Death and social resistance in the Santiago River

Death and social resistance in the Santiago River

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By Jorge Regalado

The Santiago River is one of the best examples of irresponsibility, lack of environmental vocation and demagogic use of the discourse of "sustainable development" by the government and industrialists who use the river's waters. Thirty years ago the last fish were seen in its waters and since then the people of the towns and communities know that they should not enter the river and that for no reason they should drink from its waters.

It is said that between the years 1525 and 1530, when the Spanish conqueror Nuño de Guzmán arrived by blind directions, it was not easy for him to find a way to cross the "devilish and rough" Barranca and cross the Santiago River, then called Rio Grande, by the many stones that it had (Marín Tamayo, 1992). Surely the force and vastness of the river did not allow the advance of the invading troops who also had the response of the warriors of the Purépecha, Cocas, Cazcanes or Tochos, Nahuas, Wirraritari, Tecuales, Guachichiles, Zacatecos, Tepecanos and Tecuexes peoples, among others, who resisted and fought the invading army for several decades in this region. More than 500 years later, crossing the Santiago River is still dangerous. Not because of the strength and depth of its flow, but because its waters contain such a quantity of toxic substances that are lethal for those who touch, breathe or absorb a little of them, as well as for the natural environment of the towns and communities of the Santiago River in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. For these reasons it is currently considered a dead river in which all life has been impossible for more than 30 years.

Rivers like any other collective natural resource do not always have a “natural death”. His death is classified as ecocide and the factors of his death are the product of the unlimited exploitation that the mode of capital accumulation performs on nature as well as the null respect that is had over it. The capitalist uses of the waters of the Santiago River have antecedents since the end of the 19th century, in the year 1894, when next to the fall of the Salto de Junacatlán waterfall the hydroelectric plant was built, considered then as the first in Latin America and the second worldwide for its power generation capacity (1). This early industrialization process that took the river as its platform was continued in 1906 when the Río Grande textile factory project, owned by the Martínez Negrete family, was launched (Durand, 1986: 52). However, the devastating effects of governmental decisions and anti-ecological industrial practices are located in the seventies of the 20th century, from the beginning of the creation of the El Salto-Ocotlán Industrial Corridor. From the Mexican State industrialization was promoted following the riverbed; Industrial waste discharges were allowed but neither the government nor the industrialists took measures to prevent first the disease and then the death of the Santiago River. Now the two deny all responsibility and try to dilute it in the classic "we are all responsible".

Along the river it has been said that there are more than 1,500 industrial plants, most of them small and medium-sized, of which their production processes are unknown. Some of the largest and riskiest are: ZF Sachs Suspensión México, SA de CV; Quimikao, SA de CV; Grivatec, SA de CV; Hilasal Mexicana, SA de CV; IBM from Mexico; Industrias Petroquímicas Mexicanas, SA de CV .; Grivatec, S.A. de C.V .; Celanece Mexicana; Ciba Especialidades Químicas, Nestlé, and Industrias Ocotlán. Recent water quality analyzes (2) have found strong toxic loads in river waters such as: nickel, arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, chromium, lead and furans. All of them come from these industrial plants. In addition to these, the river also receives practically all the wastewater produced by the approximately four million inhabitants of the metropolitan area of ​​Guadalajara (3) and the large amount of leachate produced by the “Los Laureles” (4), “Picachos” garbage dumps. ”And“ Hasar's ”(5).

Thus, the Santiago River is one of the best examples of irresponsibility, lack of environmental vocation and demagogic use of the discourse of "sustainable development" by the government and industrialists who use the river's waters. long (6). The passage of toxic waters has eroded their lands and made them useless; dried up and polluted their fruit orchards. People and pets who have done so have died from poisoning. The contamination of the Santiago River, as it passes through the state of Jalisco, affects a population of no less than 200 thousand people.

The risks to life that the Santiago River leads went from presumption to concrete fact with the death of the child Miguel Ángel López Rocha, a neighbor of the La Azucena subdivision, municipality of El Salto, Jalisco. He died on February 13, 2008, 19 days after he accidentally fell into the river and absorbed some of its waters. Through them, several micrograms of arsenic leaked into his blood. The medical report established that: “… the causes were: cardiorespiratory arrest, multiple organ failure and acute arsenic poisoning” (7). His mother María del Carmen Rocha Mendoza declared: “unfortunately… that happened to us, so that they realize that we are all in danger. I am afraid… I have more children… ”.

