The Sonoran Desert is one of the thirstiest landscapes in Mexico. Dense and rugged, with trees full of thorns and rugged mountains, it is one of the regions where it rains the least. The heat exceeds 40 degrees. Beneath rocks, dust, and six-foot cacti, Sonora has a secret. A heart of water that makes the desert explode in the most absolute green with the arrival of the rain. The river, which bears his name, is one of the main arteries that give life to Sonora along 250 kilometers. For five years it has also been removed: there the largest mining spill occurred in Mexico.
On August 6, 2014, Grupo México, the most important mining company in the country and the third largest copper producer in the world, dumped 40 million liters of copper sulfate into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers. The spill affected the lives of 22,000 people. Today, a toxic waste mega-dam is being erected at the site of the disaster, which the mining company built a year later with the permission of the authorities under lax environmental regulations.
Osfelio and Isidro Vásquez are two brothers dedicated to agriculture and livestock who suffered the disaster. They are both over 60, wearing hats, denim shirts, and riding boots, even though they drive a Chevrolet pickup. The trimmed mustache and the eyes like two deep lines. The leathery skin, full of wrinkles that look like furrows from the red earth that saw them born.
In the distance they both observe the great dam, the monster that threatens their town with a capacity 51,000 times greater than what was spilled in 2014. Once again the mining company, owned by Germán Larrea –the second richest man in Mexico — is present in their lives, if one day he ceased to be. 17% of the Sonoran GDP comes from mining and is concentrated in a few companies, which hardly provide jobs for the inhabitants of the region.
The mining company destroyed the fauna, flora and health of many inhabitants of the river, in return it paid a fine of 1.2 million dollars, just a small part of what it invested in its new project — about 187 million dollars. “My wife tells me: ‘What if one day while we sleep that bursts and takes us away?’ In 25 minutes, Bacanuchi would disappear under the water ”, comments Isidro Vásquez worried. His town of 200 inhabitants fits 138 times inside the mega-dam.
It is not the first time that Grupo México is responsible for a spill, less than a month ago it spilled 3,000 liters of sulfuric acid in the Sea of Cortez. Its dark polluting history is extensive in Mexico, Peru or the United States. This newspaper tried unsuccessfully to contact the representatives of Grupo México to arrange an interview.
In search of justice
In September 2018, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN), ruled in favor of the inhabitants of Bacanuchi, backed by the NGO Power, that the construction of the dam violated the right to participation of the community. This ruling forced the Ministry of the Environment to explain the preventive plan that Grupo México presented to carry out the work. Benjamin Cokelet, co-director of Poder, considers that the work should be permanently suspended for not having the correct environmental authorization when it was built.
The meeting with the residents is an unprecedented event in Mexico’s environmental law. The Sonora river basin also thirsts for justice. It is July 5, 2019, in the Bacanuchi square, under the kiosk, a group of state and federal authorities explain five years later the work of Grupo México that weighs like a sword of Damocles over the Sonora River.
The heat is overwhelming, like coming out of a turbine. Hundreds of people from the affected municipalities (Arizpe, Banámichi, Huépac, San Felipe de Jesús, Aconchi, Baviácora and Ures) listen to a biologist recite in a monotonous way how modern the software with which the dam was designed and how unlikely it is that there will be leaks. “But there are already leaks on our lands. There are residues in the milpas [tierras para el cultivo de maíz] and streams where there was no water before, ”says a young man.
“Soon these towns are going to disappear, the Grupo México mine drinks more water than the communities that are here,” protests Mario Salcido, from the Ures Basin Committee. “They are killing us in the Sonora River. In my town there is a lot of disease, a lot of cancer and it is because of the water. We are going to die soon, but what about the children? We demand respect for the right to live and water ”, the man replies.
The health of the inhabitants
“My son has lead in his blood and they don’t tell us anything,” says Marisol Pacheco, one of the 43 people who signed the injunction before the SCJN. Since the spill happened, the lead levels in the blood of Marisol’s son have increased 73% and border on risk figures for the child’s development, as established by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The only medical follow-up the child receives is carried out by the Sonora Epidemiological and Environmental Surveillance Unit, an institution created to care for those affected after the spill and which is paid by Grupo México. “They tell me that the child is fine, it is not convenient for them to say that we are sick. How am I going to trust them if the mine pays for it? ”Says the enraged woman.
The mining company promised to build a clinic in the municipality of Ures to provide care for those affected, but the building is still under construction. It is the memory of the opacity that existed in the handling of the 104 million dollars that Grupo México paid to attend the accident through the Río Sonora Trust.
Antonio Romo, a chemist at the University of Sonora, insists that the contamination has not left the river, but has entered the subsoil and remains in the wells and aquifers. “Even if they see the water clear there can be high levels of metals in it. They have a harmful effect on health by accumulation, there comes a time when cells collapse and that is when diseases appear, cancer. That could happen in five or 10 years ”, explains the specialist.
Opening the tap in the river basin has become a danger that affects people’s spirits for five years. The liquid that has lead, iron, chromium, manganese, mercury and arsenic and is used by neighbors to bathe, wash dishes, give water to animals and irrigate crops. However, the authorities have not shared the state of the water with the towns since 2016.
“They told us that the water can be drunk, but I offered them a glass when they came to take the shots and they didn’t want to, why?” Says Marisol Salcido. The Bacanuchi water treatment plant, built after the spill, only started operating a few months ago. Five years later. People try not to drink tap water and buy it bottled, a very high expense for most of the population.
Some of his neighbors tell Ramón Miranda, downstream in Aconchi, that he is the madman of the town for continuing to fight against the mine after so long. “We are not saying that there is no mining employment, but we want things to be done well. My great hope is the protection of the SCJN, if I don’t live to stop Grupo México, those who come later will have my history of struggle and that of others to continue ”.