinks.

Then the students began to complain that the toilets in their schools had been overflowing with excrement for days. The students were already uncomfortable--they had to sit in classrooms all day even though none of them had properly bathed in a week or more.

Then the hospitals said they were running out of water and wouldn't be able to perform sanitary surgeries if the water didn't come back on soon.

The government is aware of the problem, but refuses to fix it. In fact, it was the government that intentionally shut off the water to spite San Cristobal residents. San Cristobal's government-owned and -operated Municipal Potable Water and Sewage System (Sapam in its Spanish abbreviation) owes $1,380,000 pesos to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), also a government company. So, last week the CFE shut off electric power to all of the pumps that supply San Cristobal with water.

Lots of Circus, but No Bread

When angry and dirty San Cristobal residents attended a city council meeting to demand action from their elected representatives, Mayor Mariano Diaz Ochoa left the meeting early without hearing all the citizen complaints. Before he did so, he told his constituents that the water would stay off until everyone paid their water bill. Diaz Ochoa claims that 90% of San Cristobal's water customers have not paid their bills. This may or may not be the case--no one knows for sure because Sapam's operations and books are not readily available to the public. But one thing residents are sure of is that state companies don't suddenly go bankrupt without warning. Something happened.

Regardless of what happened to Sapam, it's not as though the city government doesn't have the money to pay Sapam's electric bill: the city recently began a significant tourist development initiative. In a city where outlying neighborhoods don't have paved roads, the government is tearing up the pavement on one of San Cristobal's main drags to turn it into a hand-laid cobblestone tourist walkway. The City Council also recently announced that it will pay the famous "narco corrido" band (bands that sing ballads about drug trafficking) Los Tigres del Norte $2 million pesos to perform in next months' Spring and Peace Fair. The city government's has dismissed criticisms of its bizarre spending priorities with the excuse that Sapam is a "de-centralized" company that pays for its own costs with the money it collects from water bills. Therefore, the government will never, under any circumstance, bail out Sapam--even during a water crisis that threatens the entire city's health and livelihood.

It's worth noting that Mayor Diaz Ochoa, the government officials who ran Sapam into the ground, and the CFE officials responsible for the cut-off all almost certainly have water in their own homes. Even though the government demands that residents pay their un-metered water bills, water shut-offs are commonplace. That's why San Cristobal's more privileged residents and business owners construct massive underground water storage tanks under their houses and businesses: when the water inevitably goes out for a few hours or days, life goes on as normal. If the water goes out for a week, as it often does during the Holy Week around Easter, residents can pay a tanker to fill up the storage tank with water.

Corruption and Class Lines

San Cristobal's poorer residents who don't have water storage tanks haven't had water for a week. However, not everyone is equally affected by the water crisis. San Cristobal's big hotels have larger water storage tanks than surrounding businesses and residences. Even though they use more water than their neighbors, their water storage tanks mean that they don't ever run out of water--even if they filled those massive tanks with water that was meant to be shared by the whole neighborhood.

San Cristobal's youth hostel owners, however, are suffering. One hostel owner told Narco News that his hostel ran out of water even though they have an underground tank. Half of his guests left immediately. They headed for the pricier hotels that still had water. The owner hired a tanker to pump water out of a nearby lake and bring it to fill his hostel's storage tank. It didn't even fill the tank completely. So now he's telling his guests to use less dishes and bathe faster--something that doesn't go over well with tourists. "And I pay more for water than the hotels do. I pay $800 pesos every two months while they pay residential rates."

The hostel owner's complaint points to exactly how the same San Cristobal politicians that blame residents for the water shortage are the people who sowed the seeds of Sapam's demise.

Water bills aren't metered in San Cristobal. The hostel owner says that the water company recently installed a meter on his building, "But I don't even know if it works." He, like the rest of San Cristobal's water customers, pays a flat rate. But not everyone pays the same flat rate.

