Mexico's Flood Response Fuels Political Storm
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 1999; Page A13
MEXICO CITY, Oct. 11—Mexico's devastating floods and mudslides have aroused political controversy fueled by complaints that the authorities have been slow to search for survivors and deliver relief to ravaged communities.
The public criticism has been aggravated by partisan motives in a looming presidential race and by instant communications that put victims' anguish on the world's computer screens long before rescue teams arrived on the scene.
The catastrophe, whose death toll has now passed 400, caught the government off-guard and left some towns and villages cut off for as long as three days. Face to face with irate victims over the weekend, an exasperated President Ernesto Zedillo was reduced to ordering one persistent complainer to "shut up." In one of the hardest-hit states, police roughed up and arrested a group of homeless survivors, including women and children, after their protests got out of hand.
Rain and new mudslides today continued to frustrate victims and rescuers alike in one of the country's most extensive natural crises of this decade. Flood waters have spread to a dozen states, inundating more than 175 towns and forcing 300,000 people from their homes.
While the federal government's official death toll today reached 349, tallies by state governments placed the number at 425, and Roman Catholic Church officials said they expect the final count to be near 600. None of those figures took into account an Associated Press report tonight that a deforested mountainside collapsed on the south central village of Acalama, possibly killing as many as 170 residents.
Along with allegations that rescuers arrived too late to find survivors and that food and other supplies have been slow to reach victims, the government has been pummeled by accusations that corruption, poor planning and neglect contributed to the magnitude of the disaster.
"The country is outraged," columnist Luis Eduardo Villarreal wrote today in the Mexico City daily Reforma. "The greatest misfortune is . . . official incompetence."
The floods and mudslides began a week ago, triggered by punishing rains from a tropical depression that was trapped over southern Mexico. Mexican authorities have blamed rescue and aid delays on poor weather that grounded helicopters and on landslides and raging rivers that destroyed mountain roads leading to towns where some of the greatest devastation occurred.
Officials in the mountain town of Teziutlan, where nearly 100 bodies have been pulled from the muck of a landslide that obliterated a community of more than 50 houses, became so frustrated by the lack of government response that they created a Web page on the Internet and appealed for outside aid.
Zedillo made his third trip to affected states today, promising government assistance in rebuilding destroyed homes and highways. "We won't fail you," he vowed at one stop.
The president's visits to communities where survivors have lost family members, homes and livelihoods have been charged with emotion and anger. Pressed at every stop by victims seeking assistance, Zedillo has lost his temper several times, first with reporters, then with a school teacher in one of the most heavily damaged towns, Gutierrez Zamora, in the coastal state of Veracruz.
"Shut up and let me speak!" Zedillo demanded after several interruptions, according to Mexican newspaper accounts of the incident. "I am the president of the republic."
The exchange provided a feeding frenzy for opposition candidates who have been fanning the public's anger. "The damage and loss of human lives could have been avoided," Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, presidential candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, told reporters this weekend. "The government has not assumed its social responsibility in the face of the backward conditions of the country."
The government also has been plagued by other incidents. In Villahermosa, capital of the southern state of Tabasco, flood victims frustrated by lack of assistance and by a sandbagging system that inundated their neighborhoods, opened drainage ditches on Sunday, sending water rushing over a main highway and stranding hundreds of vehicles. Police clashed with the flood victims, using tear gas, hitting some people with clubs, pulling some by the hair and arresting about 100, including women and children.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company