Deutsche Bahn in Mexico?! Destructive "Development" in the Mexican South 

By Victor Hübotter; Translation: Torvid Sommer

10th May 2024

In February 2024, the indigenous defender of territory David Hernández Salazar is convicted to 46 years of prison. The supposed crime is arson. But during the 14-day criminal case in the county court of Tehuantepec, it not only was proven that David wasn’t at the site of crime at the time of the offence but also that witnesses testifying against him were telling diverging stories, making their claims obvious lies. Despite the defense highlighting these inconsistencies, they were ignored. “This case illustrates the corruption of legal authorities, political and economic groups in the region which are interconnected with organized crime. The defenders of territory disturb those powerful personalities. 

So, they try to silence them by imprisoning, murdering or making them disappear” announced the Popular Assembly of the indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (APIIDTT) on the day of the conviction. David is the spokesman of a community that has been resisting for several years: Puente Madera is a community located in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca in the South of Mexico. The inhabitants are fighting against the construction of an industrial park that is planned to be located on their communal land and forms part of a megaproject called “interoceanic corridor” threatening, the indigenous community itself, its autonomous way of life and the unique ecosystem on the communal land. The Mexican state is trying to quench the fire of the beacon of resistance in the isthmus with increasing repression. To understand better what is happening in the isthmus and in the south of Mexico in general it is important to understand the megaproject ‘interoceanic corridor’ and the other megaproject connected with it ‘Tren Maya.’

Container ships stand waiting to cross one of the bottlenecks of world trade – the Panama Canal. Even from space the traffic jam can be seen because the canal is drying out. There is not enough water coming from the surrounding lakes that supply it. Instead of questioning the economic system that is causing climate change and the historic drought in Panama, enterprises and states are looking for alternative trade routes – this time on railways. The ‘interoceanic corridor’ seeks to turn the isthmus in an alternative for the Panama Canal. 

Railways and streets for freight trains and trucks are supposed to connect the cities Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. The Region they cross is one of the most biodiverse on earth. Indigenous Peoples have been defending this territory for hundreds of years as it is central to their way of life and their culture. This could abruptly be ended as harbors and airports are being built already. The ‘interoceanic corridor is intended to be an industrial corridor: Following the arrival of railways, oil- and gas refineries, factories, monocultures, and surface mining will shape the region. There will not just be transport of goods but also extractivism and production. A lawless area for international  companies will come into being, among them German ones, which are jointly responsive for ecocide and ethnocide: Here ecosystems and indigenous autonomy are equally destroyed. The lagunas near the Pacific, the fishing villages of the Huave People, the mountains, and villages of the Chontal People, the Chimalapas rain forest and the Zoque villages, the mangroves, and the villages of the Zapoteca People.

The ‘Tren Maya’ is more broadly known in Germany than the ‘interoceanic corridor’. This is partly thanks to the unveiling of the participation of Deutsche Bahn in the project. Presented as sustainable means of transport for tourists and locals this train is connecting the archaeological excavations of the Yucatan peninsula with the Caribbean coasts, but it is an extension of the ‘interoceanic corridor’ as well: The railways of the ‘Tren Maya’ and accompanying streets and airports connect with the new Panama Canal – the ‘interoceanic corridor’ – making possible the resource extraction of the natural resources of the peninsula of Yucatan. The train and all that comes with it is threatening the Maya Forest; the greatest freshwater resources of Mexico in the single biggest subterranean river system in the world; the mangroves; the world’s second largest coral reef and consequently the ocean. It is an ecological catastrophe: Steel and concrete are poured into the ‘Cenotes’ – cave systems that have existed for one million years already. In those cave systems holy to the Mayan Peoples and home  o many animals and plants lie big freshwater lakes and subterranean rivers. Part of this flora and fauna is endemic. It only exists in this specific environment. The ‘Tren Maya’ destroys the porous karstic soil predominant on Yucatan peninsula. Still being in construction, incidents of machinery breaking in caves are not uncommon and sometimes lead to the death of workers. Even if flora and fauna may already have been destroyed it is uncertain how a train is supposed to cross terrain that unstable.

