Mexico's president goes full-steam ahead with Mayan train

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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves to supporters in Lazaro Cardenas, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Monday, June 1, 2020. Amid a pandemic and the remnants of a tropical storm, President Lopez Obrador kicked off Mexico's return to a "new normal" Monday with his first road trip in two months as the nation began to gradually ease some virus-inspired restrictions. (AP Photo/Victor Ruiz)

MEXICO CITY – Residents of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula remember riding trains to visit relatives or sell their produce decades ago, so when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a nostalgic pitch to build a “Mayan train” through the region's jungles the mainly indigenous residents were initially receptive to the idea.

Two years later, as the president inaugurates a leg of the project’s construction Wednesday, that initial enthusiasm has dissipated for a project that would run through five southern states carrying tourists from the resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen to the Mayan ruins at Palenque. Many communities in the train’s path feel deceived by scarce information, while activists fear the social and environmental impacts.

But López Obrador remains laser focused on completing one of his signature projects despite the legal challenges and even a pandemic that has killed more than 10,000 Mexicans. If anything, the pandemic has made the project more urgent in the president’s mind.

López Obrador says it will create 80,000 jobs at a time that nearly a million have been lost to the lockdown caused by the novel coronavirus. The train would run some 950 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) from Caribbean beaches to the peninsula’s interior while stimulating economic development around its 15 stations. The government says it will cost as much as $6.8 billion, but others say it will be much more.

López Obrador originally conceived of it as an economic development project to help a long-neglected part of the country. But many locals are beginning to see it differently.

“The train is going to open the heart of the peninsula and bleed it dry little by little,” said Pedro Uc, a member of the assembly of defenders of Mayan Territory Múuch Xiinbal and resident of Buctzotz, a community east of Merida. “There will be (benefits), but in whose pockets?”

Uc said the project will divide communities and bring insecurity. Cancun’s rapid development as a tourist mecca led many away from their communities in search of work only to return years later as crime accelerated.

López Obrador launched the project in early 2019, shortly after taking office. From the start, critics questioned the financial viability of a tourist and cargo train. Even the man in charge of executing the project, tourism development director Rogelio Jiménez Pons, concedes the timeline was accelerated.