Develop the Isthmus? Not Again



What’s new in Mexican news?

Most definitely not President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) “new” program that he touted over the weekend of April 27 and 28 as the “Development Curtain” to be built along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec – the narrowest land space in southeastern Mexico, between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

This same project has had so many false starts that usually get nowhere that witnessing one more may make absolutely no sense. Yet the new “Development Curtain” (the name is probably a hat tip to the old Iron Curtain and the new Trump Wall) has always made sense. But after starting a new project, it has always failed.

A long list of proposed uses for the mostly flat isthmus go back to 1860, when an offer was made to the U.S. government to use the 206-kilometer-long crossing from the ports of Salina Cruz in the state of Oaxaca to Coatzacoalcos in the state of Veracruz. That project was rejected in 1859 by the U.S. Congress, mainly because Washington knew then that the Civil War was inevitable.

When the railroad network was built in Mexico, the isthmus was again eyed as a place of trade between Pacific nations and the United States. The railroad that crosses the isthmus was built then and has been in use ever since.

Throughout the 20th century, there were a myriad of projects to bring progress to the isthmus people – mostly native Mexicans belonging to 29 different ethnic groups – but the 20th century went by just like the trains traveling through the rickety old line and the native communities just watched them pass by.

In the past 25 years, there have been two major attempts to develop the region, one of the poorest in Mexico. Back in the 1999, the old dream of reuniting the cities of Mérida in that state of Yucatan with Tapachula in Chiapas, which borders with Guatemala and is the fastest railway to the rest of Central America, was once again ignited.

The Mexican railroad system had been divested from government management in 1997 and the lines were awarded to private companies. The 1,800-kilometer-long line concession was awarded to U.S. railroad operator Genesee & Wyoming.

Actually, the company called Chiapas-Mayab railway began doing a hefty business from the start since it traveled from Mérida through Tapachula over the Tehuantepec Isthmus railroad making stops at Coatzacoalcos and Salina Cruz and then on to Tapachula through Juchitán and coastal Oaxaca.

But then on Oct. 3, 4 and 5 of last year, the fury of Hurricane Stan hit Central America, wreaking havoc from Costa Rica all the way to the Chiapas and Oaxaca coastal line. It was probably the most ruinous natural phenomena in history to hit the region in history.

All the bridges that had been built for the railroad along the Chiapas coast marshes crumbled down under the force of Stan. The Chiapas-Mayab railroad operation came to a standstill, and, finally, the company Genesee & Wyoming went out of business because the route, without Tapachula, was not a profitable one.

Plus – corruption in Mexico anyone? – in 2006, there were funds allotted by Congress and then-Mexican President Vicente Fox for the reconstruction of the bridges (as well as towns in the area of the huge devastation Stan left behind, with nearly 3,000 houses destroyed and 2,500 dead in Central America and Mexico). The funds went to the Civil Defense Fund operated by a friend of Fox at the Interior Secretariat, but in the bat of an eye, those funds disappeared, along with the official in charge. That was the coup d’grace for the Chiapas-Mayab railroad.

Since then, a train operated by the government-owned company Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico has been rendering limited cargo services along the isthmus line, but it is not even close to being significant enough to translate into development for the poverty-stricken region.

A spark of hope arose again as recently as 2016, when former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled an ambitious plan to develop six areas that were then called the Special Economic Zones (ZEE, for Zonas Económicas Especiales), all of which have since been scrapped by AMLO.

Incidentally, gossip has it that the general manager for Peña Nieto’s ZEE, as well as former Business Coordination Council president Gerardo Gutiérrez Candidani, who was recently dismissed along with the disappearance of the ZEE program, is chasing after the coordination of this new project.

AMLO is now proposing to make the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into a copy of the development through in-bond maquiladora industry model along the northern border. The project includes five 1,000-acre industrial parks and several rail lines moving in both directions between Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, including two passenger lines.

Over the April 27 and 28 weekend, AMLO visited the rail line from Minatitlán – another city along its route  – and ended his tour in Juchitán, where he held an all-those-in-favor-raise-your-hands voting session in which the Juchitán people approved the construction of the new rail lines and the industrial development of the isthmus, a traditional farming and logging region.

Needless to say, AMLO has enemies galore across the nation who consider the development of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec a “madcap idea” and claim that the president will only be “throwing money away” in the government’s proposed development of the region. AMLO has gone as far as to say that no private investment will be taken, for now.

It must be said that AMLO is facing stiff opposition to the proposal, not only from the rich and powerful in urban Mexico, but also from local ethnic groups leaders who claim “we don’t want any change.” AMLO has labeled both opposing groups “conservatives,” even though they are against the plan for different reasons.

One reason AMLO gave for doing away with the ZEEs is that he said Peña Nieto’s program was spread too thin, leading to an unnecessary squandering of available federal funds. Putting all the apples into a single bag is now AMLO’s plan.

Now, the final question. Will it work? From the little info provided by this article, you can no doubt gather that developing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec has been a mission impossible over and over again.

But, for now, onlookers and critics have no choice but to give AMLO a chance!




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