Coca-Cola is bad for you. It should be written on it, as one does on cigarettes, but we are far from such a possibility. Those who drink too much of it get sick . As in Chiapas: half a century has passed since Mexico’s ‘sad face of America’ by Paolo Conte and Enzo Jannacci. Things, for at least for the 5 million people who live in the south, in Chiapas, have changed little: for almost 30 years the guerrilla warfare of the Zapatista Movement has been bloodying the forests and the vestiges of the Maya, unemployment and misery know no respite, and if today that people has become the world’s largest consumer of sugary and bubblydrinks, that is anything but a reason to rejoice.
To enter the highlands of Chiapas is to enter a world of vibrant indigenous culture, ineffable natural beauty, rage and crushing poverty. But it also means entering the territory of one of the most powerful multinationals in the world. Ten kilometers from the capital of San Cristobal de las Casas, population 186,000, a place of rituals, candles, chickens, shamans and ancient beliefs, there is an area known for its constant downpours and abundant springs of drinking water, which attracted Coca-Cola.And, you can see it right away, because advertising signs are everywhere, and when they fall into disuse, they become material for building shacks. Sold in every shop (even pharmacies) and in vending machines. The red trucks with the curly, white logo are a familiar sight even in the farthest towns and villages, on the winding, fog-shrouded mountain roads that connect them. By now, no christening, wedding or patron saint’s party is complete without Coca-Cola for the guests.
According to Jaime Page Pliego, the author of a 2019 study by the Multidisciplinary Research Centre of Chiapas (Cimsur), people there drink an average of 821.25 litres of coca-cola per person per year: almost 16 litres per week or 2.2 litres per day of what Deputy Minister of Health Hugo Lòpez-Gatell recently called ‘poison in a bottle’, the effects of which, with the pandemic, have increased tenfold, due to the high occurrence of chronic food-related diseases.
Cimsur noted that the rate of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in Chiapas is more than five times the national rate of 150 litres per person per year – which is already a worrying figure: US residents drink an average of 100 litres of soft drinks per year, while the world average is 25 litres. The National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition (INSM) describes the region as ‘the epicentre’ of Mexico’s ‘soft drink epidemic’, because Coca-Cola’sstrategy is winning: it is cheaper in remote rural areas, where a returnable glass bottle is little more expensive than bottled water. The Atlanta-based multinational signed a contract with the Mexican government with a commitment to improve the region’s water distribution network, in exchange for permission to use water from Mexican wells.
Annual consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the world
The company has bought up the sources of drinking water, which has almost disappeared from local markets, and replaced it with its own products, which are sold at very low prices. The result is a physical and psychological addiction of the population to fizzy drinks with one of the highest diabetes death rates in the world. INSM likens Coca Cola’s strategy to that of drug gangs, which penetrate deep into communities through networks of small dealers, driven by the need to feed their addiction.
According to the Institute, addiction starts earlier and earlier. A recent study in an indigenous community found that 15 per cent of one- to two-year-olds regularly drink soft drinks, as do 3 per cent of infants under the age of six months, when they should only be drinking breast milk. Associations such as El Poder del Consumidor and INSM fought for a soda tax in Mexico. They got it, against all odds, in January 2014. Although the tax is lower than advocates recommend, it is equivalent to 10% of the cost of the drink, or about 1 peso per litre. But the number of outlets is huge, there is no control, and due to competition, prices are reduced by up to 30%, effectively eliminating the federal tax. Following the example of Mexico, US cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco have adopted similar measures. However, soft drink companies are not backing down, introducing new marketing campaigns to cope with the tax and influence public opinion.
The situation in the towns
The welcome poster in Tenejapa, the land of Coca-Cola
In the south-east, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque mountain town, drinking water is increasingly scarce. Some neighborhoods have running water only a few times a week and many families are forced to buy it from tanker trucks: an average of 1500 litres of bottled water per year. Urban growth has gradually devoured the agricultural land in the suburb of San Felipe. Fewer and fewer people cultivate maize, beans and squash on plots of land handed down through generations, drinking pozol, a drink made from fermented maize paste. It used to be the main way farmers replenished their energy during the long days in the fields. Now it is customary for residents to drink two or three litres of Coca-Cola during the break from work in the fields. An hour away from San Cristóbal is the village of San Andrés Larráinzar, where Coca-Cola is considered liquid gold.
San Cristóbal has grown significantly since the 1970s, without urban planning, much of it the fault of politicians, who despise the local ethnic group. As the valley floor fills up with houses, new neighbourhoods slowly climb the surrounding hills. This happens at the same time as evangelical churches make inroads into the area, pressing the indigenous communities to stop drinking alcohol. This combination leads religious leaders to replace the local firewater, called pox, long used to feed the spirits in rituals, with Coca-Cola. The heavenly seal of approval not only contributes to the belief that Coca-Cola has the power to heal, but also fuels the belief in making it a symbol of social status and hospitality.
