When the 140-mile toll road opens as soon as late 2012, it will cut drive time between the interior city of Durango and the Pacific port at Mazatlan from seven hours to 21
2, conquering the Sierra’s unholy topography with 62 tunnels and 135 bridges.
More important, Mexican officials say, by completing a modern transportation link between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, the highway will bring wholesome economic development and the rule of law to a place dominated by some of the country’s biggest dope growers and drug gangsters.
At the heart of the endeavor is the Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge, uniting the states of Durango and Sinaloa with a gravity-defying ribbon of concrete 1,321 feet above the Baluarte River. Completed this month, it is the highest bridge in the Western Hemisphere, the second-highest in the world and highest structure of its kind (cable-stayed bridge) on the planet.
So high is the Baluarte’s road deck that the Eiffel Tower could fit beneath it, or two Washington Monuments stacked end to end. With its long white cables and graceful towers rising 587 feet at opposite ends of the precipice, it may be the most breathtaking structure built in Mexico since the pyramids went up at Teotihuacan circa A.D. 100.
“This is a symbol of the prosperity we want for Mexico, a symbol of the Mexico of the future,” President Felipe Calderon declared at the dedication ceremony for the bridge.
That the Baluarte was built by Mexican engineers was a special point of pride, he said — proof that the country stands with the industrial giants of the world.
But there is ample reason to worry that Mexico’s superlative road could also serve as a super-conduit for drug trafficking.
With Calderon nearing the end of his term-limited, six-year presidency, the highway project is also emblematic of the legacy he wants to leave: one of economic stability and infrastructure modernization, not the savage drug violence that has left 50,000 dead since he took office.
For the president and other officials here, it is taken as a matter of course that the superhighway will bring a reduction in crime and lawlessness, by giving young men an alternative to working for the cartels. Much of the marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine sold on U.S. streets come from the farms and labs of the western Sierra Madre, a place that has long defied the civilizing intentions of government social workers and of missionaries before them.