Mexico has ordered closed a massive construction project in Cancun that would have created the largest venue for selling Chinese goods in the Americas.
In the works since 2013 but opposed by environmentalists and others, the $200 million Dragon Mart mega-mall would have covered nearly 1,400 acres and housed 3,040 exhibition spaces for more than 1,000 vendors, most of them Chinese.
After a long legal battle, however, Mexico's federal environmental protection agency said the project had done serious harm to the Cancun area's sensitive beaches and seaside flora.
"We can determine with all clarity that the activities the developers were conducting have deteriorated, impacted and damaged conditions of ecological balance, forest ecosystem and biodiversity of the zone," Guillermo Haro, federal prosecutor for environmental protection, said Tuesday at a news conference.
He said about 370 acres had been badly damaged just south of Cancun, one of Mexico's top tourist destinations.
In addition to ordering the project shut down, the environmental agency is fining Dragon Mart the equivalent of about $1.5 million. Haro called the penalty "historic" and said the Dragon Mart owners could also face a criminal prosecution, with sentences of up to nine years.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2013, Dragon Mart's executive director Juan Carlos Lopez compared the planned retail center to a giant, permanent "trade show in Vegas."
On Wednesday, Lopez told the Times that he considered the shutdown temporary and that his company will continue to fight the decision in court. Dragon Mart was being financed by a consortium of Mexican developers and a Dutch-registered firm run by a Chinese businessman.
The city government of Cancun originally denied Dragon Mart a building permit, but the developers obtained relief through the courts and by appealing to state and federal governments more sympathetic to the project and keen on growing trade with China.
In the current judgment, however, federal authorities acknowledged they erred earlier and reversed themselves.
Environmentalists welcomed the decision. The Mexican Environmental Law Center said the move set an important precedent by requiring builders to get permits and respect environmental impact, steps developers in Mexico routinely skirt.
"Development projects are very necessary in our country to promote growth and job creation," the center's representative in the Cancun area, Alejandra Serrano Pavon, said in a statement. But "development must come with a vision of sustainability."