This has so far been the most documented and widely covered case of a death caused by the contamination of the Santiago River. Among the settlers, however, it is stated that he is neither the first nor will he be the last to die from contamination. There is no precise documentation in this regard, but the oral versions speak of hundreds of people suffering from multiple degenerative diseases and several deaths per week.

In the water quality studies carried out by the CEA, two places where pollution is particularly concentrated are invariably highlighted: the Ahogado basin, close to the towns of El Salto and Juanacatlán and Paso de Guadalupe (8), a low-water population belonging to to the municipality of Ixtlahuacán del Río. San Cristóbal de la Barranca (9), the municipal seat of the municipality that bears the same name, is another of the most affected population. In this case, even the municipal president acknowledged the problem: “Well, look… I can guarantee you that if you put a dog in the water there in San Cristóbal, a pooch, an animal, whatever, if it doesn't die, it's missing a little. . But pretend that the animals, the horses pass by and the hair falls off their feet, imagine a person who gets in there, forget it, not even think about it. There have been people who touch the water and get splashed on their skin, they make pints, there are people who are making pints. Well, look, there are times that people bring people who have even died, we just don't really know the reason ...

Negligently, the government of Jalisco and the health authorities have denied this situation despite the empirical evidence. They do not deny that contamination exists, what they do not accept is that this is the cause of death and disease that abounds in the towns of the Santiago River. Of course, people have a different opinion because, for example, in El Salto and Juanacatlán they breathe every day the foul smells coming from polluted waters such as the “Los Laureles” garbage dump where 3,500 tons of garbage from the city are deposited every day from Guadalajara; they feel the itch produced by the foam that roams their houses and streets; they must establish a strong combat device every night against the mosquitoes that invade their homes as soon as the sun goes down and night falls. It is like living in a state of siege. People who live closer to the river prefer not to leave the house and must seal doors and windows to try to contain the unpleasant smell.

This is why they suspect that people are slowly getting sick and dying from various degenerative and cancerous diseases. In the death certificates, they say, the real cause of death is not recorded.

Unlike other cases, the reservoirs built in the riverbed of the Santiago River have not meant the eviction of large numbers of people. The town of Arcediano, where for more than a decade an attempt was made to build the dam of the same name, is perhaps the most significant case, not so much because of the number of evicted people but because of the political significance of the resistance of Mrs. Lupita Lara Lara, the only person from his community that never accepted the idea of ​​leaving his town for a few pesos. In her own words, she has said: “As it did not seem to me how the government acted; how it did not seem to me how they used everything to get us out, and how the more disruptions they made to me, the more strength, more courage, more decision and I said, you know what, well I am not leaving, my dignity and my rights are priceless ".

Regarding this hydraulic project, from various perspectives, sufficient arguments were made about the risks that the construction of a dam on a highly contaminated bed implied for public health. Nothing was enough to prevent the government of Jalisco and the State Water Commission (CEA), with the complicity of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), from destroying both the bridge and the town of Arcediano. The Arcediano suspension bridge had been built between 1893 and 1894. It was the first of its kind in Latin America and the second in America (11). Finally, almost at the end of 2009 the government declared, without further explanation, that it would not build the Arcediano dam, but both the town and the bridge had already been demolished, the ravine had undergone significant alterations and many million pesos had been spent. public treasury. As is characteristic of the governments in Mexico and Jalisco, it simply abandoned the project without assuming any responsibility.

For reasons like these, on April 14, 2008, hundreds of residents of El Salto, Juanacatlán, Puente Grande, and Tololotlán held a demonstration in the city of Guadalajara and handed over to Governor Emilio González Márquez what still remains their petition statement today. In this document the main demand was, and continues to be, that an “environmental emergency” be declared in that area. The government's strategy has been negligence, silence, and contempt for the lawsuits presented. He does not care about the life of the people of the towns of the Santiago river or the river itself. For their part, the polluting industrialists maintain their policy of not investing more in cleaning the river unchanged, and in an excess of cynicism they display colorful signs on their entrance doors or in their reception rooms saying that they are accredited companies such as clean and with ecological responsibility.