Water bills are not even based on estimated consumption--for example, a residence pays one flat fee, a restaurant or bar pays another, and a hotel pays another. Rather, water bills are based entirely on political clout. Business owners, hotels, and neighborhood associations promise politicians support and votes in return for locked-in lower water rates. No one knows for sure exactly how much the hotels pay because the state-owned and -operated Sapam's books are secret. Likewise, the city's North Zone has locked in the lowest residential water rates in the city because it bartered its votes for lower water bills. Being the city's most highly organized zone, it is the most politically powerful zone, because it promises votes and delivers.

The neighborhood associations agitate for lower rates for a good reason--many outlying neighborhoods in San Cristobal don't have running water every day. Villa Real, for example, only receives water every other day. But since water consumption isn't metered, if Villa Real's neigborhood association doesn't negotiate lower rates with the government in exchange for political support, it will be expected to pay the same rate as the downtown neighborhoods that receive water every day. The Tlaxcala and Anexacion Paraiso neighborhoods in the North Zone are even worse off--residents there have gone almost two months without water. Sapam told them that it's because the pump that supplies the neighborhoods water broke. Even though the government has now turned the water back on to most San Cristobal neighborhoods, Tlaxcala and Anexacion Paraiso remain dry--even though some residents there have pre-paid their unmetered water bill for the whole year.

Sapam's billing methodology--selling lower water bills for votes and campaign support--is a legacy of the Institutional Revolution Party's (PRI's) 70-year rule, and it remains prevalent throughout the country. The PRI maintained its rule with the perfect balance of iron-fist policies and vote purchasing. San Cristobal's Mayor Diaz Ochoa is a PRI member.

Mayor Diaz Ochoa, recognizing citizen complaints that widespread political corruption has led to Sapam's bankruptcy, now says he'll order an audit of the municipal water company's finances. But a government audit isn't enough, according to San Cristobal's residents. They don't want corrupt politicians to audit their own wrongdoings. Neighborhood and business associations are meeting all over the city to formulate their strategies, and one of the common demands is that the audit take place with citizen oversight. San Cristobal residents recognize running water as a human right, and they want to see exactly how they've been cheated out of it.

A genuine citizen audit of Sapam is not likely to occur, because its findings would be embarrassing to the city government. Based solely on statements from Sapam director Juan Carlos Flores, Sapam's billing methodology (or lack thereof) is exactly what is to blame for the water company's financial crisis. Sapam owes CFE $1.3 million pesos. Flores told Cuarto Poder that nearly half of Sapam's water customers enjoyed preferential rates in 2008, meaning that Sapam brought in $8 million pesos less than if those customers had paid the regular rate of $420 pesos. The real crisis, however, came in 2009, when the government doubled the residential rate to $849 pesos per year and attempted to renege on the preferential rates, forcing everyone to pay the new, higher price. Mayor Diaz Ochoa says that in 2008, half of all customers paid their bills. This year 10% of customers paid. The rest, the mayor says, are holding out for the preferential rates that were promised to them. Sapam director Flores says that if the government would just charge all residences the preferential rate of $350 pesos so that people would be willing and able to pay their bills, that alone would bring in almost $12 million pesos--more than enough to cover the CFE electric bill.

Terrorist Attack on the Economy

CFE's decision to cut the power to Sapam, and the city government's acquiescence to that decision, amount to a terrorist attack on the local economy during what is already a severe economic crisis. In October of last year, investment games set off a peso crisis. As a result, the peso has lost 50% of its value against the dollar. Mexico's Treasury Department has revised Mexico's projected growth in 2009 to 0%. The crisis has already translated into higher prices for staple foods--even those that are produced domestically. A few months ago a market vendor told this reporter that before the peso crash a crate of limes cost her $35 pesos; now the same crate costs $120.

San Cristobal, which has a significant tourist economy, is already suffering due to the increased cost of imports and basic necessities. Rather than supporting the local economy during the crisis, the government has decided to kick it while it's down by forcing businesses without water to close their doors just before one of the biggest tourists weeks of the year--Holy Week.

Despite the Municipal Potable Water and Sewage System's misleading name, San Cristobal's running water is not potable and hasn't been for as long as this reporter can remember. Yet the government still demands that citizens pay un-metered and unequal bills for water the government doesn't even treat to make it drinkable. And it cuts off water to the entire city--even those who have pre-paid their bills--when it has financial problems.

