A landslide at a construction site for the Mayan Train, before the route was changed to travel through the jungle, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.Credit…Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times
Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra
- Aug. 28, 2022
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Twisted tree trunks were plowed into high piles along a slash of freshly cut jungle, like thousands of discarded matchsticks as far as the eye could see. This path of deforestation in southern Mexico was recently cleared to make way for an ambitious government project: the Maya Train railway.
Pitched as a means to reinvigorate the country’s poorest region and one of its least connected, the Maya Train is one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s crown jewels — a project on which he has staked his legacy.
A “great detonator” for the south’s economy, a government spokesman for the lead agency called it.
But the cargo and passenger train line, expected to be nearly 1,000-miles long, is shaping up to be the president’s most contentious undertaking yet. At the very least, it is wildly over budget, may not bolster the economy like it was promised to, and will be subsidized by taxpayers for years to come, analysts and project officials say. At worst, it could collapse into the ground because of rushed construction, government officials and project contractors warn.
Despite many concerns raised by officials, advisers, scientists and even the rail’s supporters, Mr. López Obrador has refused to slow the project down, hellbent on inaugurating it before his term ends in 2024.
It is the largest of some $45 billion worth of major infrastructure projects that the Mexican leader has vowed to deliver, but that so far have yet to produce the economic or political benefits he promised.
The president “is not someone who listens,” said Gemma Santana Medina, a consultant on the project who resigned last year after criticizing the planning. She is one of several current and former officials who said the president has not heeded their expertise.
“His is truly a dictatorial vision,” she said.
The most contentious segment of the train — Section 5 — will link the famous white sand beaches stretching from Cancún to Tulum in the Yucatán Peninsula. To minimize deforestation, construction was initially planned along a highway. But now it will snake through the second-largest jungle in the Americas, inhabited by endangered jaguars. The tracks will run above the world’s longest underground river and over hundreds of unexplored caves that have been found to contain ancient ruins from the Maya civilization, the project’s namesake.