By RICARDO CASTILLO
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is back in the news now that U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar announced last week a potential $500 billion investment in the new transoceanic project to link up Salina Cruz in the Pacific with the Coatzacoalcos port in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hazy as Salazar’s financial plan may be for now, the objective of exploding industrial development in the traditionally agricultural 180-mile-wide area in the narrowest strait in North America is promising. Perhaps, finally, the nearly eternal project’s time has finally come.
For those unfamiliar with the trans-isthmus corridor, the first attempt to have a friendly agreement on its use for U.S. troops transport was first considered in the Treaty of Transit and Commerce, signed on Dec. 14, 1859, between Mexico and the United States as represented by Ambassadors Robert McLane and Melchor Ocampo, on behalf of then-Presidents Benito Juárez and James Buchanan. The treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate, as a preamble of the bilateral feud that became the American Civil War. This was the first bilateral attempt to somehow expand the unity between Mexico and the United States south. as part of the treaty was to facilitate the transport of U.S. foot soldiers by sea.
The first complete railroad was inaugurated in 1907, linking not only the Pacific to the Atlantic, but also a Guatemala border city. It was part of Mexico’s national railroad system, linking north to El Paso and Laredo, Texas.
Since those days, one Mexican government administration after the other has had a development plan for the transoceanic corridor, but for one reason or another, it has always collapsed.
The latest commercial rail concession, called the Chiapas-Mayab, went to the U.S. short line train carrier Genesee and Wyoming, which operated from 1999 to 2005, when hurricane Stan wiped out 175 miles of the train and the company could not afford to repair it. It went out of business in 2007 and since then has been operated by the Mexican government.
After that, former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018 presented a grandiose development plan for the isthmus region, but never got beyond the planning.
Now under the current Mexican administration, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) launched the new development plan. Should all go well, the Inter- Oceanic Corridor should become a reality within the next two years, as one of the administration’s minor plans compared with his controversial new Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA) in Mexico City, or his Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco.
Allegedly, when Salazar first visited the developing plan in Salina Cruz last October, he was not impressed, But now, it seems, his point of view over the potential of the project has changed.
In his presentation of the potential financing plan, Salazar said that the government’s plan could simplify the handling of more than 2,000 miles in the desert.
“This is part of the solution to (Central American) migration;” he said. “It is also part of a security solution.”
In Mexico the reaction has been twofold: There is the old leftist guard that initially opposed the first version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) claiming that now the United States was trying to “move its imperialist claw” into the isthmus. Nonetheless, the AMLO administration has tried to appease this opposition, noting that the railway will end at the Mexican border with Guatemala, where in 2020 it deployed 27,000 armed members of the National Guard to stop the influx of Central American migration. The move was seen as cooperation.
But those who accepted the renegotiated and upgraded version of NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), foresee more than political and commercial expansion in the Mexican southwest, made up of the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Yucatan.
And, yes, once the railroad facility is fully built, it could make it easier to turn it into a second border station to try to stop the seemingly endless flow of migrants from Central American nations.
As for regional development, the complexity of the project is not visible because it is one of practicality. The question remains: How will several massive-sized industrial parks operate with rail spikes linking into a main line?
Mexico’s experience with the successful development on the northern border maquiladora in-bond industry will come in handy, mainly because the isthmus region is a traditionally agricultural area, where introducing industrial training for employees is a new experience. This has yet to happen.
Nevertheless, Salazar’s newfound enthusiasm for the project is certainly an indication that the ideal solution for the U.S. migrant crisis is to keep people from Mexico and Central America at home. The railway could prevent the suffering caused by traveling north illegally and push industrial development and employment south.
Still, for that to happen the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Inter-Oceanic Railroad must be a project that attracts investors, which, if profitable, is feasible.
Salazar is definitely moving in the right direction.