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Ghost Ballast: Mexico in the Global Geopolitical Realignment

A missing ship and a train for tourists illustrate Mexico’s growing militarism. 

Words: Ann Louise Deslandes
Pictures: Allyn Gaestel
Date:

Earlier this year, the Gazibey cargo ship sailed from the Cuban port of Cienfuegos to the Gulf of Mexico laden with 30,000 tons of porphyry stone. But the Gazibey never made it to port. The ship, which was registered in Panama, with a Turkish crew, had failed to dock in Yucatán’s Puerto Progreso as anticipated and had gone missing from GPS signals. 

The missing mega marine vessel — 141 meters in length and suddenly nowhere to be found — can be read as a metaphor for Mexico in the current global realignment. At the intersection of Mexico-Cuba and Mexico-US relations, an influx of tourists and digital nomads, threats of ecocide, and the continuing migration crisis in the country, the Gazibey fracas is an index of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) administration’s turn toward mass militarization. When elected in 2018, AMLO promised to transform Mexico. As his six-year term comes to an end, the peace and prosperity that many Mexicans voted for appears lost at sea.

A Train for Tourists 

The porphyry stone the vessel was transporting was bound for the Tren Maya railway, which is currently under construction across Mexico’s Yucatán and Caribbean coastal region. The Tren Maya (Maya Train) is a flagship tourism megaproject of the AMLO administration. The train will take tourists on a 907-mile (1460 km) journey by rail through Mayan sites, protected biosphere forests, cenote pools, and wildlife reserves, linking the key sites of Mexico’s Maya region – the historic city of Mérida, the ruins of Palenque, the Calakmul biosphere, the beach towns of Bacalar and Cancún – and taking tourists on a cultural, historical, gastronomical and ecological odyssey. AMLO insists on launching the project by the end of this year as he seeks to secure a legacy for his presidency ahead of new elections in June 2024. Porphyry is a type of rock used to make track ballast, the gravel that is piled between the sleepers and rails on train lines, and is thus essential to the success of the project.

Militarization

As the tracks for the shiny Tren Maya are being laid throughout the northeast region — from the Yucatán capital of Mérida to the transit hub of Escárcega, through the Campeche biosphere and onto the tourist haven of Tulum —- so too have immigration department checkpoints sprung up, operated by soldiers and National Guardsmen ready to arrest and detain people on the move through Mexico. At stations for overland buses throughout the Tren route, signage in Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole says that boarding will be denied to anyone without papers, despite it being unconstitutional to require identification to travel within the country, as reinforced recently by a Supreme Court ruling

While the Tren project was advancing at full steam, cutting a swathe through five Mexican states, National Guard personnel oversaw the halting of the ‘La Bestia’ — goods trains that migrants risk life and limb to smuggle themselves aboard to reach the US border — after Mexico had made a new agreement with the US on reducing migration. Deterrence of migrants en route through Mexico is critical to the country’s current alignment with the US border authorities. AMLO has initiated unprecedented cooperation with the United States on its border policy, with military personnel taking over migration control activities within Mexico to prevent migrants traveling through Mexico from reaching the US border. Mexico’s militarized migration authority has thus arrested, detained, harassed, extorted, tortured, and neglected medical and other lifesaving care to the tens of thousands of migrants from all over the world who enter Mexico on foot via its southern border with Guatemala in the hope of reaching the US. It has also granted asylum and resettlement to refugees from Russia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Venezuela, and from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Indeed, a hallmark of the AMLO presidency is the mass militarization of civil functions. A recent Financial Times report estimates public projects are staffed by at least 350,000 full-time workers from Defense and the Marines. Many numbers were added to the ranks through the incorporation of the National Guard into the military, once touted by AMLO as a civil “force for peace.” 

The armed forces have gained control of airports and seaports, major road transport routes, climate mitigation projects, various public security operations, and numerous major infrastructure projects, bringing revenues in the tens of billions of dollars. This includes, as the Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, a global citizen’s tribunal, notes, three segments of the Tren Maya route and six hotels along the way. 

The Tribunal described the militarization of the project saying that “one of the most worrisome aspects of the Tren Maya is the increasing participation of the Mexican Army in the construction and oversight process” and that “increasing militarization has brought violence to the communities” affected by the project. Other critics of the project such as citizen collective Articulación Yucatán have noted the military’s involvement in harassment of collective landowners in the region. Reporting for NACLA, Dawn Marie Paley notes widespread expropriation of collectively-owned land for the Tren, calling it “a military train with a geopolitical purpose.”

A Geopolitical Balancing Act

The tourists that the Tren Maya is being built to serve are providing essential foreign capital to Mexico. The boom in tourism has directly benefited the armed forces since earlier this year Congress agreed to have 80% percent of tourism taxes (for non-resident visitors to Mexico, this is currently 533MXN/32USD per person/visit) flow directly to the Defense Ministry. As thousands of “digital nomad” remote tech workers from the US have set up residence in Mexico, nearshoring — locating manufacturing companies in Mexico rather than Asia to minimize transport distance and cost — has also grown, within which the International Finance Corporation predicts more than 200 companies from Asia, the United States, and Eastern Europe will move operations to Mexico in the next 3 years. 

