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The horrors of the “El Cajón” dam in Nayarit, Mexico

The horrors of the “El Cajón” dam in Nayarit, Mexico

By Gustavo Castro Soto

A social, economic, political, geological and volcanic tsunami waiting to erupt.

The curtain of El Cajón begins where the reservoir of the Aguamilpa dam ends and of which the inhabitants affirm that it is already cracked. This will involve three dams together that could be at least 150 km long, splitting the region in two.

The El Cajón Hydroelectric Project is being built on the Santiago River and approximately 60 kilometers upstream from the Agua Milpa-Solidaridad hydroelectric plant. It is part of the Santiago Hydrological System, which would be made up of 27 projects that would generate 4,300 MW. Of the 27 there are six centrals that mean 32% progress. El Cajón ranks second in power and generation, after the Aguamilpa-Solidaridad Power Plant.


The El Cajón dam will have a 186-meter-high curtain, almost equal to that of Aguamilpa, the highest of its kind in the world and four meters shorter than the Torre Latinoamericana. The material required is equivalent to the volume of ten Pyramids of the Sun of the pre-Hispanic complex of Teotihuacan, with a capacity of 12 million cubic meters of volume, a generation capacity of 750 megawatts, equivalent to 2% of the total installed capacity of the country. During its construction, it was calculated that it would generate around 10,000 temporary and poorly paid jobs. On February 14, 2003, the ICA group and its partners won the tender to build the hydroelectric plant for which Congress authorized a budget of 812 million dollars, although the director of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), Alfredo Elías Ayub once acknowledged, publicly, that this work was going to cost $ 2.730 million. The debt to the people of Mexico increases.

Equipped with all the basic services and even entertainment venues, the construction of the "El Cajón" hydroelectric dam has practically become an alternate city for the thousands of employees who work there, including workers, technicians and administrators. They have bedrooms, telegraph services, restaurants, fast money transfers, sports fields, a swimming pool, and even a bar for the high command. There is also an IMSS clinic with an operating room that offers employees an outpatient consultation, preventive medicine service, emergencies, clinical files, pharmacy and affiliations. Five doctors, two nurses and an administrative assistant attend daily dozens of patients who arrive for acute respiratory diseases, diarrheal infections, and mainly with fractures and injuries caused by accidents at work.

Technical, vision, concept and planning contradictions.

The curtain of El Cajón begins where the reservoir of the Aguamilpa dam ends and of which the inhabitants affirm that it is already cracked. This will involve three dams together that could be at least 150 km long, splitting the region in two. These dams authorized by the Chamber of Deputies under the Deferred Investment Projects scheme in the Expenditure Registry (Pidiregas), means that it is financed and built entirely by a private company and that it is acquired by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE ).

The El Cajón dam is not guaranteed the water or storage necessary for its operation during the drought. Upstream cities like Guadalajara and León are located that demand water. Deforestation in the region will rapidly increase sediments, accelerating the end of their useful life.

In October 2004, the Archaeological Salvage Directorate of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) found a mortuary offering that dates back more than a thousand years from the Postclassic and Early Middle period of Mesoamerica (990-1350 AD) and consists of four sculptures made of stone of different types and representing human faces, which were placed so that each one is precisely oriented to each of the four cardinal points. The pieces have an approximate height of between 14 and 17 centimeters, two of them were carved in limestone and the other two in green rock. Obsidian objects, ceramic remains and bone material were also found within the same offering. Another 18 archaeological sites have been discovered in the area that includes the construction of the curtain and what will be the reservoir of the dam.

The dams in Nayarit are founded on volcanoes and highly seismic regions, where the Ceboruco volcano dominates the horizon. The highest concentration of volcanoes in Mexico is found in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Thus, the water from the three Aguamilpa-El Cajón-Yesca reservoirs will generate greater pressure on the tectonic plates, their shifting and the eventual pressure to produce new tremors and volcanic explosions. In fact, in recent weeks there have been continuous tremors along the Pacific coast according to reports from the National Seismological Service ranging between 3 and 5 degrees.

