Alfonso Romo: a water robber baron in the Mayan paradise
The current head of the Office of the Presidency of Mexico founded the company Enerall in 2007, a megaproject that in the last 10 years obtained concessions to exploit the largest amount of groundwater for agricultural use in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Alfonso Romo Garza, the current head of the Office of the Presidency of Mexico, founded the company Enerall in 2007, a megaproject that in the last 10 years obtained concessions to exploit the largest amount of groundwater for agricultural use in the Yucatan Peninsula. This biotechnology company uses the aquifer with the most important reserve in the country, but whose average annual availability has dropped 43%. During its expansion, it has affected vegetation and fauna without knowing how it complies with environmental mitigation measures. It was also investigated for destroying without authorization a cenote, which are sacred bodies of water for the Mayan culture: the investigation of the case resulted in a fine and without being remitted the file for a criminal investigation. Romo, who was one of the best-known businessmen in Mexico, left Enerall, before joining the team of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at the end of 2018, but the ownership of the company remains in the hands of his family
Tizimín, Yucatán.- Environmental damage in the Yucatan Peninsula led the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) to investigate in April 2018 a mega project of biotechnology founded by Alfonso Romo Garza, current chief of staff of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The inspectors found a cenote of 5,500 square meters that was covered with dirt, rocks, and de-stemming and turned into only mud. Despite these findings, Profepa did not refer the case to the Public Prosecutor to investigate whether the events had configured an environmental crime.
The person responsible for the events is called Enerall, a company based on the most important freshwater reserve in the country. It was founded in 2007 and a decade later, through a scheme of accumulation of territory with which it gathered almost 15 thousand hectares, it became the largest underground water operator for agricultural use in the Yucatan Peninsula and the third in the entire country .
For the expansion of its operations, the company intervened areas of the Mayan jungle and compromised the habitat and fauna settled in those areas. In the Environmental Impact Manifestations (MIA) that were approved, Enerall contemplates the execution of 11 measures to mitigate environmental damage. It is currently unknown how they were implemented and the results. Profepa has not carried out audits to verify compliance with these provisions and Conagua has not carried out evaluations to analyze the quality of water on the company’s premises. The cenote, in fact, was covered despite the fact that in the MIA EnerallHe had agreed to preserve these bodies of water and that he was not allowed to intervene, which was destroyed, according to Profepa’s investigation, which closed the file with the application of a fine and a temporary closure of the ranch where the damaged reservoir was located.
This is revealed by an investigation that was developed in alliance with the Latin American journalism platform CONNECTAS, Aristegui News, Process, Noise on the Web, Univision, Vice in Spanish and the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). The work involved the formulation of more than 1,500 requests for information through the Transparency Law, obtaining more than 1,000 documents of the company and its operations, as well as the analysis of more than 147 thousand data from the Public Registry of Rights of the Water (REPDA) of the National Water Commission (Conagua).
The data obtained show how the rapid expansion turned Romo Garza, through Enerall, into a water chief in Mayan territory. The company needs large quantities of the liquid to fulfill the vision of its founder to make fertile soils unproductive because they are stony. The objective is to accelerate the cycle of nature for two centuries, as Romo, a 69-year-old agronomist, explained.
“If you go from Cancun by car to Merida, there is nothing. Well, but this whole area is seated in water. We did? They will see it. Using cutting-edge, Mexican, microorganism technology, we are turning unproductive soils into productive ones. What nature does in 200 years, we are doing it in a year, ”he told a group of entrepreneurs in March 2017 during a Forbes magazine forum.
This has not been the only project of applied genetic technologies in which the chief of staff has been involved. Romo was the principal investor of Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to synthetic biology led by Craig Venter, the scientist who completed the human genome map. In addition, years ago, he founded Séminis, a company that was acquired by Monsanto, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of transgenic seeds.
The technology used to achieve the objectives in Yucatan is based, among its
fundamental components, on the use of a system that extracts water from the subsoil
to irrigate the land 270 days a year through 60 wells and 30 pivots, each of
which It remains active for 7 hours a day, according to a
the description sent by the company to Profepa and the Conagua files.
