After landslides, poorest of poor left out in cold in Mexico

Activists say Tropical Storm Manuel was Hurricane Katrina for Mexico, exposing harsh neglect of indigenous villages

SAN MIGUEL AMOLTEPEC VIEJO, Mexico — Once this was the poorest hamlet in the country. The people worked in the fields, harvesting the corn that they ate. Few adults could read or write. Houses had dirt floors and lacked indoor plumbing.

That was before Manuel, the mid-September tropical storm that unleashed the earth and smothered nearly all the houses, swallowed their possessions and pushed the inhabitants to the higher ground of a cemetery, where they pitched plastic sheeting on gravestones.

Now the nation’s poorest village doesn’t exist, and 336 survivors camp by the roadside under tarps and tin sheets. They rely on food from nearby villages. They don’t know where they will live come winter.

If only they had been tourists.

When Manuel punched the southern state of Guerrero, an area constantly pummeled by earthquakes and storms, the government had no contingency plan. It put the wealthy first. Authorities quickly mobilized airplanes to evacuate thousands of vacationers who were stranded in the resort of Acapulco for what was a long holiday weekend.

Two weeks later, the first shipments of clothing and food from the government finally reached La Montaña region, one of the nation’s poorest and home to isolated clusters of indigenous people. More than 30 people died during the storm, although miraculously none in San Miguel. The landslide occurred during the day, so many were able to get to the sanctuary of the graveyard.

But before those shipments, the earliest aid to the area was spearheaded by a human-rights group, Tlachinollan, not the military, whose troops have long been accused of raping and harassing locals. Soldiers and government agencies that normally deal with disasters came later.

Activists liken the tardy official response to Manuel to the poor government showing after Katrina in the U.S. They say it shows callousness toward ethnic native groups, which have suffered from discrimination since the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago.

“Authorities are not very interested in helping indigenous people,” concluded Arquimedes Bolito Gonzalez, who is an organizer with Enlace, a workers’-rights organization that tries to promote better living conditions among such groups.

‘Please take us with you’

“How are we to feed our famlies?” asks Hipolita Espinosa de los Santos, who lives in the state of Guerrero, which was hit hard by Tropical Storm Manuel.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

President Enrique Peña Nieto has tried addressing the issues facing impoverished people in Mexico. Earlier this year he announced a war on hunger in poor areas. Government officials insist they are regularly delivering corn, the staple.

But the people here are still not eating enough, said Regino Vasquez Calisto, the hamlet’s leader. A visit to each tent showed that the average family of eight had two pounds of rice to last the week. They lacked coats and schooling for the 48 kids. “It gets cold at night, and many people have caught the flu," he said. "The kids have no education. A teacher came once and then left.”

He peered into a shelter where five members of the Vasquez family huddled on a sodden foam mattress next to a chicken. That’s all they have left. A man under the next tarp, Victoriano Mendoza Ortiz, who can’t read and estimated his age to be about 75, fretted that the man who lent him plastic sheeting wanted it back. “I don’t know how I will repay him for the loan. You are from New York City? Please take us with you. The president has forgotten us.”

While the crisis here is immediate, cries of abandonment are familiar to the country’s 62 indigenous groups, which account for more than 10 percent of Mexico’s population of 112 million. Government statistics show nearly 30 percent of indigenous people are illiterate, well above the national average. Nearly 90 percent lack access to medical care, and nearly half don’t have running water.

Indigenous deprivation is a cruel irony for a country that relies on Mayan ruins and native crafts for tourism. The constitution recognizes a pluricultural society and grants indigenous people autonomy, among other rights. In reality, they remain politically and economically marginalized. The only indigenous politician of note was the 19th century Zapotec Benito Juarez, after whom streets across Mexico are named. Modern-day members of his ethnic group live in dire poverty.

Misery and politics

Abel Barrera, who founded the human-rights organization Tlachinollan to fight for indigenous people.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

“There has been immense discrimination. Indigenous people have been historically forgotten and exploited,” said Abel Barrera, an anthropologist who founded Tlachinollan and has won a string of international accolades such as awards from Amnesty International and the MacArthur Foundation.

Misery explains why such areas are often restive politically, he said. La Montaña is filled with roadblocks manned by peasants who have taken the law into their hands. Oaxaca’s indigenous, too, have joined uprisings over the years. Most famously, in 1994, the Mayan Zapatistas of Chiapas state briefly rose up to fight for autonomy.

The government agency that handles indigenous affairs defends its record, pointing to the excavator trucks that are clearing boulders the size of stoves on mountain passes in order for aid vehicles to pass. They say that various federal departments are coordinating with mayors to help people in need.

“Every week we are rehabilitating the situation,” said Mirna Aragon Sanchez, director of planning for the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People. “I personally visited San Miguel.” 

Yet no plan exists to house the displaced or compensate for the loss of crops on which they depend. Tlachinollan says the storm destroyed more than 7,000 homes in 19 municipalities as well as untold acres of subsistence plots.

Aragon Sanchez, however, insisted that everyone was getting regular deliveries of corn, although moving people to safer places was “complex.” She didn’t know who would pay for new land. Unstable geography complicates the hunt for suitable alternatives.

“We can’t just relocate people anywhere,” she said. “Reviewing the matter takes time.''

Connections and ancestors

Locals say it is taking too long, and they were confused when a man from the department of education showed up to count teachers for an unrelated reform of the learning system. They thought he arrived to discuss replacing the primary school, which was covered in mud right up to the red roof.

“There appears to be a disconnect,” he commented dryly, entering notes into a tablet computer.

Several hours’ drive away, along a treacherous ridge where the road had washed away, the story wasn’t much better for the Tlapanec people. Nearly all the 424 coffee growers in Tilapa village had lost their small plots to the debris that roared down the hills. The soil is now too rocky to grow new bushes, which, in any event, require five years before they bear usable beans.

Villagers with machetes slung over their shoulders called a crisis meeting at the bandstand at the heart of the town. No one from the government showed up. Most officials would not have understood the local language, Me’phaa, anyway.

So the villagers shouted among themselves. “Nothing is left of my plants,” bellowed Hipolita Espinosa de los Santos, 60. “How are we to feed our families?”

Blossoms for the Day of the Dead.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

Mayran Yolotl Benjamin Galeana, 38, lost the seven acres that had been in his family since the Mexican Revolution promised peasants a better life a century ago.

He described his situation with an expletive that politely translates as “screwed.”

“People who get help have political connections,” Galeana said. "We Me’phaa people don’t have connections.”

The connections that the people of this region do have are with their ancestors, whom they honor with tributes on burial grounds on the Day of the Dead, celebrated in each village on the cusp of October into November.

In San Miguel, residents lacked the customary offerings of fruit, having lost all their possessions in the landslides. So they made do with bright orange blossoms fresh from the fields.

They walked carefully, like ballerinas, through the soft mud and rubble, holding the garlands in their arms. They had lost their homes and their futures. They mourned it all.

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