Residents fighting a new rail line in northern Mexico face a wall of government secrecy

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Germán Robles’ family set a camera trap in 2002 and, to their surprise, captured a black bear wandering through their farm in northern Mexico, where residents fear a new freight train line will soon bisect their properties.

The bear, spotted when Robles was in middle school, prompted the family to turn some of their land wild after raising cattle for four generations.

Eventually they discovered ocelots and golden eagles, six different species of rattlesnakes and a jaguar. Scientists flooded the ranch and in 2011 it was declared a federal wildlife refuge.

Now Robles fears the sanctuary he built with his father is in jeopardy as government contractors begin cutting trees and paving the way for the railroad to his family’s Aribabi ranch and the town of Imuris, 40 miles away kilometers) south of the USA-Mexico border.

“In a few weeks, things are going to change completely, you know,” Robles said, adding that the project will fragment the habitat his family has worked hard to maintain. “It will create a kind of artificial wall that will not allow animal species to move from one side to the other.”

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The rail project is intended to strengthen connections between a Pacific port and the Arizona border. Residents and conservationists say it ignores environmental concerns but have had difficulty fighting the project because it is shrouded in secrecy.

In February, military officials traveled to Imuris to announce the project. Since then, there has been no official communication: no plan, no consultation or environmental review, residents say. The project is not mentioned on any state or federal government websites or in the state of Sonora’s development plans.

It’s also not clear why the new route is necessary other than to bring the line closer to new mines owned by the rail operator’s parent company, Grupo Mexico.

Grupo Mexico, its railroad subsidiary FerroMex, the office of Sonora Gov. Alfonso Durazo and the Mexican Defense Ministry all did not respond to requests for comment on the project.

Meanwhile, construction began a few months ago on municipal land north of Imuris.

The project is being compared to the much larger Maya Train Project, a pet project of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to ferry tourists across the forested Yucatan Peninsula. The Imuris project is smaller, but fits Obrador’s penchant for infrastructure projects with heavy military involvement and no apparent concern for the environment.

No official map of the new railway line has been published. However, according to a map released by a local official in the spring, the project will create a second rail line for part of the existing route between Nogales and the port of Guaymas, this time following the Cocospera River south before cutting through the western border of the Aribabi- Ranch and then west to Imuris.

Locals say the route recklessly crosses their farms’ irrigation canals and endangers the reservoir that supplies water to the community’s 12,500 residents.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the construction will not only disrupt wildlife that relies on the river, but also disrupt an important migration corridor across the Azul and El Pinito mountains for ocelots, black bears and jaguars.

The details of the map are disputed, including by Durazo, who has said it will not pass directly through Imuris. Locals say the map, with a few minor changes, is borne out by construction work so far, including trail markers that Robles has seen workers erect around his property.

According to Wildlands Network’s analysis of the leaked map, about 80 homes and ranches lie on or adjacent to the route. The state’s infrastructure and urban development department has offered to buy portions of some properties for as little as 1.80 pesos (10 U.S. cents) per square meter.

“It’s a mockery,” said Alberto Heredia, saying the state had offered to buy a strip through his farm for the tracks themselves, thus separating his house from the cowshed. “It’s an abuse they’re committing.”

Asked why the offer was so low, Alan Espinosa Araujo, head of the state infrastructure department’s transparency division, declined to comment, saying the project was under federal jurisdiction so his department could not share information.

Imuris Mayor Jesús Leonardo García said he had tried to negotiate with state authorities so that residents of affected properties could receive reimbursement, but he himself had no “official” information.

“One of the main problems was exactly that: the insecurity that exists due to the lack of communication among people,” García said.

However, given an almost complete information vacuum, locals can only speculate about the purpose of the new railway. The new route will bring the tracks within about 10 miles of Santa Cruz, where Grupo Mexico is expected to open a new open-pit copper mine in 2025.

Mirna Manteca, a biologist with the Wildlands Network, began researching when concerned locals approached her in March, but found there was very little to research.

“There is no real information. There is no official project,” Manteca said. “There is nothing.”

Over the summer, government agencies redirected requests for information into an agonizing loop. Initially, the city of Imuris said it was a state project. Then the government of Sonora insisted that it fall under federal supervision. Months later, every federal ministry contacted by Manteca said they had no information to share about a train project in Imuris.

“They argued back and forth about who was responsible, but we couldn’t get any real information,” Manteca said. “It’s so weird. It’s like fighting a ghost.”

Manteca’s struggle is mirrored in the Yucatan, where advocates have battled López Obrador over the Mayan train. López Obrador initially exempted the project entirely from environmental laws, arguing it was a “priority” issue National security.

Then with a movement that ignited the spark international outragehis government prepared fragmented environmental impact statements months after construction had already begun.

In Sonora, Durazo, who served as Lopez Obrador’s national security chief from 2018 to 2020 before leaving to run for governor, has not acknowledged the project since March, when he told local reporters that some rights-of-way had been acquired and “We are already making great progress.”

Yvonne Siquieros organized a protest against the project in March and said the community has been ignored ever since, particularly when it comes to the risks a train wreck could pose to local water supplies.

“The route passes just a few meters from the dam,” which is 50 years old, Siquieros said. “It was never ensured that it could withstand the vibrations and everything that the project entails.”

According to The Associated Press analysis of shipping data since 2015, more than half of the traffic at the port of Guaymas — which arrives or departs Nogales via either Highway 15 or the railroad — is fossil fuel products.

It may be difficult to imagine an accident causing as much environmental damage in the Sonoran Desert as in the Yucatan jungle, but Robles insists that the ecosystem is rich and worth protecting.

“Yes, maybe less population because it’s dry, but so many species,” he said.

Ecologists say cutting migration corridors is particularly dangerous for species at the edge of their range, such as black bears, which risk being cut off from larger populations as their habitat becomes increasingly fragmented.

It’s too late to stop the project now, Robles said, but it’s time to save as much of his father’s vision as possible, sparked by the first image of a black bear.

“This is one of the few cities in Mexico that has both species,” black bears and jaguars: “a species representative of North America and a species representative of South America,” he said.

“We will try to protect biodiversity and its importance,” he said.

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