squatters in Mexico City face crack down by officials FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 10 May 1998 16:26:23 -0700 (PDT)


http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WAPO/19980427/V000025-042798-idx.html


     MEXICO CRACKS DOWN ON SQUATTERS

     By Mark Stevenson
     Associated Press Writer
     Monday, April 27, 1998; 1:24 a.m. EDT


MEXICO CITY (AP) -- They live anywhere they can: in abandoned boxcars, in
shacks teetering on hillsides, in public parks, in roadside hovels.

For decades, little attempt was made to rein in the masses who migrated to
Mexico's sprawling capital of 8.5 million people but could not find
affordable housing and built shelters wherever they could.

Lawmakers say at least 48,000 families -- as many as 200,000 people -- live
illegally in 360 shantytowns built on property they don't own.

Now, with squatters ranging into Mexico City's last woodlands, authorities
are cracking down, and the job has fallen to an unlikely man: leftist Mayor
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who was hailed as a hero of the poor when he took
office in December.

A month after Cardenas was sworn in, police evicted about 600 squatters who
had invaded a public park and cut down scrub oaks to build shacks of tin
and wood.

``No eviction is enjoyable, but this has to be controlled,'' Jesus Estevez
of the city's Natural Resources Commission said as he drove past shacks
built alongside a road by the people evicted from the park.

Irene Orduna, one of those forced from the park, is living in a hovel made
of plastic sheeting, wood and tarpaper. ``All we want is a little piece of
land,'' she said.

The scarcity of land is such a problem that forest fires were intentionally
set in early April on the city's western edge in an attempt to clear
parkland for housing, authorities say.

A blaze that blackened 1,000 acres of woods and clouded the already
polluted city in smoke ``was intentional and presumably aimed at changing
the use'' of parks where construction is prohibited, Assistant Environment
Secretary Victor Villalobos said.

In a country where corrupt officials are often accused of ``selling''
public parkland to the poor and companies profit from supplying shack
builders, the new city government vows to stop the ``squatter industry.''

``Some settlements will be consolidated, given services, and some of them
on hillsides will be shored up and made safer,'' Estevez said, standing in
a clearing in the mountains above the urban sprawl.

``But some will have to be removed,'' he said, pointing to acres of wooden
shacks clinging precariously to slopes stretching below.

It won't be easy.

Days after the city's new environment secretary said he wouldn't allow
``the loss of one more square yard'' to squatters, dump trucks were found
unloading tons of construction rubble near a protected lake, filling in
marshy soil apparently to create land for shanties.

Many stand to lose from the crackdown: construction companies that save
money by illegally dumping rubble on the city outskirts; cement companies
that sell most of their product in 110-pound sacks for small builders;
political groups that gain votes and money from allowing unplanned
neighborhoods to spring up.

``It's very profitable business,'' said city lawmaker Alfredo Hernandez
Raigosa, who accuses officials of the long-governing Institutional
Revolutionary Party of profiting from squatters.

Camps were often established by local PRI leaders who charged squatters for
plots as small as 400 square feet, Hernandez Raigosa contends. There often
were additional charges for water and electricity, he said.

Those charges ``add up to stratospheric profits for a few leaders,'' said
Hernandez Raigosa, a member of Cardenas' leftist Democratic Revolution
Party. ``We face the inertia left by past (PRI) administrations ... who
looked the other way or made up pretexts to defend the squatters
`rights'.''

PRI officials declined to respond to the charges.

But safety, not politics, is the main reason for the crackdown, most city
officials say.

Squatters often live without drainage, with frayed electric cables hooked
illegally into the city's electricity grid, and with drinking water from
buckets or leaky rubber hoses.

A fire apparently sparked by illegal electric hookups swept through about
100 shacks in ``The Last Hope'' squatters camp in an industrial area of
downtown Mexico City on Feb. 25. No serious injuries were reported.

Most residents of the area didn't even know the tarpaper shacks had been
built between two factories until the squatters' burned possessions were
shoveled into the street.

The problem isn't confined to the capital. Dozens of squatters in the
Pacific resort city of Acapulco were killed in October when Hurricane
Pauline sent a river roaring down the dry stream bed where local officials
had let them settle -- and charged them rent.

Standing in the mountains above Mexico City, Estevez surveyed the makeshift
home of Federico Hernandez and said the structure could easily tumble down
the slope when seasonal rains start in June.

The lot is so steep that Hernandez has sandbagged the house's back wall to
keep it from sliding downhill.

``It's this, or my hometown, and there's not even enough food there,'' said
Hernandez, an itinerant vendor from the nearby State of Mexico.

Gazing at the city below, he added, ``There's nothing I'd like more than to
live down there, somewhere safer.''

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