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 least. The heat exceeds 40 degrees. Under the rocks, the dust and the two-meter cacti, Sonora keeps a secret. A heart of water that explodes the desert in the most absolute greenery with the arrival of rain. The river, which bears his name, is one of the main arteries that give life to Sonora over 250 kilometers. It has also been removed for five years: there was the largest mining spill 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, poured 40 million liters of copper sulfate to the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers. The spill affected the lives of 22,000 people. At the site of the disaster, today a megapress of toxic waste is built that 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 that suffered the disaster. Both are over 60, wearing a hat, denim shirt and riding boots even if they drive a Chevrolet truck. The trimmed mustache and the eyes like two deep lines. Tanned skin, full of wrinkles that look like furrows of the red earth that saw them born.
In the distance they both observe the great dam, the monster that threatens its people with a capacity 51,000 times higher than what was spilled in 2014. Again the mining company, owned by Germán Larrea –the second richest man in Mexico– It is present in their lives, if one day it ceased to be. 17% of Sonoran GDP comes from mining and is concentrated in a few companies, which barely employ the inhabitants of the region.
The mining company ended 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 was invested in its new project – about 187 million dollars. "My lady tells me: si What if one day while we sleep, it bursts and takes us?" In 25 minutes, Bacanuchi would disappear underwater, ”says Isidro Vásquez worried. Its town, of 200 inhabitants, fits 138 times within the megapress.
It is not the first time that Grupo México is responsible for a spill, less than a month ago it poured 3,000 liters of sulfuric acid in the Sea of Cortez. Its dark pollutant history is extensive in Mexico, Peru or the United States. This newspaper tried unsuccessfully to contact the representatives of Grupo Mexico 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 Poder, that the construction of the dam violated the right to community participation. This ruling forced the Ministry of Environment to explain the preventive plan presented by Grupo México to do the work. Benjamin Cokelet, co-director of Power, believes that the work should be permanently suspended for not having the correct environmental authorization when it was built.
The meeting with the inhabitants is an unprecedented event in Mexico's environmental law. The Sonora river basin is also thirsty for justice. It is July 5, 2019, in 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 Damocles sword on the Sonora River.
The heat is overwhelming, like coming out of a turbine. Hundreds of people coming from the affected municipalities (Arizpe, Banámichi, Huépac, San Felipe de Jesus, Aconchi, Baviácora and Ures) listen to a biologist monotonously recite how modern the software with which the dam was designed and how unlikely it is that there are leaks. “But there are already leaks in our lands. There is waste in the cornfields (land for the cultivation of corn) and streams where there was no water before, ”says a young man.
“Soon these towns are going to disappear, the Mexico Group mine drinks more water than the communities that are here,” protests Mario Salcido, of the Ures Basin Committee. “They are killing us in the Sonora River. In my town there is a lot of illness, a lot of cancer and it's 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, ”replies the man.
The health of the inhabitants
“My son has lead in the blood and they don't tell us anything,” says Marisol Pacheco, one of the 43 people who signed the amparo before the SCJN. Since the spill happened, the levels of lead in the blood of Marisol's son have increased by 73% and touch risk figures for the development of the child, as established by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The only medical follow-up that the child receives is done by the Epidemiological and Environmental Surveillance Unit of Sonora, 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 well, 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?
The miner promised to build a clinic in the municipality of Ures that gave attention to those affected, but the building is still under construction. It is the memory of the opacity 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 pollution has not left the river, but has entered the subsoil and remains in the wells and aquifers. “Even if they see transparent water there may be high levels of metals in it. They have a harmful effect on health by accumulation, there comes a time when cells collapse and it is when diseases appear, cancer. That could happen in five or 10 years, ”explains the specialist.
Opening the tap in the river basin has for five years become a danger that affects people's spirits. The liquid that has lead, iron, chromium, manganese, mercury and arsenic and is used by neighbors to bathe, wash dishes, drink animals and water crops. However, the authorities have not shared the state of water with the villages 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, has just 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 the majority of the population.
Ramón Miranda, downstream in Aconchi, is told by some of his neighbors that he is the madman of the town for continuing to fight the mine after so long. “We are not saying that there is no mining job, but we want things done well. My great hope is the protection of the SCJN, if I do not live to stop Grupo Mexico, those who come later will have my history of struggle and that of others to continue. ”
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