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Mexico paving new future
At Devil's Backbone
By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
PALMITO, Mexico —
Mexican legend says when the Archangel Michael threw Satan out of Heaven, his broken spine formed a jagged ridge that winds across Mexico's Sierra Madre: the Devil's Backbone.
The mountainous terrain that surrounds this serpentine road has another story: one of bloodshed and poverty.
Farms in the thickly forested area here are a major source of marijuana and opium cultivation and the cartels that control the drug trade use gruesome violence to settle scores. The people who live here have few choices for work given that no highways and the commerce they bring have penetrated the Sierra Madre.
But the Devil's Backbone is undergoing surgery. The Mexican government has launched a massive road construction project to straighten and modernize the road, an engineering feat that will require 63 tunnels and 32 bridges, including the world's second-highest road bridge.
The new highway will provide easy access to and from the Pacific Coast, its ports and tourist destinations, cutting the drive time from 8 hours to 2½ hours. Mexican authorities say the faster ride will open up industrial cities to the region, maybe even persuade carmakers and other companies that pay good wages to supplant the drug trade.
"The more jobs we can bring to these areas, the more we'll reduce crime — I'm a true believer in that," said Nicolás Velíz, a tunneling supervisor.
Velíz and others hope the new road will also make it easier for police to access the lawless mountains and establish order, rebutting claims that the road will become a drug superhighway.
"I think it's going to bring more security," says Ernesto Gómez Chacón, the town administrator in nearby Pueblo Nuevo.
Completion set for 2012
The old Devil's Backbone road is the only crossing through the Western Sierra Madre mountains for 500 miles and it runs through some of the most remote parts of Sinaloa and Durango states.
When the three-year project is done in 2012 it will create a 45-mile stretch of modern road between the Pacific Coast city of Mazatlan and the interior city of Durango.
About 11 miles will be underground and its total 95 bridges and tunnels dwarfs the seven tunnels stretching 4½ miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, known as America's "Tunnel Highway."
"This is going to be a marvel, something really world class," said construction manager Miguel Angel Ramírez, as he stood at the edge of the 1,280-foot-high Baluarte Gorge, which lies along the route.
Later this year crews will start on a span across the gorge, creating a bridge so high that the Empire State Building could fit under it.
The first road along the Devil's Backbone opened in the 1940s.
The terrain was so rugged that construction crews had to bring in supplies by mule train.
"Now we're trying to do in three years what it took them 15 years to do," said Ernesto González, a construction supervisor on the new road.
Construction of the Mazatlan-Durango highway began in 2005, but work on the toughest stretch through the Sierra Madre began only last year.
Most of the tunnels are already being dug, including the 1.6-mile Sinaloense Tunnel, the longest on the route. Workers are also excavating a tunnel parallel to the Sinaloense to be used as an escape route in case of emergencies.
The most challenging part of the highway is the Baluarte Bridge on the border of Sinaloa and Durango states, González said. With its roadway 1,280 feet above the Baluarte River, it will be the world's second-highest highway bridge after the 1,550-foot-high Sidhue River Bridge in China, according to HighestBridges.com, which ranks such structures.