Teeming 'Colonias' : Border Has Worst of Both Worlds

Times Staff Writer

Each day, a reeking, contaminated ditch known as the Black Water is sprayed with insecticide to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes. The ditch is in Mexico, but the spraying is done by an employee of El Paso County across the border.

The reason: Mexican health officials can't do it because they have neither the money nor the manpower.

Farther south on the border, at Laredo, 25 million gallons of raw sewage are pumped daily into the Rio Grande River from Nuevo Laredo, the city on the Mexican side. Half of Nuevo Laredo's 30 garbage dumps are along the river, further contaminating the water until it is little more than a carcinogenic liqueur. Swimming downstream from Laredo is banned. Yet it is used for drinking water on both sides of the border.

Most Polluted

The New River, which flows from Mexicali to the Salton Sea in California, is the most polluted in the country because of the sewage and toxins dumped into it from the Mexican side.

El Paso County alone has more tuberculosis cases than were reported in 19 American states last year and the rate of infectious hepatitis is five times the national norm. The tuberculosis rate in Southern California is higher than the national norm and many believe the reason is the proximity to Mexico.

"This is a double whammy we're looking at along the border," said Dr. Herbert Ortega, director of the El Paso office of the Pan American Health Organization. "We've got diseases of the First World and the Third World."

While the attention on the border has been focused on drugs and illegal immigration in recent years, populations immediately along the boundary are swelling at an astonishing rate, causing a myriad of health, environmental and educational problems, raising at least the specter that the border is becoming this country's new Appalachia.

'Colonias' Spring Up

And nowhere is it more evident than in Texas, where unauthorized subdivisions known as "colonias" have sprung up as adjuncts of the hardscrabble poor U.S. border cities. Here along the U.S. side, an estimated 140,000 people have bought small parcels of land and tried to build something--anything--as a home along dirt roads, seeking the promise of a better life.

In addition to all the pollution stemming from the Mexican side, they live without running water or sewers. Commonly, the shallow wells dug for water have been contaminated by nearby septic tanks. Yet people continue to bathe and cook with the water. In one rural colonia, two-thirds of the residents contracted hepatitis by the time they were 35.

And the people keep coming. In 1900, there were about 36,000 people living along the U.S.-Mexican border, with half of them living in El Paso and Juarez. Today, an estimated 6 million people live along the 2,000-mile boundary.

Between 1975 and 1985, the population of Juarez increased by 134%, while El Paso, the largest American city directly on the border, grew by 32%. The town of Soccoro, just to the east of El Paso, has grown from a sleepy hamlet of 1,500 in 1980 to an overcrowded 25,000 today, many of them living in colonias. The same story is echoed all along the Texas border, where, unlike California, loose zoning laws and the proximity of large American cities has spawned hundreds of the colonias.

"We are facing monumental environmental health problems on both sides of the border because of the tremendous population growth, mostly on the Mexican side," said Jose (Pepe) Gonzales, director of the Laredo-Webb County Health Department. The populations there overwhelm the capability of Mexican health and sanitation efforts, and push ever higher the number of poor immigrants seeking relief just across the river in the United States.

Poorest Cities

Four of the five poorest cities in the nation are strung out along the Texas border. Yet, from the south side of the Rio Grande, those same cities can look like nirvana, given the devastated state of the Mexican economy. The value of the Mexican peso, for example, is now 2,500 per dollar, compared to a 12-1 exchange rate in 1974.

To further complicate matters, the main provider of jobs along the Mexican side of the border has also become a part of the problem. Foreign-operated manufacturing plants called maquiladoras , which assemble goods for the U.S. market with low-cost Mexican labor, have become a magnet to thousands of people in the Mexican interior. Some of the plants are also said to be dumping toxic chemicals into both the Rio Grande and New River, as well as Mexican landfills.

"The problems are big and they are going to get worse," said Dr. Laurance Nickey, the El Paso County health director. "People are coming here looking to improve their own lot in life and you can't blame them for it.

"We're the other America," said Nickey. "There's going to come a point in time, if we let it go, where it can't be fixed."

The people who live in colonias on the U.S. side, most of them Americans of Mexican descent, have moved in as rents and crime have increased in the American border cities. And, for many, a home in the colonias is the fulfillment of the American dream, giving them the chance to own their own plot of ground.

