Tabasco disaster blamed on graft

Share via
Times Staff Writers

Although many people in this rainy, low-lying tropical city regard last week’s catastrophic flood as an act of God or fate, others see it largely as a man-made disaster that could have been anticipated and should have been prevented.

Residents of Tabasco state, one of Mexico’s poorest and most isolated areas, have experienced such calamities before, including a 1999 deluge that left more than 600 people dead.

But even as water levels slowly receded this week, environmental activists, opposition politicians and others expressed frustration and anger that more was not done after the 1999 calamity to avoid a replay. They said that the present flooding was fueled by rampant overbuilding, deforestation and wetlands destruction, and the squandering of funds that should have been spent on flood-prevention measures.


“The problem of Tabasco is that corruption continues reigning,” said Francisco Sanchez Ramos, a federal congressman who represents Tabasco. “Without doubt, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Tabasco and neighboring Chiapas state continue to struggle with the aftermath of the inundation that has claimed at least 19 lives and left tens of thousands homeless. Tabasco’s governor, Andres Granier, has estimated damage at nearly $5 billion and says that many evacuees will not be able to return for months.

Health officials fear outbreaks of diseases such as dengue fever, cholera and malaria. Opportunistic criminals are another concern. As of Tuesday, authorities had arrested 65 suspected looters in Villahermosa, according to the newspaper Tabasco Hoy.

In Chiapas, rescue workers continued searching for about two dozen residents of San Juan Grijalva who were feared dead. Their village, 45 miles upstream from here, was virtually wiped out late Sunday after part of a rain-soaked mountainside slid into the Grijalva River, producing one or more huge waves of muddy water that swept houses off their foundations.

President Felipe Calderon has visited the area four times since the flooding began and has pledged to create a $670-million reconstruction fund. But previous efforts to create a modern flood-control infrastructure here succumbed to corruption, cronyism and mismanagement, a number of people said.

“The resources that were given from [1999] and 2000 for the matter of inundation were badly applied, badly handled,” said Hugo Ireta, a member of the Santo Tomas ecological association. “The state government gave the concession for these works to people that had no idea of what was needed, that never did studies.”


Those sentiments were echoed by other Tabascans. Surveying the stinking, brackish lake that now lies within a few yards of her family’s restaurant near this city’s center, Tomasa Perez, an octogenarian, chalked up the latest flooding to forces of nature beyond human control.

Her son Fernando shook his head. “It didn’t have to be this bad,” he said. “Corruption played a part in all this.”

George Grayson, a professor of comparative politics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said Tabasco has had “a series of extremely corrupt governors,” including Roberto Madrazo, who was accused of massive campaign finance violations in 1994 but never prosecuted. Madrazo finished third in Mexico’s 2006 presidential race and was recently in the news again over allegations that he had cheated to win the “men’s 55-and-over” category of the Berlin Marathon, a charge he denied.

Grayson, who specializes in Mexican politics, predicted that the latest disaster would spur a massive migration from Tabasco to Mexico City and towns along the U.S. border.

“They’ve not only lost their homes, they’ve also lost their jobs, because the fishing and agriculture industries have been devastated,” he said.

This city’s downtown has been jammed with police, military vehicles and thousands of people queuing up for assistance around the governor’s headquarters, whose manicured grounds have become a round-the-clock relief center teeming with soldiers and volunteers.


Pablo Fernandez Lopez went there for medical help. The exhausted 29-year-old construction worker said he and his wife lost everything to a fast-rising current that swallowed their home. Even the jeans and T-shirt he wore were donated. His bare feet were swollen and raw with fungus from exposure to the fetid water.

Dr. Derki Cerna Tejeda said his makeshift clinic was serving about 200 people a day, most of them suffering from skin rashes and diarrhea. Of more concern were the diabetics and dialysis patients for whom he had little treatment.

“We’re doing our best, but the reality is that we’re short on everything,” Cerna said.

Marine Lt. Humberto Ortigosa was among an estimated 8,500 federal troops sent to Tabasco to keep order and distribute supplies. A career military man, Ortigosa has helped after many disasters, including the magnitude 8.1 earthquake that leveled Mexico City in 1985.

“Lamentably, I have to say that Mexico doesn’t have a culture of prevention,” said Ortigosa, 37. “We’re always reacting. We have a saying here: ‘When the child drowns, we want to cap the well.’ ”

Mini-mart owner Franklin Alcudia’s neighborhood north of downtown was among those hardest hit. On Wednesday morning, with an armload of salvaged possessions, he slid down an awning from a second-floor window above his store into a waiting rowboat, one of several makeshift water taxis that have popped up here.

The businessman, who estimated that he had lost $20,000 worth of merchandise and equipment, said he and neighbors already had formed the nucleus of a citizens committee to demand that money be spent for dredging and building better retaining walls. Reminded that previous floods had sparked similar outrage that evaporated once things dried out, he shook his head firmly.


“What’s different this time is that we have lost everything,” Alcudia said. “We’re done with being quiet.”


Dickerson reported from Villahermosa and Johnson from Mexico City. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.