Narcissus is fed up. He’s fed up with the bloody cracks in the floor and walls and ceiling of his house. And tired of being asked about the same cracks again, being asked how it is possible for him to live like this, to be planted again with the hope of hope. “Reporters came, people from the community, graduates [abogados], of all; They come and ask, take photos, say they will help us, that they will see if they resettle us, but nothing happened,” he says. Tired as he is, he stands in the tiny, parched garden of his welfare home, carrying his grandson on his arm with one missing hand, and with the other he points to the cracks emanating from the street, running down his walls and culminating in the ceiling, the vanishing point, like a bundle of nerves of the same thing, the same subterranean animal.
Narciso, a 53-year-old merchant, has lived in the Villas de San Martín housing unit in the municipality of Chalco in poor, marginalized, violent and overpopulated eastern Mexico for the past eight years. Some windows in his house had already been broken, which he had replaced. He has already repaired the grooves in the walls with lime, which reappear from time to time. A few blocks from where he lives, what was once to become a public market has been a cracked and abandoned shell for years, proof that the breaking of things in this area, which is an hour and a half from the capital, is slow and is permanent, experienced as time, inevitable, calm.
A hole in a street in the Villas de San Martín unit in Chalco (Mexico State) caused by a crack that extends through several neighborhoods of the municipality of Gladys Serrano
Here people live with the habit of shaking the floors when almost every car drives through the street, the sound of water flowing like a stream under the living room or kitchen, the strong vibration of the windows. A man nicknamed El Árabe says that a few months ago a crack lifted the concrete of the street and prevented him from opening the door of his house. Don’t worry, he recalls: all he had to do was grab a hammer to finish breaking the bottom and get out. The rubble is still there. “My house isn’t that bad, really. I don’t feel like the ground suddenly opens up and my house goes to the bottom of the crack, does it?” he says, smiling confidently.
And if. What happens is that every once in a while, that crack in the concrete, or that sudden hole in the ground, or the number of houses damaged, it’s so long, so deep, and so big, that news then breaks out in the capital. Hundreds of families in Chalco, settled in an area of active geological faults and a soil of low-cohesion materials that fractures and drops steeply, are suffering the ravages of a natural process accelerated by disorderly urbanization and the greed of real estate developers . Fractures and sinkholes are anything but a surprise under these conditions.
The latest event happened in another residential unit called Pueblo Nuevo, 10 minutes from Villas de San Martín. On July 1 last year, on a night of heavy rain, a crack split several meters in the ground, crossed a field where more social housing was to be built, broke the asphalt of a road, broke a fence and reached Mónica Ansuategui’s house, the was so damaged that she had to abandon it, leaving everything behind.
Six months later, the crack was riveted with earth and tar, a stone material that can be used to cheaply repair roads, but Mónica, a 50-year-old businesswoman, has received no help because the parties involved in building the housing have refused to take their share of the responsibility: the municipality of Chalco, which issued the building permits; Infonavit, the government agency that provides low-interest home loans to workers; and real estate company Casas Geo, which filed for bankruptcy and even ceased to exist.
“When you buy a house, the first thing you look at is whether there are schools, shops and access roads. And you think the soil research has already been done and you don’t really know the history of your place of purchase. Few people really start researching it. We, the buyers, are partly to blame for buying on these lots. The companies that build houses ask for their permits and the authorities give them and you think everything is fine. It’s a breach of trust because we don’t know. And they cover each other,” says Mónica in an interview.
Mr. Narciso and his family in front of their home in Villas de San Martín Gladys Serrano
a known danger
The first fractures in this area of Chalco have been documented since at least 2009. At that time the place was not as populated as it is today. In June of the same year, a crack 1.3 kilometers long and 10 meters deep that appeared in the San Martín Cuautlalpan neighborhood crossed the Villas de San Martín residential unit and affected 54 houses built by the real estate company Davivir. UNAM specialists then conducted a structural geological study, in which they concluded that the soil was very unstable and that it simply should not be inhabited due to the enormous risk to families. The report explained that the fracturing of this area was a natural geological process accelerated by inexorable urbanization and property corruption, the latter factor behind the major tragedies in collapsing cities in both Turkey and the United States of late Mexico.