Enerall’s internal information contained in Profepa’s file also
indicates that it can produce 12,000 tons of bulk in an area of only
1,800 hectares in the autumn-winter cycle. In a press release published in
November 2017 by Cargill, a US multinational with which Enerall
has a commercial alliance, it was pointed out that the production of the company founded by Romo would be the main source for feeding a
grain storage plant inaugurated then with 50,000 tons of capacity and projected to reach 130,000 in the future. The detail of how much
Enerall’s productivity was, however, was not clarified in the statement.
The water of the Yucatan Peninsula aquifer, which Enerall has managed to serve like no other individual, is key to the area. Although the aquifer still has massive resources, in the last decade it has seen its average annual availability plummet by almost 50 percent. The fact has coincided, among other factors, with the jump in the granting of permits to exploit the aquifer in the last 10 years, as evidenced by Conagua’s own data.
The decline in water availability has caused discomfort among
Mayan producers, who as of 2016, according to Conagua, suffer historical records of extreme drought: they agree that their pozos are dry or level down because of those who water without stopping.
Cenotes, similar to large wells, feed on water through the
underground connections that extend through the region. They represent the onlysource of supply and were considered sacred by the Mayan ancestors.
Tizimín is the town that gathers the largest amount of cenotes in the country, with 369 of 3,001, and it was there that Enerall was accused of damaging one in Rancho Asideros.
When the legal battle with Profepa took place to hit the cenote, in April 2018, Romo Garza led the Plenus Group of which Enerall is a subsidiary and, at the same time, was coordinator of the López Obrador presidential campaign, by then The favorite in the polls. He was also in charge of the team that drafted the economic bases of the Nation Project of the current government, and which includes works in the Mexican southeast, such as the construction of the Mayan Train, which will have a station just 50 kilometers from Enerall, and from which the bases of the first tender have already been launched.
Romo left Grupo Plenus in November 2018, according to his estate statement, to become the Head of the Office of the Presidency. The Public Registry of Property of the Ministry of Economy reports that one of the active partners of the company is Gustavo Romo Garza, brother of the head of the Cabinet. However, being a declarative and non-constitutive system, the company could have more movements, although they are not yet reflected.
Alfonso Romo Garza has a long history as a businessman, but he also knew how to relate to power. He maintained a close relationship with former presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Vicente Fox. However, with López Obrador, he launched as a public official. His history in Yucatan represented no reason for the current Mexican president to take him away from his post.
López Obrador proposed in his government plan to raise awareness about the rational use of water and in speeches he insisted that he will be adamant in punishing environmental crimes: “He who damages the environment is punished.”
The power of Romo Garza as López Obrador’s right hand was affirmed last year, after winning his first political round against former Secretary of the Treasury, Carlos Urzúa, who resigned from the cabinet on July 9, 2019.
Urzúa accused him of having a potential conflict of interest for trying to infiltrate economic secretariats with officials related to his business interests, which Romo denied. That morning, while the Mexicans heard the news, Romo was meeting with the governor of Yucatan, Mauricio Vila Dosal, talking about new investments in that state.
On January 29, 2020, he was also appointed coordinator of the Cabinet for
Development, Investments and Economic Growth in the context of the
T-MEC Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States, and Canada.
At the close of the edition, neither the head of the Office of the President, Alfonso Romo, nor the legal representative of Enerall, Katia Aguiar, answered the questionnaires and interview requests that were provided in advance. The private secretary of the chief of staff, Regina Sada, received questions about the case and requests by telephone. In turn, there was direct contact with lawyer Aguiar, who responded in a personal capacity via email that inferred from the questions presented “outdated and inaccurate information”. At first, he pointed out that the initial deadline offered to answer was not enough to fulfill the internal processes to give an answer. At the end of the extension granted, he just stated that he would begin to carry out the management without offering precision on dates.
Written questions were also sent to the President of the
Republic, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but were not answered even though they were personally channeled through his press officer, Jesús Ramírez. In the same way, nor the secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Victor Toledo, nor the secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development, Victor Villalobos, answered queries submitted.