After Puente Grande, the Santiago River enters the Barranca that bears its own name. This canyon reaches depths of up to 610 meters. It is a natural fault that through the centuries has been aided by the force of the Santiago River (12) to reach such depths. The towns that are located here have a basically rural and indigenous social composition and are demographically small. However, they are fortunate to live in one of the richest and most diverse natural paradises in Jalisco. With an area of ​​1,137 hectares, the Barranca del Río Santiago since 1997 was declared a "Protected Natural Area" (13), thus being the largest in the metropolitan area of ​​Guadalajara. For this reason, it has become the area most besieged by real estate capital.

Ex Hacienda de Lazo, Los Tempisques, Los Camachos, Ixcatán, Paso de Guadalupe, La Soledad, are some of these towns that are in the Barranca before reaching San Cristóbal de la Barranca. It is through these directions that you can see beautiful landscapes in green of different shades that are drawn on the hills and mountains still covered with cedars and other native trees and plants. At the depth of the ravine and at the top of its walls that are impossible to climb, a cold environment is generated and a thick mist winds its way through the ravine every morning as if fleeing from the first rays of the sun; there are steep roads that with the mist and the green of the landscape give the impression of being in other worlds despite being only a few minutes from the city of Guadalajara. The backwaters of hot springs in spas such as Los Camachos, Huaxtla and Milpillas are located there, surrounded by fruit trees, which are at serious risk due to uncontrolled leachate from the “Picachos” and “Hasar's” garbage dumps. In short, natural wonders that have been the source of inspiration for great Mexican artists such as Gerardo Murillo, “Dr. Atl ”; Xavier Guerrero and Roberto Montenegro, as well as countless poets.

Entering these towns and communities, walking through its narrow streets and alleys, it is possible to enjoy many delicious smells: that of burnt wood that announces that something delicious is being cooked; that of fruits such as guava, lemon, and the exclusive and unique Barranco mango. All of this is lost when you are within walking distance of the river. More if you live on its margins and even worse if you are there when the floodgates of the Agua Prieta Dam open, through which approximately 8,550 cubic meters per second of sewage pass and descend at full speed that without any treatment are incorporated to the Santiago River from the city of Guadalajara.

All this as well as the lives of its inhabitants is at complete risk. For this reason, at various times in their history, these communities have developed various struggles against those who are polluting and trying to deprive them and expel them from their territory. The most recent action was the blockade of the “Picachos” and “Hasar's” garbage dumps for three days during the month of October 2009. On October 14, they signed a commitment with the Zapopan City Council, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (SEMADES) and the State Attorney's Office for Environmental Protection (PROEPA) to begin to resolve the issue of the “Picachos”, “Hasar's” landfills and the pigsty that for more than five years contaminate the big stream of Milpillas and the La Soledad river. Until July 2010 nothing had been resolved and the contamination continued to advance.

Thus, the demand for the declaration of an environmental emergency zone; the indignation and rebellion for the deceased and sick relatives and neighbors due to the contamination; opposition to the construction of the Arcediano dam; the resistance to the dispossession of the territory where the communities have lived for centuries, even before the city of Guadalajara was founded; The blockade and attempts to close the leachate-producing garbage dumps, etc., have opened the possibility of convergence, of walking together, of sharing ancestral knowledge and knowledge, of beginning to get to know each other and discuss the possibility of creating a project very different social movement, different from the classics and already well known in Mexico.

In their meetings, the people of these towns, communities and cities have begun to talk about building a different way of doing politics in which they are the central protagonists and the political parties and NGOs that do not respect the sovereignty of the country have nothing to do with it. organized people. A way of doing politics where the processes of community production, autonomy and self-emancipation acquire centrality as an alternative to the liberal idea of ​​citizenship limited to the right to vote and centered on the dispute for power.

A project in which the construction of a project is considered as long-term as necessary to clean the Santiago River and eliminate all sources of pollution that threaten the life and health of people. This will have to be done with or without the government because the lives of the inhabitants of the towns and communities are at stake.