The diverse ecosystems as well as people and communities in this region are threatened by the train but even worse than this menace are the dynamics it will initiate. ‘Tren Maya’ will extend monocultures, factories and mass tourism imposing a brutal economic change in a region where self-organization and subsistence farming are common ways of life. The train cynically named after the Maya Peoples is depriving them of their land while promising ‘progress and prosperity’, meaning employment. This employment consists in most cases of poorly paid work in factories or industrial agriculture, in hotels and restaurants as cleaners, caretakers or when speaking English as waiters or waitresses serving the white tourists. These tourists come to the place to get to know the ruins of the ‘dead’ Mayan culture, while getting their rooms prepared by and being served food by the living (!) and exploited descendants of the Mayas who built the impressive pyramids. The continuing colonial exploitation is absurdly obvious.

In December 2023, the first sequence of the ‘Tren Maya’ was inaugurated, gathering many public figures such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico (AMLO); Quintana Roo’s Governor as well as many high military officials, a representative of the French company Alstom (train construction company). One representative was not present at the inauguration of this train named after the Maya: The one of the Mayan Peoples. Shortly after the opening of this means of transport, it becomes obvious that ticket prices are high, there are few connected stations and more tourists than locals are taking the train that is already having breakdowns.

At the same time many people in the region place hope in the promised wealth this infrastructure project will supposedly bring. What can be observed is rising prices of real estates and tourism, increasing violence and  organized crime taking more and more power. Also, military presence in the south of Mexico has been increasing for several years. This worries many of the locals as this dynamic means more insecurity for them.

Military presence in the region as well as the existence of the megaprojects has geopolitical reasons. First of all, it should be clarified that the ‘interoceanic corridor’ is managed by the Mexican ministry of sea forces and the ‘Tren Maya’ by the Mexican ministry of defense. As these infrastructural projects aim to open the region for national and international enterprises. the military is protecting economic interests while fighting the indigenous resistance.

Also, these militarized projects form a threshold for migration to the USA. Many migrants find work in the construction of those projects. Those working there are building the very wall that prevents migrants from moving to the US. The military not only manages the construction of the train, the accompanying military bases and a hotel in a nature sanctuary but also will receives the profits the train will generate. The Deutsche Bahn – “Germany’s fastest climate protector” (as the company itself advertises) is involved in the ‘Tren Maya’: More than 8 million Euros were received in 2023 the by the German state-owned company. This indicates that it will remain a contractor for the ‘Tren Maya’. Also, Spanish companies (namely Renfe and Ineco); French ones (Alstom) and Austrians (Voestalpine) participate in the megaproject. Deutsche Bahn’s involvement was initiated through the German embassy in Mexico. The company offers information about their doings in Mexico only reluctantly. Only parliamentary inquiries proved the involvement. Those parliamentary inquiries were possible because of the company being state-owned. They prove the coresponsibility of the German government in a project that verifiably massively destroys the environment and violates human rights, particularly those of indigenous inhabitants.

More parliamentary inquests resulted in references to the ‘inclusion of UN-Institutions’ in the project. This ‘inclusion’ consisted of the consultations of indigenous communities by the UN High Commissioner for human rights. The observation of this institution determined that the survey was not executed in indigenous languages as demanded, too few people took part and falsified votes and threats counterfeited the results. Among others the convention 169 of the International Labor Organization Convention states the consultation of indigenous peoples in the case of construction on their lands. In Germany this convention was only ratified in 2021. The response of the Mexican government to constitutional complaints calling for construction stops because of missing consultations and environmental protection studies was a decree elevating the constructions of ‘Tren Maya’ and the ‘interoceanic corridor’ to ‘projects of the national security’ thereby ignoring the legal objections and continuing to build the infrastructure projects. 

Despite everything the South resists. In all states affected by the megaprojects and internationally too there is protest against the ‘territorial rearrangement’ of South Mexico. Many are exposed to an enormous risk while doing so: Mexico is one of the countries with the highest numbers of murdered defenders of territory, human rights activists and journalists. Murdering represents the cruelest actions  ken against activists, but defamation, criminalization, attacks, or imprisonment are also taking place, as the conviction of David Hernandez Salazar shows. German and other international actors are complicit in the destruction of the diverse life in the region and the prosecution of those protecting it. Not only in Mexico: Deutsche Bahn among others is initiating a similar project in  the north of Brazil. There unique ecosystems will be destroyed and the Quilombos, descendants of the enslaved peoples, destroyed, for a harbor and an accompanying railway system to extract, transport and export ores, soy and ‘green’ hydrogen.