The San Cristobal City Council's rampant corruption and inability to meet the basic needs of its citizens is not an isolated case by far. Yes, it is an extreme case, but one that should be expected when corruption and misplaced priorities collide during an economic crisis.

CFE, the federal company that cut the pumps' power, has long been criticized by Chiapas residents for the unjust manner in which it charges for electricity. Chiapas provides CFE with 50% of the country's hydroelectric power--and that's not counting the hydroelectric power that gets sold to Guatemala. This power comes at a major expense to Chiapan residents and the environment. Hydroelectric dams are notoriously destructive, flooding villages and farmland and disrupting regional ecosystems. Chiapan municipalities, rather than paying preferential rates in exchange for CFE's dams putting some of Chiapas' most fertile lands under water, pay some of the highest electric rates in the country according to the local paper Cuarto Poder. For the CFE to take advantage of Chiapas' abundance of natural resources and then cut off water to a major Chiapan city's water supply isn't merely unconscionable--it's criminal.

The inability of two government agencies--one federal and one municipal--to work together to provide its citizens, schools, and hospitals with the most basic of necessities--running water, even if it is full of parasites and bacteria--should enrage anyone who's been following Mexican affairs. Mexico is the second-largest economy in Latin America, yet one of its major cities went without running water for almost a week, and sections of it have been without water for over a month.

San Cristobol's water crisis should also raise the eyebrows of US lawmakers, who approved $300 million dollars in funding for the Merida Initiative, aka Plan Mexico, on March 10 while we were still bathing ourselves with carefully rationed water from buckets. US lawmakers have already approved $700 million dollars in Merida Initiative funding, and they and President Obama have promised more. The Merida Initiative is an aid package that provides armament and training for Mexico's military and police, as well as a variety of federal and local government agencies. The Merida Initiative, by its own estimates, hinges in part on collaboration between government agencies at all levels. If the federal and local government can't collaborate to provide a city of 200,000 people with basic utilities that are considered to be a human right under international treaties, how do US lawmakers expect government agencies to collaborate under the Merida Initiative?

The Merida Initiative and the war on drugs it supports are part of the problem. Through the Merida Initiative, the US encourages participating governments to increase their "public security" (law enforcement and military) budgets at the expense of their social budgets. Mexico needed no encouragement--Calderon's 2009 budget decreased social spending and increased public security spending without any explicit encouragement from former President George W. Bush. However, the Central American portion of the Merida Initiative spending plan includes as a "performance benchmark" the following statement: “we look for increased host country law enforcement personnel and budget commitments.” During a global economic crisis where most countries are reducing their growth estimates, there's only one place those "increased budget commitments" can come from: social spending.

US government officials need to wake up and realize that cuts in social spending that are undertaken as part of the war on drugs exacerbate poverty and drive more people into the drug trafficking industry. Even though the government cut the power to all of San Cristobal's water pumps, the water crisis only severely affected small business owners and poor people--those without massive underground water storage tanks and money to rent tanker trucks to keep those tanks full. And those same poor people and small business owners are the ones who pay more than their fair share in water bills thanks to local government corruption. If these poor people and small business owners get the impression that being honest and playing by the rules leaves them without water for a week or a month while the rich take long, hot showers with water from their massive storage tanks, what is to prevent them from joining the lucrative drug trafficking industry? Los Tucanes de Tijuana, a popular band that is famous for its stunningly accurate insight into Mexico's drug trafficking industry, sings:

Si eres pobre te humilla la gente (If you're poor, people humiliate you)
Si eres rico te tratan muy bien (If you're rich, they treat you very well)
Un amigo se metió a la mafia (A friend joined the mafia)
Porque pobre ya no quiso ser (Because he didn't want to be poor anymore)
Ahora tiene dinero de sobra (Now he has more than enough money)

It's worth noting that one of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpins, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, started out as a humble mechanic. After entering the drug trafficking industry, he has risen to one of Forbes' richest men in the world.

From Narco News:

See the original story in Narco News for citizen comments on San Cristobal's water.


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