Water and expansion
Romo did not choose the Mayan paradise by chance but because of the characteristics of the area that represented for him a diamond in the rough. Walking in Tizimín is like doing it on a gigantic gruyere cheese. The soil has thousands of ducts that allow rain to quickly penetrate the subsoil and underground aquifers to recharge. This feature is common in the region and this means that two-thirds of the country’s renewable water is protected under the soil of the Yucatan Peninsula, according to the Water Atlas in Mexico published in 2018 by Conagua.
Enerall volume that can explode in a year could be packaged in 8,400
million two-liter bottles, and would also be enough to fill nearly 17
times the Estadio Azteca, the second largest in Latin America. There are 16.81 million cubic meters every 12 months and 168 million insured for a
decade, according to data analyzed from the period 2012 to 2019 that were obtained from the REPDA system of the Conagua and contrasted with the public versions of the records of the Conagua titles obtained via the Transparency Law.
This amount places Enerall not only as the largest underground water operator for agricultural use in Yucatan but as the third in a list of the
10 largest beneficiaries of that type of supply in the country. This conclusion was reached after identifying a dozen companies that, according to REDPA, have the permits to use the largest amount of groundwater for agricultural purposes and to conduct a search to find additional properties linked to their social reasons .
Despite the importance of Enerall as a concessionaire, Conagua has never
conducted any evaluation on the quality of water in the company’s wells.
The agency has conducted 755 analyzes in Tizimín without specifying the period, but none to Enerall, a company that has been visited only three times but for exclusively administrative reasons.
Enerall is the beneficiary of 23 titles for the exploitation of water that were granted between 2012 and 2018. At least 14 of them are in his name and the other 9 were ceded to him by third parties through the purchase of land. All this water was obtained free of charge through the National Water Law that does not issue charges when it goes to agriculture.
If the accumulation of water concessions allowed him to give Enerall a
gigantic leap, the purchase of land was no different. Over a decade, through the subsidiaries Enerall SAPI, Enerall Terra 1 and Enerall Terra 2, acquired 47 properties to install their megaproject there. He bought around 15,000 hectares for more than 255 million pesos (around 13 million dollars) in movements registered between 2011 and 2018, according to the deeds obtained from the Public Property Registry of Yucatán.
At least 41 of these properties are mortgaged as collateral for
loans requested for the purchase of more land, machinery and
soil improvement. Six of these were mortgaged with Agronegocios Laad, an organization that grants loans to agribusiness companies that sell their products in international markets. According to the latest documents of the Public Registry of Property settled in 2017, Alfonso Romo appears as a mortgage guarantor of this financing in an operation of 37 million pesos (2 million dollars), a situation that he did not publish in his declaration of assets and interests before the Ministry of Public Administration. Asked about it, Laad said that, by To be a financial entity regulated by the Law on Protection of Personal Data, they should keep confidentiality about Enerall.
Another 26 properties were mortgaged for 444 million pesos (almost 24 million dollars) with Cargill, which among its multiple businesses buys crops in Latin America and then sells them abroad. In the press release in
which it announced the inauguration of the bulk plant in 2017, the
US multinational said that Enerall rehabilitates with its own technology lands that have been used for livestock and extensive agriculture. In the text they also cite a speech by Romo in which he affirms that the plant will have a transformative effect for local producers.
Asked about the mortgaged properties, Cargill did not provide information:
“Our policies do not allow us to deepen specifications that require
prior approval of our counterparts in the contracts”. However, the
multinational sent the answers to a questionnaire that was sent in which
clarified other aspects of its relationship with the company founded by Romo. The text states that Cargill has no equity or investment relationship with Enerall, although it did provide financing to build a grain storage plant, which is operated by the US multinational. It also maintains
a marketing agreement for bulk produced by Enerall.
On the case of the destroyed cenote, Cargill said the following: “We trust the
Mexican authorities that attend to the matter. What we do want to reiterate is that in Cargill we work with strict adherence to the laws of the countries where we have a presence (…) In Cargill we work to protect the planet and we know that companies play an important role in advancing the
Sustainable Development Goals that aim to address climate change through sustainable forest management, combating desertification and land degradation, and stop the loss of biodiversity ”. In that line they indicated that they are taking measures to “manage our water resources efficiently, conserving water, improving quality and ensuring access to clean water in the communities where we operate”. One of the key measures they point out is to minimize the use of water in agriculture, particularly in areas where there is a shortage of liquid.
