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One Woman's Long, Dangerous Fight for the Environment in Mexico City

Her son's been kidnapped, her husband beaten, and her daughter threatened. But Claudia Zenteno Zaldívar isn't giving up her fight to protect the precious wetlands she loves.

by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell
Feb 20 2017, 5:00am

Photo by Mayela Sánchez, Global Press Journal Mexico

Right after she's finished explaining how kidnappers tortured her son in what she says was retribution for her own environmental activism, the landline phone on Claudia Zenteno Zaldívar's kitchen wall rings. Someone's buzzing the telecom at the rear door of her house, a floor below us. That's the door unmanned by her bodyguards, the one she refers to as her "escape route." After speaking to the caller, she hangs up, her eyes luminous with fear. 

"It was someone claiming to be a garbageman and he wanted me to bring down my trash," she says. But unlike in most of Mexico City, Zenteno explains, residents of her neighborhood enjoy curbside pickup. 

She rushes to her back window and points out the "garbageman" who rang her doorbell. It's a man sitting in a white sedan she's never seen before, looking up at her kitchen window. Zenteno doesn't flinch, staring back at the guy until he drives off. 

"This is how they threaten me. How they let me know I'm watched," she says. "Who knows what could've happened if I'd gone down?"

This is a rhetorical question. Zenteno, 52, knows exactly what could have happened because she knows her enemies quite well. They're the ones she says are destroying what's left of Xochimilco, a UNESCO world heritage site in the south of Mexico City once full of pristine canals and chinampas, artificial islands created by the Aztecs to feed their capital, Tenochtitlan. Nowadays, Xochimilco's vast green space serves as a critical environmental control for one of the largest cities in the Western hemisphere. "It purifies water, cleans the air, regulates temperature," Dr. Luis Zambrano, a researcher of environmental conservation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, recently told me. "Without Xochimilco, the city's temperature would rise two degree celsius."

For well over a decade, Zenteno has fought powerful developers as they've encroached upon Xochimilco's nature preserve, covering chinampas with shoddy housing, turning wetland into fetid mud. Yet for all the complaints Zenteno has filed with city and federal entities, the construction in Xochimilco—which she flatly describes as illegal—continues.

For her trouble, Zenteno and her family have suffered a steady drip of terror for over a decade. (A Mexico City government official familiar with the case who isn't authorized to speak on the record confirmed her account of past abuses.) An assailant held a knife to Zenteno's daughter's stomach before running off. A mob of thugs beat Zenteno's husband so badly he lost the use of his right eye. Zenteno and her six-year old-grandson spent a night in jail. Zenteno's son was kidnapped. 

"They electrocuted him, they choked him with a plastic bag, they peed on him,' she says. "After nine days, they left him on our doorstep."

These incidents prompted the Mexican federal human rights commission to provide Zenteno with a pair of bodyguards. But the guards cannot watch her entire family. And while the violence has ebbed, the threats haven't. Just weeks before I first met her, Zenteno tells me, her husband discovered that several nuts had been unscrewed from the hood of his car.

An hour after the incident with the "garbageman," Zenteno's naturally peppy demeanor returns and she's ready to take me on a bike tour of Xochimilco's protected ecological reserve. She insists that one must see firsthand the destruction she's fighting to properly understand it. After strapping on her helmet, she mounts her mountain bike and begins pedaling. Zenteno's two bodyguards follow on bikes of their own.

Between 2003 and 2012, some 720 complaints were filed by residents of Xochimilco about local environmental violations. (GDA via AP Images)

Zenteno stops almost immediately at the park across the street from her house. Bordering the back of the area is a row of poorly constructed houses intercut with shallow canals of brown sludge. "Agua de caca—shit water," Zenteno says, pointing to the metallic pipes that pour what appears to be untreated sewage from the rear of the buildings directly into the canals. "This is part of the protected zone," she adds. "It used to be a lake." The housing development is so massive, containing dozens of homes and named streets, that I have difficulty believing her. I think maybe I'm misunderstanding her Spanish.

She disabuses me of this notion by pointing to a huge sign that stands at the edge of the park, where the lake's edge once lapped. The sign reads, Prohibido construir suele conservacion ecologica—patromonia de humanidad. Or, "It's prohibited to construct due to ecological conservation—patrimony of humanity." Below the proclamation sit the seals of Mexico City, the Republic of Mexico and UNESCO—local, national and international bodies who have recognized the importance of Xochimilco and, Zenteno complains, failed to protect it. (UNESCO did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and a request for comment from various relevant Mexican government officials was not returned before publication.) Zenteno shakes her head. "This was once beautiful. It's why my family moved here 20 years ago. Our house used to look out over the water."

Zenteno remounts her bike and rides a half mile further into the site. Once the irregular housing fades away, Xochimilco stuns with its beauty. Ducks paddle and birds flock over clean marsh. High cattail grass borders water that stretches almost to the horizon. In the distance, mountains and volcanoes spring into sight, a view submerged in smog just a few miles north at the heart of Mexico City. The rectangular chinampas themselves seem to float like giant lily pads on air, the lake that surrounds them reflecting a clear sky. Colorful trajineras, wooden boats propelled by gondoliers, carry weekenders down the section of the canals officially open to the public, and are occasionally visited by smaller boats that sell beer or food or songs sung by drifting mariachi bands.

Watch TONIC's explainer on how to fix an impaled object wound. 

After an hour of riding over dirt paths, we enter the part of Xochimilco officially zoned for agriculture. "Now this is what a chinampa is supposed to look like," Zenteno exclaims as she dismounts at our destination. The plot's chinampero, Don Toño Sanchez, greets her with a bear hug. Sanchez still uses environmentally non-destructive techniques of farming that date back to pre-Columbian times. To demonstrate these methods, he lowers himself into a skiff sitting in the slender canal bordering his land and shovels up mud from the deepest part of the water. This nutrient rich soil serves as fertilizer and explains how Tenochtitlan, supported by the robust agricultural output of Xochimilco's chinampas, grew to become one of the largest cities in the world in its day.

Sanchez's grandfather taught him how to farm the chinampa. In turn, Sanchez teaches his own grandchildren, who farm alongside him. I ask how much longer the old way of life can continue. "15, 20 years," he sighs, wearing the sad look of a macho rendered helpless. The water level surrounding Sanchez's plot has plummeted as farmers of neighboring chinampas have filled in the canals with sand and rock in order to expand their own plots, he says, with runoff from the housing developments polluting what water remains. However, in spite of this and his own fatalism regarding the death of the old ways, Sanchez dotes on Zenteno for continuing to fight for Xochimilco. As we leave Sanchez's farm, she literally must pull herself away from him as he loads her plastic bag with an increasingly absurd amount of free vegetables offered as thanks.

Back at Zenteno's house, I ask why she doesn't quit. She's had no success in stopping the decimation of Xochimilco, and her family has suffered greatly due to her activism. Is it really worth it? 

"We just wanted to live in a pretty place," Zenteno responds, her voice ripe with indignation. "It's not just. Xochimilco belongs to all of us."

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