Jorge Regalado - Professor-Researcher of the Department of Studies on Social Movements of the University of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.


(1) See the document Problematic environmental of the region of the towns of El Salto, Juanacatlán, Puente Grandes and Tololotlán and their communities in Jalisco, Mexico, [2008], prepared by the association Un Salto de Vida and published with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, from Germany.

(2) Carried out by the State Water Commission (CEA), an institution to which Art. 23 of the Water Law for the State of Jalisco and its Municipalities grants a whole series of powers, among others, to be a watchdog of the state in which the quality of the water is found.

(3) The metropolitan area of ​​Guadalajara is made up of the municipalities of Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque, Zapopan, Tonalá, Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, El Salto, Juanacatlán and Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos.

(4) This is located within the territory of the municipality of Tonalá, Jalisco, but a very short distance from the municipal capitals of El Salto and Juanacatlán. It started operating in 1986 but never followed ecological criteria to prevent it from becoming a source of contamination of the water table. As of 1994 it was awarded to the Spanish company Caabsa Eagle

(5) Picachos and Hasar's are two garbage dumps found in the municipality of Zapopan, Jalisco. The first is administered by the municipal authority of this municipality and the second is concessioned to a private company. The two have been denounced on multiple occasions by various communities for the fact that their leachates have contaminated some smaller rivers and streams that flow into the Santiago River and have damaged their orchards, poisoned their domestic animals and, of course, also the persons. During the month of October 2009, some communities mobilized and blocked the entrance of these dumps for three days, making it impossible for the garbage of practically the entire municipality of Zapopan to be deposited there. The sit-in was lifted after the municipal authority promised to resolve the lawsuit and to carry out some works for the affected communities. Until mid-2010, nothing had been resolved and, on the contrary, the rainstorm once again put the risk that the leachate containers were insufficient.

(6) In Mexico, whenever one talks about official data or measurements, controversy is generated and then the reference depends on the source consulted. Thus, in the case of the Santiago River, the State Water Commission (CEA) says that only in its passage through the State of Jalisco does the Santiago River have a length of 262.5 km. For its part, the State Commission for Human Rights of Jalisco indicates that the Santiago river "travels 475 linear meters ..." The difference between this data and the previous one lies in the fact that the second is considered the river's passage through the State of Nayarit, an entity neighbor of Jalisco. However, making this same consideration, there are those who affirm that the Santiago River travels 562 km between the states of Jalisco and Nayarit (Juan Pablo Soler Villamizar, "The Santiago River is born dying. It is due to dams and the contamination of industrial waste", in Anyway, you know, when it comes to measuring it seems that it is impossible to agree.

(7) La Jornada Jalisco, February 14, 2008. This was established by the director of the General Hospital of the West, doctor Enrique Rábago Solorio.

(8) See:

(9) Three rivers converge in this town: the Santiago, the Juchipila and the Cuixtla. On February 11, 1875, San Cristóbal de la Barranca was totally destroyed by an earthquake caused by the “El Ceboruco” volcano.

(10) La Jornada Jalisco, February 24, 2008.

(11) The first was built in the city of Brooklyn, USA, ten years before Arcediano's.

(12) El Lago de Chapala, University of Guadalajara, CUCEI, s.a., s.f. Document located at:

(13) The issue of Protected Natural Areas or other similar names is a whole issue in Mexico. It is because governments are not really doing what is conducive to protect them from the constant siege of real estate capital. Behind every inch that is gained from the protected forest, a murky agreement can be found, like sewage and polluted waters, between government agents and capitalist agents.


Doñan, Juan José [2001]: Oblates-Colonies. Andanzas tapatías, Guadalajara, Campo Raso Editorial.

Durand, Jorge [1986]: The workers of Río Grande, Mexico, El Colegio de Michoacán.

Marín Tamayo, Fausto [1992]: Nuño de Guzmán, México, Siglo XXI.

Casillas, José: Ichcatlan, he doesn't die. It is reborn every day.

Gallardo Valdez, Juan, “The contamination of the Santiago River”, in Cities, No. 73, January-March 2007, Mexico.

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