The communities surrounding the Aguamilpa and El Cajón curtains have recorded loud noises in the subsoil, which is the effect of pressure on the tectonic layers or movements in the thermoregulatory canyons of the volcanoes connected in the subsoil. The surrounding communities have begun to evacuate their communities due to the fear that it causes, in addition to registering quartered houses in the community of Cantiles, a few kilometers from the El Cajón curtain. However, land abandonment is also due to two other key factors. On the one hand, more than 130 streams that ran down the mountains towards the river and towards the curtain have stopped flowing. "The earth sucked the water," say the villagers. On the other hand, the entire region surrounding the Aguamilpa and El Cajón curtains has become extremely arid, causing a high environmental impact and the migration of peasant and indigenous populations.

Has the construction of the El Cajon dam stopped?

The construction of the most important hydroelectric work of the administration of President Vicente Fox Quesada, according to the president himself, suffered a severe setback after a federal judge granted suspensions "outright" to the Hernández Fletes family and community members of the Los Cantiles ejido. (which in total protect more than 1,110 hectares), which would legally paralyze the works of the dam's curtain.


After almost two years since the CFE began the work, the third mixed district judge based in Nayarit heard the demand of those affected, who allege that to date they have not received any official notification informing them that their land was expropriated. to build the dam that is currently about 40 percent complete. The judicial agreement meant that the ejidatarios cannot be dispossessed of their houses, their livestock or their lands, which therefore cannot be flooded by the dam. Nor can dangerous activities for the integrity of people be carried out, such as the use of dynamite and without which the construction of the curtain is practically obstructed.

The admission of this protection against mega-works is a triumph in the defense of civil rights in Mexico, above all because of the power held by the CFE and the economic and political interests in this type of works, but the authority explicitly affected by the judicial mandate is the Environmental Impact and Risk Directorate of the Undersecretariat of Management for Environmental Protection of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), the body that authorized the environmental impact of the work.

But, again, what has always happened happened, as in the case of the La Parota project in the state of Guerrero. The illegality was imposed and the CFE continued with the works; those affected were not fairly compensated; those killed in the work continued without addressing the demands of their families for labor justice; death threats against leaders, divisions, pressure, blackmail and the displaced increased. Corruption was echoed when affected residents denounced that of the 70 million for reforestation the CFE has only exercised 4 million in they do not know what. Hundreds of inhabitants of El Ciruelo and La Playita, towns that will disappear through the reservoir of the dam once it is finished, have not been taken into account for negotiations and / or agreements and while claiming their rights, coincidentally the lawyer Jaime Bracamontes Arias, who was legally advising the resistance movement of the towns affected by the construction of the dam, was killed by three bullet wounds when he left his home.

The struggle of those affected continues. During the II Mexican Meeting of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers (MAPDER) held in the community of Arcediano, Guadalajara municipality, Jalisco, from March 11 to 14, 2005, the requirement to investigate the death of approximately 300 workers from the Aguamilpa and El Cajón dams, in the state of Nayarit (only 37 were officially recognized).

The other side of the coin: those who put the money.

In January 2005, President Vicente Fox made a tour of the area and pointed out that unlike other administrations, his is implementing an economy "with a human face, dedicated to people, with economic growth and quality" and added that the change is that his administration keeps its word. On the Internet portal of the Presidency of the Republic, under the heading that "good news is also news", it was published that the English magazine Project Finance International, which evaluates the development of the main financial projects in the world, awarded the Deal of the Year award to those who structured the financing of El Cajón, which was described as "the most important engineering work of President Vicente Fox's six-year term."

In 2004, the banks thanked President Vicente Fox for his participation in financing the El Cajon dam. Among them were: BBVA Bancomer, Citigroup (Banamex), HSBC, Banco Santander, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, GE Capital, West LB New York, West LB London, DEPFA Bank and Nord LB. The beneficiary construction companies, including CIISA, are comprised of three companies (ICA, Piadisa and Peninsular Compañía Constructora) and the electromechanical engineering is in charge of the Russian company Energo Machexport-Power Machines.