The AMLO administration is balancing these influxes of foreign investment with assertions of Mexican sovereignty against foreign interests, such as the establishment of a state lithium company and the performative withdrawal of lithium mining concessions to Chinese giant Ganfeng. Further, having the state electricity commission power a borderland solar energy project and declaring a ban on imports of genetically modified corn has prompted USMCA trade disputes with the US and Canada.

In a similar vein, Mexico has avoided offering its full support to the US against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the continuing war. Middle powers like Mexico are carefully balancing their interests for leverage in the face of the war and its acceleration of the rearrangement of world trade prompted by global warming and the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

For Mexico this has permitted, for example, continuing trade with Cuba, which appears to have supplied the armed forces with track ballast when they were in a pinch, and to whom Mexico is currently a key supplier of oil. Independent Cuban media outlet 14ymedio reported in early June that the Mexican defense ministry had purchased “1.2 million cubic meters of Cuban ballast at a price of US$143 per cubic meter” earlier in the year. 

While it was later reported that the contract for the Cuban stone had been canceled by the Mexican government, a detailed explanation for the disappearance of the Gazibey and its cargo is elusive.  

The Missing Ship

In May, when the ship disappeared, Yucatán daily La Verdad Noticias said the ship was believed to have “left Progreso and be heading to the high seas.” As La Verdad continued: “It is presumed that the freighter is anchoring in the Caribbean Sea, Holbox or international waters waiting for a response,” adding that it was also presumed that Gazibey’s satellite tracking system had been disconnected. 

Cave diver and environmental activist José Urbina, part of the movement to stop the Tren Maya tourism megaproject, told Cuban outlet 14ymedio that the loss of signal stopped activists from tracking the ship. Of its apparent disappearance, he said: “This is definitely not an accident.” Though he offered no further details, Urbina’s suspicions are understandable in a country that is home to a flourishing global black market for goods ranging from hard drugs to exotic wildlife protected by armed criminal organizations in league with military and state officials, information is routinely buried or otherwise manipulated to serve bad actors. The Tren Maya itself has been the subject of numerous complaints about the public right to know and concerns about human rights violations.

At any rate, going missing in the open ocean off the Gulf coast was not the first mishap the Gazibey had encountered since sailing from Cienfuegos. It had already been turned away from Chetumal, a port on the Caribbean sea some 200 miles away from Progreso, apparently due to an April court ruling on a case brought by environmental defenders from the region to restrict the size of ships permitted to dock along the coast. 

One month earlier, its sister ship Melody had been removed from Puerto Morelos on Yucatán’s Caribbean coast after it was proven to have damaged the protected Mesoamerican coral reef, which stretches over 600 miles from Mexico to Honduras. Diver and underwater videographer Alberto Friscione found that the ship’s anchor was damaging several coal reef specimens, alerted the media, and, with a coalition of environmental organizations including John Michael Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Foundation got a judge to agree it contravened the rules of protected areas. “I can’t believe that in these modern times we are still hurting nature in such a way,” Friscione told Spanish news agency EFE. “I really can’t believe it, and all because of the Tren Maya project.”

In his concerns for the Tren Maya’s ecological impact, Alberto Friscione is joined by a host of social leaders, activists, and advocates including indigenous Maya communities, environmental protectors, and human rights defenders who have taken actions ranging from filing lawsuits to blocking roads to vandalizing finance institutions abroad. In March this year, the International Rights of Nature Tribunal passed its judgment that the Mexican state has committed “crimes of ecocide and ethnocide” in the construction and operation of the tourism juggernaut, with activists citing the damage anticipated to the forests and coastlines. 

Finding out any more about what happened to the ship and its cargo now would be a difficult task. In mid-May, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, President López Obrador decreed the Tren Maya classified as a project subject to national security protocols, making information about its proceedings a state secret. Meanwhile, the paramilitary violence of criminal organizations, often in league with military and state officials has continued apace. 

As land and water defenders continue to organize against deforestation and the flouting of environmental laws, Indigenous Maya groups fear that more community division and armed violence is on the horizon as tourism brings demand for banned drugs and new trafficking routes become available. Others hope that the Tren will bring much-needed employment and economic opportunity, and that the armed forces will ensure it happens smoothly. Others still dream of traveling the entire route, seeing extraordinary terrain for the first time. At any rate, the Tren is coming, while — like a ship lost to signal in international waters — Mexico waits for a promised turnaround.

Ann Louise Deslandes

Ann Louise Deslandes is an independent journalist, writer and research consultant in Mexico City. You can follow Ann’s work by subscribing to The Troubled Region, her newsletter of/on foreign correspondence.

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