food / travel

To Kill A River, How Mexico's Santiago Was Polluted Beyond Repair

A family in El Salto in western Mexico is fighting local factories in its bid to show how pollution has 'murdered' one of the country's emblematic waterways, the Santiago river.

Río Grande de Santiago
Río Grande de Santiago
María Paula Rubiano

EL SALTO When Enrique Enciso was a child, there was just one book at home. He grew up with his mom and siblings in El Salto, an industrial suburb of Guadalajara in western Mexico, founded in the late 19th century by the textile firm, Río Grande. Enciso says the firm "made the homes, brought in people, football, the town's bar, everything." In the yards of people's homes, carp fished from the River Santiago were left hanging in the sun, next to drying clothes that had been washed in the same river.

As a child, when Enciso was not playing or fishing, he read his mother's one encyclopedia volume. In particular, he remembers reading over and over again the entry for Juanacatlán Falls, a natural monument 20 meters high and 167 meters wide, outside his town. "I always remember it saying that for the flow volume, this was the world's seventh most powerful waterfall," he says.

Fifty years later, Enciso leads a tourist circuit ending at the waterfall often dubbed the Mexican Niagara, after exploring every bit of El Salto. "We're Guadalajara's bottom," says Sofía Enciso, 24, Enrique's daughter. The town receives 250 liters of fecal waters a second from the city through Santiago (also referred to by its Spanish name Río Grande de Santiago) and its tributaries, as well as the toxic substances that the 300 companies established nearby pour into the river.

Since 1998, about 5,000 tons of trash sent to Los Laureles, the biggest dump in the state of Jalisco, feeds a stream of leachate, or liquid that leaches from a landfill, which in turn seeps into the Santiago. This occurs at about 24 liters a second, according to Gerardo Bernache, an academic at CIESAS, a research institute in Guadalajara.

By the time visitors reach Juanacatlán, they have seen everything. But even there, they are shocked to see a wall of foam, and their noses are hit with the stench of rotten eggs emanating from over 1,000 pollutants detected in the Santiago river. The landscape there inlcudes a motorway to Guadalajara, which crosses the water, and a parking lot built on what was once the river bed.

It is what the organizers have dubbed the Horror Tour.

"First it was the fish that died. Then the trees. And now, people are dying," says Enciso. "And they are dying by means they didn't choose, you know? The state, keen to move on, has done everything to hide it all."

Enrique is speaking in the sitting room at home in El Salto. Santiago river, which crosses his town, receives Guadalajara's effluents through myriad streams and brooks, though it barely flows past it.

Before 2011, waste water entered El Salto untreated. But after groups like Un Salto de Vida (Leap of Life), which Enciso founded in 2005, the government felt obliged to build a sewerage plant just outside El Salto, which could treat up to 2,250 liters of water a second.

Plastic bottles in Rio Grande de Santiago — Photo: Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung

That was not enough. In 2016, a report by Greenpeace Mexico indicated that water coming out of the plant still had 101 semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC), 56 of which were not regulated in Mexico in spite of being shown to cause cancer, disrupt hormones and harm fetuses and male and female reproductive organs.

These big-money investments only "treat nitrates, nitrites and phosphates, which is the defecation and foam," says Enciso. "Well, their work is aesthetic. When there is little depth, the water can be transparent but it is killer water."

Miguel Ángel's story

On Jan. 26, 2008, Miguel Ángel López was playing with a ball along the banks of the Santiago in the La Azucena neighborhood. The ball unexpectedly bounced and fell into the river. He waded in after it, and got out as soon as he had grabbed it. That night he kept vomiting, and was taken to a hospital. In the following hours came diarrhea and fever, until he fell into a coma. Nineteen days later, eight-year-old Miguel Angel López was dead. The hospital gave arsenic poisoning as the cause, as levels in his blood were 400% above the legal limit.

Initially the doctors seeing him in the Occidente General Hospital suspected poisoning from some kind of opiate. But as they say here, you can't hide the sun with your finger. The child had been playing around the area where 300 firms discharge, legally and illegally, their residues into the Santiago.

These firms had begun to settle by the river in 1967, when the government established Guadalajara's first industrial park. Mass deaths of fish were first recorded in 1971. What did the state do? Divide and sell off more plots of land to the El Salto industrial park. In the 1980s, 62 industries settled here, with 107 licenses for discharging effluents. At least 200 other firms discharge residues illegally.

The scale of the catastrophe astounds. A study by the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA) found a total of 1,090 toxic substances, chemical products and metals in the river, coming mainly from nearby industries. UN representatives visiting El Salto in 2016 have described the Santiago river as the "most polluted in Mexico."

This is the reason why the bucket loads of mangos, guavas, prickly pears, lemons and avocados were already a thing of the past when Sofía Enciso, Enrique's daughter, was born. She too played in the river but never saw frogs, turtles and otters that once lived there. Like her father, Sofia went diving with her brothers into the rotting foam that floated past 200 meters from her home.

Sofía would hear her father and uncle speak of the river they knew as children. They mentioned places she knew, but could not understand where this river was, so she asked one day. They told her it was "here, just a few meters away." That, she says, is "when I became conscious of what was happening. Something moves you at that moment and tells you, wow! A river of that size and power and now it just means death?"

When Enrique, his wife Graciela González, their cousins, friends and neighbors joined to form Un Salto de Vida, they organized marches and walked across the length and breadth of El Salto to identify its worst points. Sofía and her friends listened to older people recall memories that are now being wiped away by the state's indifference.

We'll cut your tongues. You're next.

When Miguel Ángel López died, Un Salto de Vida had already spent three years asking the authorities to do something. They had documents, pictures and files of the pollution around them. In 2008, a young man (whose name the NGO did not reveal), took pictures of streaming leachates at Los Laureles, the dump opened in the late 1990s.

"He was detained and charged with entering the dump without permission," says Sofìa Enciso. "We went with his dad to to check on his state in jail, and they said, "the judge is coming tomorrow morning at 9." We went back the next day and they told his father, "He's not here. He was never detained." If his dad had not known the state police chief of Jalisco, he would never have come back."

That is when the Horror Tour was created, to bring in outside witnesses who would act as a form of protection. The media, photographers, universities and environmental organizations became interested. Five hundred people visited from UNIVA, Guadalajara's private Catholic university, as did Greenpeace, which has since become a defender of the river.

Local authorities and firms buried some crucial spots, put up fences, blocked paths and employed guards. The Encisos became used to being pointed at or photographed on the street. In one documentary, Silent River, Sofía says "there were people observing us all the time. You sometimes think, if they're following me all the time, I know who they are. It doesn't matter, they're not doing anything."

But the threats that reached their doorstep in late 2012 turned out to be too much. And the calls were frightening. "We'll cut your tongues, you're next," said one caller. One day, the family abandoned its home. They hid for a year and returned on Nov. 17, 2013 under Federal Police protection, although the government removed their police protection in 2016.

Meanwhile, Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky won a FICMA environmental film award for his documentary on the family's fight for the river, Resurrection.

It took 40 years to murder the Santiago river, and Enrique doubts if it could ever come back to life. It has, he says, reached a point of no return. When would vegetation or fish like sardines come back, he asks. "All the actions we have taken have merely yielded admirable defeats," he says.

In 2009, Jalisco's state human rights agency issued an extensive set of recommendations to save the river, but as the Mexico City-based Milenio newspaper revealed in 2016, fewer than half were implemented.

For the Enciso family, their struggle will continue because, as Sofìa says, they are "so angry." But also because they know this is an example of what not to do, and their actions, a precedent for the world and "an opportunity to understand" the consequences of runaway industrial production.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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