Paradoxically, Chiapas has the most generous water resources in Mexico, but residents have to walk up to two hours a day to access clean water. Drinking Coca-Cola is easier, just as cheap, produced by a local bottling plant that uses over one million litres of water every day (it takes 3 litres of water to make one litre of Coca Cola). The consumption of refrescos, as non-alcoholic drinks are called, is particularly high in the region of Los Altos, where most residents are indigenous people living mainly in towns and rural villages.
The effect on public health is devastating. Mexico holds the unfortunate record as the country with the most deaths from type 2 diabetes in Latin America. The mortality rate for this disease increased by 30 per cent between 2013 and 2016 and the disease has become the second leading cause of death after heart disease, claiming over 3,000 lives each year. Among the 20 most populous countries in the world, the mortality rate linked to the intake of sugary carbonated drinks is highest in Mexico, in all age groups, followed by the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. Anthropologist Jaime Page Pliegostates that the government has tried to exclude diabetes mortality data from official statistics to avoid looking bad. In addition to diabetes, other problems related to excessive sugar consumption, such as tooth decay, are rampant. Health workers struggle every day to cope with the increasing cases of diabetes, obesity and the chronic water shortage, the only culprit of which is the huge Coca-Cola factory on the edge of the city. Today, three quarters of Mexicans are overweight, compared to one fifth in 1996.
The FEMSA production plant
A demonstration by the inhabitants of San Felipe Ecatepec against the FEMSA factory
People’s anger boils over. In April 2017, masked protesters marched on the factory holding crosses that read ‘Coca-Cola is killing us’, demanding that the government close the plant. “When you see that institutions don’t provide something as basic as water and sanitation, but give water to this company, it’s obvious to be shocked”, says Fermin Reygadas, the director of Cántaro Azul, an organisation that provides clean water to rural communities. And the anger expands: the conflict in trade between Mexico and the United States, combined with the construction of the border wall, has increased antipathy towards Coca-Cola, which has become a symbol of the frustration many Mexicans feel for their neighbours. The beverage factory is located in San Felipe Ecatepec, a village three miles from San Cristobal de las Casas.
The plant is owned by FEMSA, a food and beverage giant that owns the rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America. FEMSA is one of the most powerful companies in the state; a former CEO, Vicente Fox, was president of the country from 2000 to 2006. FEMSA claims to use 56.9 billion litres of water per year for its productions throughout Latin America. In Mexico, the company holds 40 water permits. Civil society associations published a Report on violations of the human right to drinking water and sanitation in Mexico, in which they denounced Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Danone for taking advantage of Mexico’s water resources without paying fairly.
The report states that the water taxes paid by the companies ‘are ridiculous compared to the profits these companies make from water’. FEMSA pays 2600 pesos (USD 146) for each of its water permits in Mexico. The companies manage to extract the water by drilling deep into the ground. In San Felipe, residents’ water wells are about 25 meters deep while FEMSA’s wells are 130 meters deep.
NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), a duty-free free trade treaty between Mexico, the United States and Canada, has been very beneficial for FEMSA, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars from foreigninvestments. Since its approval, many refined and packaged food products, as well as sugary soft drinks, have started to spread throughout Mexico. But in San Cristóbal, NAFTA is seen as an unwelcome intruder. On New Year’s Eve 1994, the day NAFTA came into force, and the bottling plant was opened, rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation stormed into San Cristóbal, declared war on the Mexican state, and set fire to government buildings. While the Zapatistas were organising in the mountains around San Cristobal, the FEMSA, unconcerned about the claims, started pumping water from Mount Huitepec.
The National Water Commission (Conagua) renewed the permit to FEMSA in 2005. The complacent government helped the organisation to become the world’s largest bottler of Coca-Cola. Although the Zapatista army signed a peace agreement, anti-globalisation sentiment simmers. FEMSA executives claim that the plant has little impact on the city’s water supply because their wells are much deeper than the springs that supply local residents. The company claims to be an important economic force in San Cristóbal, employing about 400 people and contributing about USD 200 million to the tax authorities – money, however, that is paid federally.
The Coca-Cola plant in San Cristobal produces up to 7% of Coca-Cola products sold in Mexico
Further damage is caused at an environmental level. Coca Cola has revealed that it produces 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging per year, equivalent to 200,000 bottles per minute. The packaging footprint, translated into 500 ml Pet plastic bottles, amounts to about 108 billion bottles per year, more than one fifth of the world’s Pet bottle production, which is about 500 billion bottles each year. The company responds to the accusations by saying it ‘adheres to very high ethical standards’ and ‘serves the communities and places in which it operates in an exemplary and excellent manner’. Too bad that Coca Cola’s activities around the world tell, alas, a different sad story.
