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Acapulco Hoteliers Struggle with Untreated Wastewater Tainting Beaches
By Hugh Dellios, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

May 4, 2003 - ACAPULCO, Mexico--Newer luxury hotels up the city's coastline may have stolen the glitz from downtown, but the crowded beaches of Caleta and Caletilla remain the heart of this famous resort and the most popular destination for Mexicans busing in from the capital for long weekends. 

Armies of children frolic in the waves, while bronzed old men peddle shell-framed statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe from kayaks and fishermen carve up the daily catch right on the beach. Wafting through it all are the smells of grease-fried plantains and shrimp sauteed in garlic. 

Yet the homegrown revelry has hidden a dirty secret that Mexico is only now coming to terms with in a dispute over environmental safeguards, beach business profits and the importance of confronting the truth. 

A few days before Easter this year, Caletilla surfaced on a list of contaminated beaches published for the first time by Mexico's federal environmental protection agency. It was among more than a dozen beaches along Mexico's coasts found to have unhealthy levels of coliform bacteria. 

A surge of controversy ensued in Acapulco: Local hoteliers and restaurateurs trashed the government's findings and warned inspectors not to erect red warning flags on the beach. 

But federal officials say that for too long Mexico has ignored unpleasant truths such as the water quality at its beaches, and that the time has come to deal with reality, not only for the sake of bathers' health but the long-term health of local economies. 

The new water quality tests are part of President Vicente Fox's campaign to bring more transparency to public policy in Mexico, after decades of one-faction rule in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party often tried to obscure inconvenient or damaging information. 

Officials say it runs parallel to efforts to deal with the country's "Dirty War" of the 1980s, the still common practice of torture by police and the fact that Mexico has a drug abuse problem. In each case, the government is beginning to promote the idea for the first time that the public has the right to know. 

"We believe this is a significant step for Mexico," said Octavio Klimek, the federal environmental agency's local representative in Acapulco. 

"The idea is to end these types of taboos," he said. "Just as we talk about the good, we have to talk about the bad. A tourist is not going to come to a city where they hide the fact that there are problems." 

The local businessmen say they don't disagree, but that the matter was blown out of proportion. 

While crowds still showed up for the Holy Week holiday, many fear that the news could hurt attendance and business in the long term and that the federal government has done little to help fix the water problems. 

In the pungent fish restaurants at the back of the beach, where ceviches are as cheap as they are spicy, locals insist that Acapulco has been singled out unfairly because of rivalries between Fox's political party and the opposition parties that control the city and Guerrero state. 

"Definitely, tourists should have the information and should keep themselves aware of the situation in Acapulco and other beaches," said Leandro Oropeza Hernandez, president of Acapulco's small tourist hotel association. "But here it was seen clearly that there was special treatment to blow it all up and make too much noise about it." 

The dispute began in February, when the federal government released initial findings from its new water tests. It found unacceptable levels of pollution at 16 beaches along the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts. 

Among the worst were three beaches in Zihuatanejo Bay. Problems were also found at beaches near Banderas, Veracruz, Ciudad Madero, Huatulco, Lazaro Cardenas, Puerto Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta, Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido. 

Officials took pains to point out that most Mexican beaches remain safe. But they said the problems were due to insufficient treatment of urban wastewater, industrial discharges and garbage. 

The federal Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources set up a Web site for tourists to check the quality of water at their favorite beaches. The site also lists the health hazards of polluted water, such as stomach problems, ear infections and skin rashes. 

Mexican scientists and environmental activists applauded the new information campaign, saying it was long overdue. Many of them blamed government corruption, out-of-control development and ignorance for the failure to deal with the problem before. 

"For decades, no one made the necessary investments in [water treatment] plants because there was this idea that the sea will dissolve everything," said Luis Manuel Guerra, a chemist at Mexico City's Autonomous Institute of Ecological Research. 

Guerra said Acapulco's main water treatment plant is not operating because it was badly designed and broke down. There are seven smaller plants, but he said nearly 8 gallons of untreated wastewater still enter the bay every second. 

Locals point out that Acapulco has at least 30 beaches, and that only two of them made the list. Both of those were downtown beaches and not at the more internationally renowned resorts. 

Federal officials say they do not know the exact cause of the contamination at Caletilla. But they suspect not only wastewater from the congested area's $30-per-night hotels, but also the fishermen who tie up their launches a few dozen yards from shore and dump fish entrails into the water. 

Judging by the elbow-to-elbow crowd of sunbathers beneath the umbrellas on Caletilla's sand this weekend, the announcement of the contaminated beaches list has not had a major impact on the public. 

Reclining on a beach chair was Jorge Alejandro Huerta, 38, a Mexico City lawyer cradling his napping 1-year-old son while his 5-year-old daughter was playing in the water. Huerta said he knew about the list and supported its publication. 

"This is the most contaminated beach," he said, "but we're only here today because we're staying nearby. Tomorrow we're going to find another place. It is important because the kids can get skin rashes or diarrhea." 

-----To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. 


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