Mine's Legacy: Mexico City Homes Are Sunk

A neighborhood in Mexico City is at risk of sinking into an abandoned sand mine. After 30 years of mining, the ground has became unstable. On that hilly section at the city's western edge, the homes of nearly 200,000 people are threatened.

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A working class neighborhood in Mexico City has more to face than that city's usual crime and pollution and poverty. On a hilly section of the city's western edge, the neighborhood is slowly sinking into a huge network of abandoned sand mines.

David Taylor reports from Mexico City.

Ms. MARIA MIRAMAR(ph) (Resident, Mexico City): (Speaking in Spanish)

DAVID TAYLOR: Maria Miramar describes the day last August when her life changed. She'd gone to work early and started to hear from her neighbors.

Ms. MIRAMAR: (Through translator) They told me that there were problems. The land was sinking, and I left to check it, and I went into the house and the stairs were split.

TAYLOR: She tells her story standing beside the remains of her home, a fenced-off bulldozed lot. She and her family are living in a nearby inn, the rent paid by the local government. Nobody will be allowed to build here again because the lot sits on top of an abandoned mineshaft. Last August, the mine beneath her house gave way, taking her house with it. A few yards from Maria's property, sit two vacant homes, their walls cracked, one with a distinct list, both have been condemned.

Local politicians say that more than 180,000 people are at risk because of the mines. In this neighborhood alone, Colonia Golondrinas, 350 families over a 22-acre area at on watch, knowing they could be evicted at any time. More alarming for residents and governments alike, nobody has a complete map of the mine network even though the mines were in use for decades - from the '40s to the '70s.

(Soundbite of people digging)

TAYLOR: About a mile away, in the neighboring Colonia Maria de Garcia-Ruiz(ph), a work crew is opening up another mineshaft. A few workers lean against the nearby house where it was discovered. Last fall, the owners were reinforcing the foundation. They found a hollow spot in the floor, and when they dug, they discovered the mouth of a mine. Jose Luis Zamora(ph) is the director general of public works for the local government.

Mr. JOSE LUIS ZAMORA (Director General, Public Works Department): (Through translator) Well, in this Colonia, we're talking about 50 houses that are on top of the shaft. We don't know how long the shaft is. Our job is to find out how long it is and then fix it.

TAYLOR: Zamora wants to show a group of reporters what he's up against.

Mr. ZAMORA: (Speaking foreign language)

TAYLOR: So we head down a ladder, and into the mine.

Mr. ZAMORA: (Speaking foreign language)

TAYLOR: Holy cow. I'm on my back, sliding in a cavity that's about 18 inches high, and there's three guys inside. Four guys. And here we are. Holy doodle.

What you see with the help of a flashlight is a cave with a rising ceiling, almost 10 feet at its peak. The walls are a hard, compacted coarse sand. Then the tunnel narrows and soon we're on our hands and knees as we head deeper into the shaft. Zamora is our guide to what is in front of us, and what's above.

Ms. ZAMORA: (Through translator) Here above us, are the houses, the staircases over. We're leaving the cars, the vehicles and the street above us.

TAYLOR: The engineers have mapped about 300 yards of the shaft so far. They aren't sure if there are arms that branch out. They are sure, though, that there is another lower lever to this mine. Zamora says the plan is to fill the shaft with a flexible concrete once it's fully mapped, but those plans are going nowhere because the local government doesn't have the money to do it. The mayor of Mexico City has asked for the mine zone to be declared a disaster area, but the federal government said no, saying this is a manmade problem, not a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane.

The situation in areas like this is decades in the making. Through the 1960s to the 1990s, the hilly areas around Mexico City's cores are population explosion. The mine zone was one of those places despite the dangers. The pressures to provide land for settlement were too much to resist. Martha Schteingart is an expert on urban development of the Collegio de Mexico.

Ms. MARTHA SCHTEINGART (Urban Development Expert, Collegio de Mexico): There was a lot of tolerance on the part of the government because the housing policies were not very successful to meet the needs of the poor people. They had to tolerate the sort of shantytowns or the regular occupation of land.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

TAYLOR: Maria Miramar(ph) planned on living out her days in the house that she and her husband built, and then passing it along to her children. Now she's homeless and wondering what will become of the place she's called home for more than three decades.

Ms. MARIA MIRAMAR (Resident, Mexico City): (Through translator) All of the sacrifices that we've made to have a piece of land, and today we have nothing.

TAYLOR: If governments can't figure out how to find the money to fix the problem, there may be a lot more Dona Marias wondering what happened to the place they once called home.

For NPR News, I'm David Taylor in Mexico City.

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