Laura Mebert, a scientist at Michigan’s Kettering University, says that Coca-Cola pays a disproportionately small amount for its water privileges, “while the infrastructure that serves the residents of San Cristóbal is literally crumbling”. Among the problems the city faces is the lack of sewage treatment. Sewage flows into local waterways without being purified. As a result, the rivers are full of Escherichia coli, a bacterium found in faeces, and other infectious pathogens. Since the Coca-Cola bottles arrived, families in San Felipe Ecatepec are falling ill from drinking contaminated well water. Salmonella has become an endemic problem. A study at the ECOSUR research university found that water in local wetlands has high levels of bacterial pathogens that make it dangerous for consumption.
Coca Cola and indigenous traditions
In Chiapas, sugary drinks may be easier to find than bottled water
San Juan Chamula, a small village about ten kilometers from San Cristobal de las Casas, is known for maintaining the traditions of the indigenous Tzotzil people. Bottled soda has become the protagonist in their religious ceremonies. Inside the whitewashed church, tourists walk cautiously on mats made of pine needles while copal resin incense and the smoke of hundreds of candles fill the air. The main attraction for tourists is watching the worshippers, who pray before the sacrifice of chickens, surrounded by bottles of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Many Tzotzil believe that carbonated soda has the power to heal the sick, excommunicated from Rome and ignored by their government, embarrassed by the deification of Coca-Cola.
For many, the ubiquity of cheap Coca-Cola – and the diabetes that haunts almost every family – only adds to the anger towards the company. The soft drink landed here in the 1960s, just as indigenous leaders began to accumulate power in the religious, social and economic spheres. This included taking control of concessions for the distribution of Coca-Cola and, initially, also Pepsi. In the poorest and most malnourished communities with low incomes, Coca Cola represents a convenient alternative caloric resource.
Local health advocates claim that the aggressive marketing campaigns in the indigenous languages of Coca-Cola and Pepsi that began in those years helped to incorporate sugary soft drinks into local religious practices, which fuse Catholicism with Mayan rituals. “Coca-Cola is sweet, so the spirits will appreciate it, and it also has some healing properties,” explains a traditional healer from El Pinar. Marketing strategists have used huge billboards with smiling models, religious references and slogans written in the indigenous language, as well as the proliferation of outlets, without taking into account the small volume of business. As for diabetes, Coca-Cola suggests that Mexicans have a genetic propensity to diabetes, as if this could be a reason to give them even more high-sugar sodas.
In a territory extremely rich in natural resources, in rainfall (it is the state in Mexico where it rains the most), so much so that it supplies the rest of the country with water, and is one of the largest exporters of tropical fruits, coffee and cocoa in the world, eight out of ten people live in poverty. Yet water is the most serious problem in Chiapas today. The peasants’ wells in HuitepeclosAlcanfores, a few kilometers from San Cristobal are empty, they have dried up completely. The responsibility for this condition lies with the governments, local, state and federal, who seem unwilling to tackle the problem by improving the water network and aqueducts, which are increasingly wearing out.
Coca-Cola becomes so intertwined with local culture that it becomes part of spiritual ceremonies
All this has been possible because Coca-Cola agrees with the higher echelons of politics. The economic interests of multinationals take precedence over the protection of the environment and people’s health. To reduce the consumption of sugary drinks in Chiapas, more needs to be done to educate communities about the risks associated with their consumption, and drinking water needs to be returned to them. Traditional foods and drinks, such as the maize drink pozol, must be promoted more .
Measures are to be taken to reduce the availability of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks on the local market. Mexican soft drink manufacturers have pledged to reduce the calorie content of drinks by a further 20 per cent by 2024, after having already made cuts in recent years. But the truth is that they should sell water if they really want to dominate the local market. Between April and June 2020, 346.5 million cases of Coca Cola were sold in the country, 10.6 million less than in the same quarter of 2019, but the decline can be attributed to restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, not to any awareness on the part of multinationals.
In order to achieve results, exploitation concessions must be cancelled or draconically regulated in order to defend the local population. Without an adequate increase in prices and a drastic reduction in availability, people will continue to consume sugary drinks at high levels and it will be the end for this part of Mexico still dominated by nature and the gods, the corn god Quetzal, and the spirit of the Jaguar. It is said that the pen kills more than the sword. We had not considered the danger of Coca-Cola.
 https://www.webmd.com/diet/drinking-cola-good-for-you ; https://www.coca-colacompany.com/au/faqs/is-coca-cola-bad-for-your-health ; https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297600 ; https://t2conline.com/10-reasons-why-coca-cola-is-bad-for-your-health/
 Neil Harvey, Neil, ‘The Chiapas Rebellion’, Duke University Press, Durham (North Carolina), 1998