Reporter: Steve Fisher
It was a warm sunny afternoon in 2008 in the dusty suburb of La Azucena. Eight-year-old Miguel Ángel Lopez Rocha was kicking a ball with his friends. A group of boys were playing near the Ahogado Canal, a tributary to the Santiago River and a recipient of factory discharge, that cuts through one of the most prosperous industrial zones in Mexico, located in El Salto, Jalisco.
Someone kicked the ball into the canal. It was Lopez Rocha’s turn to retrieve it. As he reached down to pick it up, he tripped and fell directly into the backwaters of the canal.
Later that night, feeling dizzy, Lopez Rocha stumbled into the bathroom. He was vomiting profusely. His mother rushed him to a hospital in nearby Guadalajara, where doctors quickly determined that the young boy was suffering from arsenic poisoning. Hours later, Lopez Rocha fell into a coma.
He died 18 days later. Doctors attributed the boy’s death to arsenic poisoning. His family and local environmentalists are convinced it was his fall into the canal that killed him. Tests done in the canal months later found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals, but it is impossible to know the levels at the time or just how dangerous the canal was when the boy fell in. One government agency, The National Commission for Human Rights also believed the cause of death was arsenic poisoning from the canal. It filed a complaint against the National Water Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing environmental regulation. The complaint alleged a cluster of similar cases in the area -- people sick with respiratory diseases and dying of cancer -- all traceable to the polluted Santiago River. The Human Rights Commission demanded the area be declared an emergency zone. But in 2009 the former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, refused, saying such an action would mean "the paralysis of a very important amount of investment in the region.”
Fusion Investigates has found that, six years later, the Mexican government has done little to improve the condition of the Santiago River. Our investigation reveals a broken environmental regulatory system reliant on companies self-reporting chemical discharges. Meanwhile one government study found 80 percent of companies examined discharge waste into the river in violation of environmental laws, including U.S.-based companies. Still, Fusion Investigates found the National Water Commission has not been able to identify a single time when any company in the El Salto area has been fined for releasing excessive amounts of toxic waste into the river in the past decade.