With regard to the Spanish entities participating in the construction of El Cajón, some interesting data to be highlighted must be considered. The data provided by BBVA in 2004 reports that it had a profit of 2,802 million euros, 25.8% more than in 2003 and 33% from Latin America. Banco Santander earned 3,136 million, 20.1% more than in 2003 and 1,036 million came from Latin America.

BBVA participates financially in the following companies Repsol, Telefónica, Iberia, Gas Natural, Iberdrola. B. Santander participates in Unión Fenosa and Cepsa. In 2004, the BBVA Foundation created five awards on biodiversity, organized in three sections: the first includes two awards of 230,000 euros each, one of which is for Spain (awarded to the research group in conservation biology of birds and their habitats from the Doñana station) and another for Latin America (awarded to the Millennium Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity Research, University of Chile). The second section also includes two prizes of 230,000 euros, one for Spain (to the program of conservation of areas for birds of the Spanish Ornithological Society) and another for Latin America (to the ecological restoration program of the Galapagos archipelago, in Ecuador, of the Charles Darwin Foundation). The third section of recognition and awareness, endowed with 80,000 euros, was for the journalist José María Montero, who collaborates in different media. According to Francisco González, president of BBVA, the aim of the awards is to show "commitment to an essential problem, the improvement of which can be contributed through scientific knowledge, practical action and social awareness."

In May 2003, BBVA adopted the Equator Principles that have been signed by more than 20 of the world's largest banks to date, which are based on the environmental and social standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank. These Principles apply to development projects in all industrial sectors with a capital cost of $ 50 million or more. "In adopting these principles, we try to ensure that the projects we finance are developed in a way that is social, responsible and reflects sound environmental management practices" - they affirm. The adoption of the Equatorial Principles is part of the corporate social responsibility strategy of BBVA, one of the leading financial institutions in project financing internationally, and the first Spanish bank to adopt these Principles. BBVA's decision marks an important milestone for the Equator Principles and further strengthens the position of these Principles as the new international benchmark for environmental and social standards for project financing. The Equator Principles were announced in June 2003 when ten of the major international banks announced their adoption. Today there are 23 banks, including ABN Amro, Bank of America, Barclays, BBVA, CIBC, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Group, Credit Lyonnais, Dexia, Dresdner Bank, EKF, HSBC, HVB Group, KBC, ING, Mediocredito Centrale, Mizuho Corporate Bank, Rabobank, Royal Bank of Canada, Royal Bank of Scotland, Standard Chartered, WestLB, and Westpac. Together, these banks are estimated to have structured approximately 80% of the syndications for project finance in the world in 2003.

For its part, Banco Santander has an ethical code (www.gruposantander.es/docs/etico_fim3.pdf). In accordance with the fundamental principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, this Ethical Ideology is built around the following operating principles: 1. The protection of human life; 2. Respect for human rights; 3. The defense of peace; 4. Caring for the environment; 5. The protection and promotion of health, 6. The social responsibility of the company. The operating principles establish criteria that are considered exclusive (which will mean the non-selection of companies for the ethical fund investments); and the sixth, in addition, has a positive value intention, which will influence the final evaluation to make the investment.

For Klaus Toepfer, United Nations Secretary for the Environment, "It is not profitable to get rich at the expense of the environment and then clean it up." However, it is clear to us that dams generate so many economic interests that the only thing the builders of dams see are juicy profits. What matters less is respecting the law, protecting biodiversity or generating ecologically and socially viable alternatives.

The battle in the legal arena in the cases of the El Cajón and La Parota dams in the state of Guerrero is over. Communities and those affected are preparing for resistance, social and political battle, tools that ultimately stop these destructive megaprojects. Many have already been stopped, they will not be the only ones.

Photo 1: Community of Cantiles abandoned. Photo: Alicia Castañeda / KUPURI

Gustavo Castro Soto placeholder image
MAPDER Chiapas
May 2006


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