By RICHARD MAROSI | Veracruz, Mexico
NOV. 26, 2017
Sixteen years ago, Mexico embarked on a monumental campaign to elevate living standards for its working-class masses.
The government teamed with private developers to launch the largest residential construction boom in Latin American history. Global investors — the World Bank, big foundations, Wall Street firms — poured billions of dollars into the effort.
Vast housing tracts sprang up across cow pastures, farms and old haciendas. From 2001 to 2012, an estimated 20 million people — one-sixth of Mexico’s population — left cities, shantytowns and rural ranchos for the promise of a better life.
The program has devolved into a slow-motion social and financial catastrophe, inflicting daily hardships and hazards on millions in troubled developments across the country, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.It was a Levittown moment for Mexico — a test of the increasingly prosperous nation’s first-world ambitions. But Mexico fell disastrously short of creating that orderly suburbia.
Homeowners toting buckets scrounge for water delivered by trucks. Gutters run with raw sewage from burst pipes. Streets sink, sidewalks crumble, and broken-down water treatment plants rust. In some developments, blackouts hit for days at a time.
Inside many homes, roofs leak, walls crack and electrical systems short circuit, blowing out appliances and in some cases sparking fires that send families fleeing.Adela Blanco uses a broom to retrieve a basketball from an open pit of raw sewage near her home in Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz, Mexico. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)Streets sink, sidewalks crumble, and broken-down water treatment plants rust.
Shoddy workmanship caused this street to collapse after heavy rains, creating a hazard for residents of the Puerto Azul development in Ensenada, Mexico. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)The water treatment plant at Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz, Mexico, broke down shortly after it opened in 2007. Untreated sewage flows into a creek outside the development. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
The program cost more than $100 billion, and some investors and construction executives reaped enormous profits, hailing themselves as “nation builders” as they joined the ranks of Mexico’s richest citizens.
Meanwhile, the factory workers, small-business owners, retirees and civil servants who bought the homes got stuck with complex loans featuring mortgage payments that rose even as their neighborhoods deteriorated into slums.
The Times visited 50 of the affordable-housing developments from Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico. It also reviewed thousands of pages of government and industry documents, and interviewed hundreds of homeowners, municipal leaders, housing experts, civil engineers, construction workers and government officials.
The American housing crisis and recession a decade ago also were marked by regulatory failures, and the U.S. economy eventually recovered. But the crisis in Mexico has been deepening.
Conditions at the developments vary widely. While some meet basic standards, rapid decay is evident at developments in or near every major city: Failed water systems. Unfinished electrical grids, wastewater systems and other infrastructure. Parks and schools that were promised but never materialized.
Many developments were built far from employment centers on marginal land — wetlands, riverbanks and unstable hillsides — with scarce access to water. Local officials rewrote zoning laws and approved developments with little or no review.Weeds grow among electric meters on a dusty street in Huehuetoca, Mexico. Many homes in the Santa Teresa development are abandoned. There has been no running water for more than one year. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)Rapid decay is evident at developments.
Developers downsized homes — building about 1 million one-bedroom units as small as 325 square feet, which is smaller than a typical two-car garage in the U.S. Many families of six, seven or more live in these postage-stamp dwellings, sleeping in laundry nooks and hallways.
Builders have all but abandoned hundreds of developments without completing infrastructure, resulting in a patchwork of public services.
In developments without working streetlights, youngsters wield flashlights to navigate pitch-black streets. In those without trash-hauling, people burn garbage in vacant lots to deter rats.
Tree stumps are placed in open manholes to alert children to the hazards of poorly maintained streets. Residents of water-parched neighborhoods lock the lids of rooftop cisterns to keep thieves from siphoning water.“It was a world of corruption.”— Alberto Uribe