In El Paso County alone there are more than 400 such subdivisions that dot the scrub landscape outside the city limits. By one estimate, 30,000 homes are without water and 53,000 are without sewers.

No Water

Lorenza and Amadeo Contreras, for example, live in a very comfortable home that just happens to have no water service, and they have also managed to send two sons to M.I.T. to study engineering.

But too often, those who live in colonias have been the victims of unscrupulous developers, who sold land first and promised that water and sewers would come later. Neither came, but by then too many payments had been made on the land, too much work and money had gone into building the house.

It has spawned a people whose children want to have school gym class first thing in the morning so they can have their shower for the day. And it has also placed a great burden on poor school systems ill-equipped to handle a constant stream of new students.

Typical of what one must do to live in a colonia is the routine of Juan Solares, who fills barrels with water in El Paso, then siphons it to a tank on his roof. His wife must use the same water to do several loads of wash by hand. It is not uncommon to see people using 55-gallon drums that once contained toxic chemicals to store their water.

In the so-called Sparks colonia near El Paso, shacks and trailers dot the dusty landscape and people have built houses where they are susceptible to mudslides. Ironically, there is a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant that can be seen from the colonia, but it is only for the well-heeled retirement community--complete with golf course--on the other side of the hill. Sewage overflows from that plant and runs through the colonia when there are heavy rains.

Colonias have been around El Paso since the 1960s. As they continued to grow in the county, where municipal governments had no zoning authority, the local water utility had to take notice. In 1979, it passed a moratorium on all water hookups to colonias, hoping that the subdivisions would go away when deprived of basic services.

Instead, they continued to grow, not only here but all along the Texas border. And because so many years have gone by without hookups, the needs have become enormous.

Just 4 Hookups

In the forefront of the drive to obtain water and sewer hookups in El Paso is a group known as the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization. One of the leaders of that organization is Father Ed Roden, a Catholic priest who has devoted nine years to the rights of people living in the colonias. The result: four hookups, all of them this summer. Excess paper work is the reason given by officials as to why more people do not have water.

"It was only a show," he said.

There is, however, some hope for the residents of the colonias. Texans will vote in November on a bond election for $500 million worth of water and sewer improvements. Of that, $100 million is earmarked specifically for the improvement of colonias along the border. The bond issue has the support of all major state officials, but there is still fear that the bill will be lost in a long list of measures that will be on the ballot.

"If that fails, it will set us back light years," said Father Roden.

Nickey, the El Paso County health director, has told this story so often he is tired of it; it is a good story nonetheless: On a biting cold winter day, he was driving an Environmental Protection Agency employee to the top of a mountain overlooking El Paso. When they got to the top, the EPA employee was aghast. Before him was a scene unlike any he had ever seen before.

Hundreds of plumes of smoke were rising from homes, then melding into an ugly gray cloud that blanketed the city.

"Aren't you the health authority in El Paso?," the EPA man asked. "Why don't you do something?"

"There are two reasons," Nickey replied. "The first is that young mothers are trying to keep their babies from freezing and the second is that I would be invading a foreign country," since much of the smoke came from factories and homes in Mexico.

Suitably Humbled

The EPA man was suitably humbled. But it is yet another example of how Mexico's problems have become problems for the United States as well. And while the obstacles are staggering, there are some hopeful signs.

Congress has appropriated $25 million to be used for the construction of a sewage treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo, provided Mexico puts up matching money. The Texas Legislature approved spending $5 million on the same project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made $5.5 million available to assist in water and sewer hookups for colonias. The federal and California governments have been negotiating with Mexico to build a sewage treatment plant in Tijuana. Democratic Rep. Ronald D. Coleman of El Paso has introduced two bills in Congress designed to help colonias and development along the border. Stronger water and sewer laws are in force in El Paso County.

The likes of Nickey and Gonzales want to see a strong bi-national organization to deal with the border problems.

"You've got to have an organization with the power to act on either side," said Gonzales.

Ortega, of the Pan American Health Organization, wants the owners of the border factories to take more responsibility for the state of the border cities. And then there is Dr. Robert Bernstein, the director of the Texas State Health Department. He wants action, now.

"The border has been studied to death," he said. "We know what the problems are. It's time we do something."

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