For years, a noxious mixture of human waste, toxic chemicals and heavy metals flowed into the Río Santiago from the heavily polluted 66-kilometer-long Ahogado River located southeast of Guadalajara. The true nature of these aguas negras was visible for the world to see at El Salto de Juanacatlán, where the cascading water churned up billows of toxic foam said to be so corrosive it could remove paint from cars.
In 2008, Miguel Ángel López, an eight-year-old boy fell into the Santiago near this disgusting soup and, allegedly, died not of drowning but of swallowing some of the river water which, it was later revealed, contained 400 times more arsenic than the highest level permitted.
This state of affairs was all the more notorious because long ago, the Salto Cascades were considered one of the glories of Jalisco, “the Niagara of Mexico,” and, right up until the 1970s tourists came from far and wide to stand in its spray and marvel at its beauty. Thirty years later, they might have landed in the hospital if not the morgue.
For years, I had wanted to see this toxic waterfall with my own eyes, but I feared the results of just breathing the air in the neighborhood. Then, only a month ago, I had a chat with a friend, biological researcher José Luis Zavala.
“El Salto?” he said. “You can visit it anytime you want – it’s all been cleaned up.”
I did a double-take and so did everyone else in the room.
“Yes,” he continued, “public outcry over the death of little Miguel Angel finally spurred officials to do something. They built a 300-million-peso treatment plant and the toxic foam has disappeared.”
“This I’ve got to see,” I said, coercing José Luis to act as a guide.