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Mexico: to dynamite hills or protect homes?

In Campeche, locals oppose demolition of their homes to make way for the Tren Maya


Glifos Comunicaciones is a LAB partner and its director, Elva Narcia, is a member of LAB’s Council of Management. Tren Maya has been a major focus of Glifos’ work, and this article was written by Elva after a recent field trip to Campeche. Glifos publishes a series of podcasts about the project and its impact.

You can support the work of Glifos Comunicaciones by going to its Patreon page.

In the state of Campeche, a vital part of the route of the Tren Maya, a legal offensive has begun, involving a series of injunctions brought by civil society organisations and local inhabitants. These have led to the temporary suspension of the works, one of the signature projects of the administration of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

‘Tren Maya: the good, the bad and the ugly’, The Next Station, Episode 11, Glifos Comunicaciones podcast, 17 December 2020

One of the places over which this legal battle is being waged is San Francisco de Campeche, the state capital, where hundreds of dwellings located along the planned right of way would have to be demolished.

Inhabitants of the boroughs of Camino Real, La Ermita and Santa Lucía, grouped in the so-called Three Boroughs Collective, are opposed to being evicted from their homes but state that they are not opposed to the railway project. They demand, instead that it be rerouted to the edge of the city, which would require various hills to be dynamited, with implications for the environment, as well as breaking the promise López Obrador made that not a single tree would be felled for the construction of the Tren Maya.

Regional Forum ‘Voices of Women Concerned About the Tren Maya’, San Cristóbal de Las Casas,5 March 2020. Image: Glifos Comunicaciones

The area director for this stretch of the Tren maya, Elai Guadalupe Salavarría Pedrero, explained that there is a plan for the relocation and economic compensation of all persons living in the way of the railway.

‘We have explained to them that the old train used the existing route, but that they are occupying space within the route of the tracks, exposed to constant danger, and that the priority in this case is to ensure their safety.’

Guadalupe Cáceres, born and brought up in Santa Lucía borough, remembers that in 1938, when a rail route was planned passing through this area, the authorities expropriated from her grandfather part of his land, demolished his house and failed to make any payment to him. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘over 80 years later, we again confront this kind of abuse. I think that development and progress should not required this, because we have guarantees and rights.’

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In all the affected boroughs, banners and signs have been erected, saying ‘No evictions’, ‘Yes to rerouting the railway track’, ‘No destruction of our homes’. For those who suggest that the houses Built along the track route are squats, illegal properties, Sra Lourdes Ganso Rivers, who lives in Camino Real, shows documents which certify her ownership of the land. ‘Who would leave a house you yourself have built, and which you know you built on your own land?’

The Ganso Rivera family has lived in this neighbourhood for generations, our family is one of those which founded the community.’

Among the neighbours some see the relocation as financial compensation, a chance to improve their living standards.

‘Our houses are falling down,’ comments Martha Rosa, a shopkeeper who for almost 40 years had owned a house in Camino Real.

Martha Rosa tells us how at the beginning the neighbours met together and agreed to oppose the project. Later they met government representatives to ask for an explanation. After this meeting the group divided – ‘I left the group because I could see that there was no point fighting against the government’.

‘If they are going to give us some support to live in dignified conditions, better than the way we live now, I’ve got no quarrel with that.’

The matter has ended up in court. It’s a race against time, given that president López Obrador is planning to open the Tren Maya in 2023.

In November 2020, UN Human Rights rapporteurs voiced their concerns about the project and, in particular, its likely impact on indigenous communities and the lack of proper consultation. Environmentalists and the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law (CEMDA) demanded the suspension of work on the project.

‘The history of law,’ said CEMDA director Francisco Xabier Martínez Esponda, ‘is that of placing limits on power, and the struggle to give reason priority over force. What we see here, however, is force tending to predominate. To follow the path of law, the path of human rights would signify suspension of work on the project. We cannot continue with a Project about which we have insufficient information.’

‘The Next Station, Episode 8’, Glifos Comunicaciones podcast, 26 November 2020

The Tren Maya will cross five states in southern México: Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Campeche is crucial because it borders on three of the other states.