Called dzonoot in Mayan, whose meaning is “hole with water”, the cenotes
are central to the flora, fauna and the inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Therefore, the covered cenote is for the Tizimín Indians, the tip of the iceberg of the environmental effects caused by the expansion of the company.
No individual had filled a cenote in Yucatan since 2000, according
to Profepa’s inquiries, until April 11, 2018, the administrative file PFPA / 37.3 / 2C.27.5 / 00018-18 was opened against Enerall for that reason, according to the case documents obtained via the Transparency Law. “Through the use of heavy machinery, stones, earth and vegetation remains have been arranged with the in order to fill it out ”, indicates the minutes with which the process began.
The remains of vegetation came from the destruction of the “wooded curtain” that surrounded the cenote, as concluded in the inspection. After that it is indicated that stones were deposited. A photograph published by the Diario de Yucatán, not integrated in the file, shows a cargo truck allegedly Enerall throwing the remains.
After the fact, on April 19, 2018, Profepa informed in a statement that they
closed the “Asideros Ranch” on a “temporary total” basis. They stated that they violated the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA) and Article 420 Bis of the Federal Criminal Code.
Enerall’s lawyers alleged that the inspection was illegal, that the affected area was not a cenote, and that the closure would affect the economy of Tizima. On April 23, Profepa lifted the closure to the ranch with an area of more than 3,549.6 hectares. Only the closure was imposed on the cenote.
In order to verify the damages, Profepa requested in May 2018 the
technical opinions of the then Ministry of Sustainable and Environmental Development of Yucatán (Seduma) now Secretary of Sustainable Development (SDS), the Department of Tropical Ecology of the Autonomous University of Yucatán (UADY ) and of the Water Sciences Unit of the Center for Scientific Research of Yucatán (CICY).
Contrary to the sayings of the lawyers of Enerall, the CICY and the UADY concluded that it was a cenote of vertical walls 12 meters deep. In the
same way, it was found that 2014 had to characteristics of these bodies of
water, according to satellite shots.
The Department of Management of Karst Systems of the former Seduma not only ruled that there was damage to the cenote, but deforestation of tree species such as chaká, jabín, yaxché, koopó and tsalam, as well as contamination of water by fertilizers and pesticides “The cenote receives runoff caused by irrigation, which results in the deposition of chemical substances used in crops.”
To this is added the “evidence of extermination” of yellow box turtles (
Mexican terrapene ), endemic to Yucatán, subject to special protection due to the vulnerability of their populations, as well as mojina turtles (rhinoclemmys areolata), in the category of threatened, according to the Official Mexican Standard of the Semarnat.
“They perished because of this deposit,” says the technical opinion.
On August 27, 2018, Profepa resolved that Enerall Terra 2 SAPI had
infringed Article 28 of the LGEEPA “for carrying out the affectation, filling and modification to the national water body by direct disposal of stone,
earth and tree residues, without crediting have authorization in
environmental impact matters ”.
At the state level, Seduma documented that, during the inspection visit they
confirmed that there were “effects on the cenote that violate the Regulation of the Environmental Protection Law of the State of Yucatan in Matters of Cenotes, Caves and Grottos”. Serious violations of articles 5, 8, 12 and 37 were identified, which warrant sanctions such as a fine and a temporary or definitive closure of the work or activity, however, the legal area of the now SDS clarified that “the personnel who were in the previous administration that attended to him, only made the technical visit, the recommendation was delivered and Profepa assumed all the control because it is correspondence of federal order ”. Profepa said he didn’t use technical opinion “Because it was after the visit minutes were drawn up.”
