Mexicans Ask Where Flood Aid Went

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 19, 2007

MEXICO CITY -- Long before the devastating flooding this month in the state of Tabasco, Mexico's behemoth state-run oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, was pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into local government coffers for flood abatement projects.

From 1997 to 2001, at least $3 million was donated to build dikes, raise levees and move poor residents from low-lying areas, according to analysts and independent investigators. But a crescendo of questions about whether the oil money was ever used for the intended projects is raising the possibility that corruption and incompetence might have played as much of a role in the tragedy as historically torrential rains.

The Saint Tomas Association, a nongovernmental organization, has said there was no evidence that two previous Tabasco governors -- Manuel Andrade Díaz and Roberto Madrazo Pintado, who also was a 2006 presidential candidate -- spent the oil money on flood projects.

The group's investigators say they have found proof that flood abatement money was used to pay off contractors who never completed jobs, as well as to fill the gasoline tanks of private vehicles and to buy large quantities of cigarettes, pastries and other sweets.

Mexican legislators have responded angrily, launching investigations and questioning whether the former governors siphoned flood money to their political campaigns.

"Where's the money?" Moisés Dagdug, who represents Tabasco in the lower house of Mexico's Congress, asked in an interview. "My personal perception is that it was not used well. Unfortunately, we have a lot of corruption in our country."

Madrazo, who was governor from 1994 to 2000, and Andrade, who was governor from 2002 to 2006, have denied improperly using donations from the oil companies. In a written statement, Andrade said he had "absolutely nothing to be ashamed of" and pointed to the construction of 74 miles of levees and 62 miles of drainage systems.

Both former governors are members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which lost its seven-decade hold on the presidency in 2000 but remains strong in many states. Many of the governors' critics, including Dagdug, are members of the rival Democratic Revolutionary Party.

"Faced with the magnitude of this tragedy," Andrade wrote, "the attitude should not be one of seeking political gain."

Tabasco, a swampy state in southeastern Mexico, was lashed by heavy rains in late October and early November. As much as 30 inches of rain fell, according to some estimates. The downpour swelled the rivers that crisscross the state and led to floods responsible for at least 14 deaths -- and as many as 80 -- in Tabasco and the neighboring state of Chiapas.

A series of factors are generally believed to have contributed to the flooding, including rampant development and deforestation to meet demand for a rapidly growing cattle-grazing industry. Without natural barriers to block the flow of water, silt drained into the rivers throughout the state, severely shrinking their channels and making them more prone to overflow.

In years past, Petróleos Mexicanos, known as PEMEX, has been blamed for environmental damage that activists say exacerbated flood risks. Since the mid-1990s, the company has donated millions of pesos to oil-producing states, including Tabasco, to compensate for the damage.

"The money was flowing," José Manuel Arias, of the Saint Tomas Association, said in an interview. "But there was not proper accounting at the state level. It was like a blank check."

Arias said he believes that some of the PEMEX money might have been used to advance "political interests," such as paying off well-connected contractors or rewarding party loyalists. In at least one instance, he said, Saint Tomas auditors discovered payments to contractors who did not complete levees on the Carrizal River, one of several that jumped its banks.

"At the state level, we have corruption and impunity, and it keeps growing," Arias said.

The Mexican Senate has opened an investigation, but few here believe it will yield results.

"There are two dangers here, and both of them are part of the already manifested popular fear," pollster Dan Lund, an American who has worked in Mexico City for decades, wrote in an analysis. "One is that the inquiries are not made and nothing is done, and two is that there are so many factors of institutional and personal failure that it is overwhelming and nothing is done."

In the end, Dagdug said, the investigations might have a more important goal than castigating public officials or institutions.

"I want answers not so much to place blame," he said, "but to make sure this doesn't happen again."

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