MEXICO CITY -- Mexico broke ground Thursday on a project to supplement the capital's overtaxed international airport, finally making headway on a controversial alternative to another, equally controversial one that was scrapped last year after being about a third built.
Bulldozers cleared earth at the site of the Santa Lucia air base north of Mexico City, and a backhoe scooped the soil into the backs of military-green trucks as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, top government officials and armed forces brass looked on.
A video showed a rendering of the envisioned facility, which involves converting Santa Lucia for civilian use and building two additional landing strips and which the president vowed to inaugurate in spring 2022.
The project "must be considered a work of national security," the president said in remarks at the groundbreaking, saying there would be "complete transparency."
López Obrador campaigned for president last year on promises to cancel the planned new mega-airport at Texcoco, closer to central Mexico City, and work on that project halted as he took office in December.
López Obrador instead pushed what he called Thursday a "metropolitan airport system" that involves constructing the new airport named after Felipe Angeles, a Mexican general who served with Pancho Villa and was executed during the Mexican Revolution; preserving the current Benito Juarez International airport instead of decommissioning it as called for by the Texcoco plan; and expanding the airport in Toluca west of the capital.
Benito Juarez International, plagued by overcrowded terminals and delays, is surrounded by urban development with no room for runway expansion. Under his plan, López Obrador said, there will be seven runways serving the metropolitan area: the two existing ones at Benito Juarez, three at Felipe Angeles and two at Toluca, compared with six under the Texcoco plan.
"We are going to solve the problem for the long term," López Obrador said, "for 80 years going forward according to the specialists."
The president has been criticized by some for canceling Texcoco, whose partially built crisscross foundations can be seen by passengers landing at and taking off from Benito Juarez. And local groups argue that Santa Lucia has environmental risks and was pushed through without consulting indigenous people.
"We still have time to protect the rights, traditions, way of life ... of those peoples upon whom this country was built," José Antonio Lara Duque, president of the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Center, said in a statement.
"Otherwise you condemn us to the destruction our relationship with Mother Earth and that is what has other people destroying the planet," Lara Duque added. "Let us not do that, Mr. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador."
The groundbreaking took place a day after a court cleared the last of over 100 appeals that had delayed the onset of the project - something the president likened to "legal sabotage."
The opposition Democratic Revolution Party accused López Obrador of bending the judiciary to his political will and called Thursday's ceremony "one more populist act" by the president.
López Obrador has argued that the Texcoco project, begun under the administration of his predecessor, was susceptible to corruption. He also called the option unsuitable for its location atop a sinking lakebed prone to soil subsidence.
"This decision was better because this is better soil for construction where we are," López Obrador said. "Over there (Texcoco) it's a lake, there is no solid ground. Just 30, 40, 50 meters below the surface it's a lake, it's mud, it's an area of constant sinking."
Known for both a personal ascetic lifestyle and imposing austerity on government agencies as president, López Obrador also criticized the scope of the Texcoco project and said the Santa Lucia option will save $6.2 billion by comparison.
"We cannot be doing pharaonic projects," he said, "when there are so many needs in our country."
This story has been corrected to reflect that the Texcoco airport would have had six runways when fully built out.