The Profepa fined Enerall 741 thousand pesos (30 thousand 275 dollars) without referring the case to the former Attorney General of the Republic (now Attorney General of the Republic) although, according to the lawyer Raziel Villegas, the elements of the Profepa and Seduma’s technical opinion documents violations of the general laws of Wildlife, National Waters and Sustainable Forest Development. Villegas was an official of Profepa and Semarnat and today heads the GEOLEGIS firm , specialized in environmental law and influencing the Yucatan Peninsula .
Confirmation that the institution did not resort to criminal proceedings, to
investigate whether there were crimes in the case beyond administrative offenses, was given by the Legal Subprocurator and the Delegation of Profepa in Yucatán before a request for information resolved in December of 2019: “No record was found regarding the filing of a criminal complaint.”
Although it does not have any relation between what an official statement dictates and the actions of Profepa, the institution responded to the questionnaire that they did not act criminally because in the press release they published in April 2018 an article was cited that “does not refer to the criminal conduct that regulates the cenotes (…) so that if the complaint is filed it would not prosper ”.
For Villegas, this argument does not exempt the institution from its obligation based on article 222 of the National Code of Criminal Procedures, which states that “Whoever in the exercise of public functions has knowledge of the probable existence of a fact that the law indicates as crime, is obliged to report it immediately to the Public Prosecutor ”, refers the article. “To denounce the facts. The authority is not that you want or can choose, you must report ”, explains the lawyer.
Already rid of the criminal round, Enerall requested to commute the fine , through its accession to the National Environmental Audit Program (PNAA), to improve production processes, environmental performance and competitiveness. For this, he had to present an investment project that provided environmental care equivalent to the amount of the fine.
Enerall requested on October 4, 2018 the instructions to register for the PNAA as part of the commutation. The company then presented on November 15 of that year the project “Incorporation of the Asideros 2 and
Global Assiders of the Enerall Terra 2 SAPI DE CV.
The Environmental Office considered it “viable” in a trade: “This subdelegation of inspection of Natural Resources in the State of Yucatan, has a favorable opinion for the implementation of this incorporation, as long as the proposed in the office is fulfilled” .
Profepa, however, later affirmed before a request for information presented in November 2019 that “said project has not been nor was it incorporated”. In a questionnaire sent to him on the subject 12 days ago, he also replied that “the company did not request to enter the PNAA”, without verifying their statements with any document at the end of the edition.
The audits that were to be carried out in the PNAA are the measurement and recording of the water volumes of the extraction wells; as well as analysis of hazardous waste in soils; investment to minimize environmental risks from diesel use ; and the development of the sustainable monitoring and technification program. With the exception of the water audit with a duration of two years, the rest should be completed between 6 months and one year. However, the proposal did not detail the start dates of each of these activities.
Villegas states that the plan presented by Enerall had flaws: “
The project was poorly prepared, as it does not contain a scheduled program and is ambiguous.” He even criticizes that he has even been given a favorable technical opinion to the proposal: “It was legally inadmissible to grant the viable technical opinion of that commutation when, one, no environmental benefit was offered, and two, Article 173 of the LGEEPA conditions it in addition to not having been in the assumptions of article 170 of the LGEEPA, that is, that it had not been subject to the
closure, and it was. ”
According to Villegas, Profepa was obliged to impose, as a
corrective measure , the restoration of the cenote to its original state. The natural recovery, according to the file, will take an average of 5 to 20 years for the water mirror to be reconnected with the water table, provided there is “constant monitoring and environmental control.” In addition, to request a repair or compensation for the damage, the authority also had the route of the Federal Environmental Responsibility Law.
On the fine, Profepa made a precision when responding to a request for information in December 2019: “There is no document that indicates that the Enerall company has made the payment to the collection authority.” TheInstitution was consulted again on the subject with the questionnaire 12 days ago . He then responded that “payment was made” without comparing his sayings with any document at the close of the edition, as requested.
By January 30, 2019, when Romo was already Head of the Office of the
Presidency of Mexico, another file was opened: “Enerall is doing
illegal work . It covered a large gouache (cenote) that had plenty of water, many trees and was the place where many wild boars and deer from the area arrived that forced us to kill because the irrigation pivots would pass through there, ”said PFPA / 37.7. /2C.28.2/0023-19, obtained via Transparency.
