The Mexican Mayan train destroys ancient caves. Learn about the beautiful 'cenotes' that are under threat

AKTUN TUYUL CAVE SYSTEM, Mexico — Mexico's outgoing leader has quickly built a train system that loops around the southern Yucatán Peninsula.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised that the more than $30 billion Maya Train project would connect tourist hubs like Cancun and Playa del Carmen with dense jungle and remote archaeological sites, attracting money to long-neglected rural parts of the country.

But the crown jewel of the populist presidency also extends to one of Mexico's natural wonders: a fragile system of an estimated 10,000 underground caves, rivers, lakes and freshwater wells.

As his term ended, Associated Press journalists traveled through part of that cave network to document its destruction.

The cave system contains one of the largest aquifers in Mexico and serves as the region's main water source, which is crucial at a time when the country is facing a deeper water crisis.

The region was once a reef beneath the Caribbean Sea, but changing sea levels pushed Mexico's southern peninsula out of the ocean as a limestone mass. Water has formed the porous stone into caves over millions of years.

It produced the open freshwater caves known as “cenotes” and underground rivers that are equal parts awe-inspiring and delicate, explains Emiliano Monroy-Ríos, a geologist at Northwestern University who studies the region.

“These ecosystems are very, very fragile,” says Monroy-Ríos. “They build on a land that resembles Gruyère, full of caves and hollows of different sizes and at different depths.”

The train has drawn criticism from environmentalists and scientists because its construction plowed down millions of trees, part of the largest tropical forest in the Americas after the Amazon.

But the caves came to the fore in recent months when experts who had long worked in the caves posted videos of government workers using huge metal drills to drill into the limestone, embedding an estimated 15,000 steel pillars in the caves.

The pillars were created to raise the railway line, something López Obrador said would protect the ancient underground world, which was already threatened by mass tourism.

Instead, what the AP documented was destruction.

Throughout the cave system, stalactites, broken off by vibrations from the train structure, lie like rubble on the ground after an earthquake. In other caves, the concrete filling the pillars has flowed out and covered the limestone ground. Water showed traces of iron contamination due to rust coming from the metal.

The destruction spreads to the rest of the ecosystem, the AP found, as the freshwater aquifer connects to the Caribbean Sea.

López Obrador, who has portrayed himself as a champion of Mexico's long-forgotten poor, has declared the train “our legacy of development for Mexico's southeast.”

The populist has accelerated construction of the train in an attempt to fulfill promises to complete it before the June elections, something that seems virtually impossible.

The government has evaded oversight, ignored court orders, enlisted the Mexican military in its construction and blocked the release of information in the name of “natural security.” In violation of Mexican law, the government also did not conduct a comprehensive study to assess potential environmental impacts before starting construction.

The steps he has taken have only exacerbated his ongoing clashes with the country's judiciary, further fueling criticism that his government is undermining democratic institutions.

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