Geological engineer Dora Carreón Freyre, co-author of this study, tells EL PAÍS that the community of Chalco is basically in a tangle of deaths. Located on regional geological fault lines and surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Chalco dried up a few centuries ago, depositing materials as fragile as ash and silt on soil that is easily eroded. In turn, the withdrawal of water from the aquifers in the eastern part of the state of Mexico to supply the metropolis has resulted in a loss of ground pressure. The movements of the tectonic plates and flooding from rain complete the perfect cycle in the formation of deep fissures.
A rupture that occurred in 2009 in the San Martín Cuautlalpan neighborhood, Chalco, near a low-income housing unit under construction. Dora Carreon Freyre
For Carreón Freyre, the 2009 diagnosis should have been enough for authorities and real estate companies to understand that this area is uninhabitable and that the communities already living there urgently need to be relocated as there are no viable mitigation measures in place. Not only was the recommendation ignored. Google Earth images show how the urban march in the area has grown around or on the cracks, despite the risk that has been scientifically documented for fifteen decades.
“Real estate pressure is very strong. Political-economic agreements between different levels of government are also very strong. The risk that the population is in is extremely high. The ground in this area is very vulnerable, very fragile. Those are the worst conditions. It’s a non-cohesive material that opens up easily,” confirms the specialist, who is a member of UNESCO’s International Land Subsidence Initiative. “If there hasn’t been a major catastrophe, it’s because real estate developers are very smart enough to make one foundation slab per block and bet they’re small houses that don’t weigh too much. But if every house had its foundation, it would already look like they were bombed there. That’s why people hear their house thundering, the water circulating below, but it’s not falling, it’s just destabilizing. The day the slab wobbles and breaks, it will collapse everywhere. It’s a very high-risk area that could have been avoided.”
Real estate developers don’t seem to have been aware of this. Grupo Sadasi, which built the Los Héroes housing unit near Pueblo Nuevo, continues to offer houses and plans to build more. A sales representative consulted by this newspaper assures that there are currently 2,200 houses there and that many more will be built in the coming years. Houses range from 700,000 to 900,000 pesos ($38,000 to $48,000). When asked about the cracks in Pueblo Nuevo last July, the vendor has assured that they did not have these problems in Los Héroes, which was denied by a security officer at the sub-department.
A plot of land next to the Pueblo Nuevo housing unit in Chalco, where Grupo Sadasi plans to build a housing unit, despite the cracks in the Gladys Serrano soil
In fact, Sadasi had already begun work in the open area traversed by the Pueblo Nuevo fissure. Days before the event, heavy machinery was carrying out clearing operations on the property, according to residents of the subdivision. “You could feel the ground shaking as the machines started to work,” describes Abraham Soumaya. This machine was used by the Chalco community to repair the crack in the vacant lot. Now the property looks like nothing happened, barely noticeable a heavy scar on the ground. “Will the buyers know there was a crack there?” asks Mónica Ansuategui.
The unstoppable real estate business is contributing to the lukewarm response of state authorities. After evaluating the ground cracks in Pueblo Nuevo, the General Coordination of Civil Defense of the State of Mexico recommended that the municipality of Chalco commission geological surveys (like those conducted in 2009). The authorities filled the cracks with earth to reassure the population, admits Samuel Gutiérrez Macías, state coordinator of civil protection, but the problem is not being addressed in a holistic way, that is, as a characteristic phenomenon of the soil that replicates several kilometers around and affects thousands of households, not just private housing units.
“We have not examined the possibility of moving [reubicar] to all the people because of the affectation we had at the time [en julio] It was in two houses, if I’m not mistaken they were closest to this crack. The truth is that it wasn’t explored at the time, but we’re not ruling it out. On the part of the state government, we are always open to see if there is a greater risk for people because of this problem, it would be to put it on the table and we would do it preventively,” Gutiérrez Macías offers.
Under the government of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), real estate developments of social interest on the outskirts boomed. This housing policy encouraged disorderly urban growth and also property corruption. Far from the cities, surrounded by nothing, many of which lack basic services, thousands of homes financed by government loans to workers have been abandoned. In the absence of their residents, part of the houses were used as hideouts for criminal groups. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has argued that Calderonism’s housing policies were more of an excuse to favor real estate companies at the expense of poor families doomed to live on the fringes.
The people of Chalco now live with an additional problem. At the entrance to the Pueblo Nuevo unit, residents have posted placards calling on geologists to help them understand what is happening to them. “Pueblo Nuevo,” an imprecise name for a place of ancestral rifts.
Entrance of the Pueblo Nuevo Gladys Serrano residential unit
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