In the photographs, there is jungle deforested by tractors, deer hunted and an alleged cenote filled. “The Rancho Asideros we have closed for covering a cenote, but there are more that were covered,” says the complaint that Enerall accuses as the alleged responsible.
Despite the detailed complaint, Profepa closed the case for not finding evidence: “No involvement was detected in the national water body, in such virtue the closure of this matter was ordered ,” says the resolution.
The file contrasts with the testimonies of workers and former workers of
Enerall. “The one who stayed, stayed,” said one of the operators
interviewed during the field investigation, who said he participated covering the cenote, referring to the animals that were crushing, and who adds that, during the clearings, up to 90 tractor men gathered.
Some of these damages were already warned by the MIA if the
preventive measures were not fulfilled, since “the preparation of the site and operation of the project” would cause fragmentation and reduction of habitat, as well as damage to wildlife, noise generation, emissions to the atmosphere, impact on water quality, soil waterproofing and loss of vegetation cover ”. To avoid the above, 11 preventive measures and criteria regarding conservation, protection and exploitation were established.
However, there is no record of Enerall’s evidence before Profepa on the
measures, according to a response from the institution of November 2019, in which it states: “There is no evidence on the evidence in documents,
photographs and / or videos that Enerall SAPI de CV, Enerall Terra 1
SAPI de CV, Enerall Terra 2 SAPI de CV and Asideros 3 S. de RL de CV
have delivered and / or sent in to verify that they have complied
with the measures in a timely manner of protection provided for in criteria and recommendations established for conservation, protection and exploitation policies of their MIAs ”.
Romo spoke of Enerall as a company that with “state-of-the-art technology could help improve the living standards of the inhabitants. “Speaking of innovation, I want to show you what technology can do to change the lives of thousands of farmers,” he said in 2017 during the conference organized by Forbes.
But that vision, detailed in its Enerall code of ethics detailed in its
digital portal , is nothing like reality, according to residents consulted
in 20 indigenous communities. Most said it complements their income
with extended work hours or other jobs. In addition, they feed thanks
to the small plots where they produce corn and beans, as well as honey in
During the tours, problems were found that survive as
endemic diseases in Yucatan: infrastructure failures, lack of drainage, lack of drinking water, shortage of stores, lack of health clinics and
schools. The above is visible because in Tizimín 60% of the population lives
in poverty, according to the latest measurement of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), carried out in 2015.
According to former workers, despite long hours that reached up to
12 hours, their payments were equivalent to 1,100 pesos a fortnight ($ 57)
between 2009 and 2014, according to pay stubs. To get more money, they
worked overtime and worked at night to earn a bonus that, in total,
gave them a salary of 3,500 pesos ($ 180) a fortnight.
The same goes for other employees or former employees of Enerall interviewed, who claim that despite having worked a decade for the company and having other positions, their salary increased very little. They assure that they did not have social insurance, nor vacation premium or other benefits. Until 2018, Enerall had about 500 employees, according to
Profepa file trades , which come mainly from Sucopo and Cabichen, two communities adjacent to the company. But the residents consulted report that in recent months they have made mass layoffs due to the implementation of machines that have replaced their work.
The number of employees and employer contributions of the
company is currently unknown, according to a request made to the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), an institution that reserved the information, and in an appeal made, the ruling remained in its favor.
These conditions add to the treatment reported by the employees: during
the day the bosses did not authorize shadow breaks, drink water, or receive
A harvest engineer from Enerall remembers that he could never approach Romo , because when he visited the company he arrived by helicopter and his security team surrounded him. Now he regularly watches him on television who for a decade was his “boss” and who is now head of the Presidency office. He sometimes hears it when he talks about the plans for investments and the development of the country.
Just in January of this year, Romo Garza was appointed the coordinator of
the Economic Growth Cabinet, a position that did not exist, but will now have coordination with the secretariats of State to generate jobs, bring peace and combat the poverty of Mexicans.
As an entrepreneur, he was able to sculpt a figure of a social entrepreneur, of a technological visionary, but now an image of a chief of water has emerged that has barely touched the environmental damage investigations.
The Mazatlan Post