TULA, Mexico — Helping with the harvest on his family’s lakeside farm, Sotero Jiménez was just five years old when he saw his first dead body.
Bloated and rotten, the cadaver had traveled from Mexico City, 70 miles (110 km) to the south, carried along by raw sewage and industrial waste.
That was in 1982, when Mexico’s capital city recently completed the pipelines that carry the contents of its sewers, only a tenth of which is treated, past the Jiménez family’s property on Lake Endho, a reservoir in Hidalgo State.
Decades later, the filthy water is blamed for contaminated produce, polluted air and illness among the estimated 800 people living close to the lakeshore.
Now, recently released statistics from the local hospital estimate that one in three children from the Endho community is born with developmental deficiencies.
But repeated calls to federal authorities to clean up what has become known as “Mexico’s toilet bowl” remain unanswered.
Dismissed as a “lost cause” by one state official, the region remains home to many locals such as Jiménez, now 38, who have grown accustomed to such sights as decomposing corpses.
“Nowadays we get them along here at least once a week,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Most of them are murder victims. You can tell by their bullet wounds and missing limbs.”
His 14-year-old son Andrés shrugs his shoulders.
“It’s not the worst aspect of living here,” he mutters.
Mexico City’s sewers handle more than 34,000 liters of sewage per second from its nine million residents, all of which is sent north via two pipelines into the rivers of Hidalgo.
The sewage resurfaces in the Tula Valley, where 70 percent of the water was classified as “highly contaminated” in a 2012 Inter-American Development Bank study.
The air around the 85,000-hectare reservoir, where the River Salto widens and slows, is thick with the stench of sulphur and raw sewage.
“LIVING IN HELL”
Houses are coated in a light-brown dust from the water’s murky surface and mosquitoes, their numbers boosted by the fetid atmosphere, keep residents indoors after sunset.
“We’re living in hell,” said Juana Guerrero, a school teacher in waterside Xijay who said students regularly have red eyes and weeping tear glands symptomatic of conjunctivitis.
We get conjunctivitis, headaches, stomach cramps, diarrhea, skin problems, kidney failure, dengue fever. The Red Cross (Cruz Roja Mexicana) only just managed to control a bout of cholera we had last year.”
— Juana Guerrero, school teacher in nearby Xijay
Mayra Paredes, a consultant at Tula General Hospital, said there had been a large increase in the past decade of birth defects in infants whose mothers stay beside Lake Endho during pregnancy.
Antonio Aguilar, 5, was born blind. His mother told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that she spent her pregnancy living 150 meters from the reservoir. It has taken five operations to give him 20 percent sight in one eye.
It’s a similar story with Hector Fivela, 8, who was born blind in one eye and has severe learning difficulties.
Abimael Falcon, 10, was born deaf-mute. His mother said she blames his disabilities on the summer she spent beside the reservoir during a difficult pregnancy.
“The environmental issues in the region are certainly linked to this problem, yet there has been no medical investigation into the trend,” Paredes said.
“It’s not simply the fecal matter in the air, but also the vast quantities of industrial waste, heavy metals in the water and swarms of mosquitoes spreading diseases, that affects everyone who lives close by.”
Along with Mexico City’s discharge pouring into Lake Endho, two nearby industrial sites, an oil refinery and a cement factory, also pump waste unchecked and untreated into the water.
In 2012, an estimated 7.3 tonnes of lead were pumped into Hidalgo state rivers by regional industry, according to a report by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, an autonomous government agency.
The residents have found little recourse as the pipelines flow into the rivers under federal government jurisdiction.
Despite some protests by residents in the capital, there are no plans afoot at federal level to address the situation.
The Hidalgo regional department of CONAGUA, Mexico’s federal water regulation body, declined to comment.
“It has destroyed my life,” said Genaro Garcia, 72, a farmer whose waterfront land was expropriated for a sewage outlet.
“The outlet is regularly blocked and overflows on my crops.”
“We only ever see politicians around here when elections are coming up,” said Leopoldo Rodríguez, 70. “They come here and make their false promises, but when it’s over, they couldn’t care less.”
Powerless to halt the flow of sewage, the Hidalgo state government is frustrated.
“The area is one of the most contaminated places on the planet, and it’s certainly a health risk zone,” said Hans Islas, a spokesman for the administration in state capital Pachuca.
While there was talk of building a water treatment plant, it could not come close to handling the volume of sewage produced by Mexico City, he said.
“Quite frankly, it must be viewed as a lost cause,” he said.
“The best thing for the people would be to move away from the area, but the residents have deep roots. They’re attached to their land and won’t give up on their homes.”
The dark sludge has proven to be a natural fertilizer, said Jiménez, who grows alfalfa along the lakefront with good yields.
Shepherd Miguel Rosario, 68, said the best pasture for grazing his flock lies by the water’s edge but takes care not to let his animals get too close to the shoreline.
“The water is so thick with sludge that nothing can swim in it,” said Rosario, who sells his meat in Tula.
A large system of irrigation channels has been built on Lake Endho’s eastern banks for large-scale farming that produces corn, wheat, lettuce and alfalfa for markets in Mexico City.
“It all goes back to the capital,” said Jiménez. “You flush your toilet in Mexico City, and it comes back around in your salad.”