A region in Mexico best known for violent conflict over the illicit drug trade is set to become host to one of the country’s greatest engineering projects.
The 230-kilometre Durango-Mazatlan Highway, scheduled for completion this August, will traverse the treacherous Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and boast a total of 115 bridges and 61 tunnels.
It will also play host to the Baluarte Bridge, which was completed at the start of 2012 and stands as the world's highest cable-stayed bridge and the second-highest bridge overall.
The epic US$2.2 billion engineering project is expected to radically transform northern Mexico by linking the port cities on the Gulf of Mexico with those on the Pacific coast, reducing travel time between the two regions to a mere 12 hours.
The highway will also more than halve the driving time between Durango and Mazatlan from six hours at present to just two and a half hours by dispensing with the need to negotiate the existing route's hairpin turns or traverse the perilous Devil's Backbone - a harrowing stretch of road situated on top of a narrow mountain ridge.
The Sierra Madre Occidental is home to some of the most hazardous roads in Mexico, which are a frequent source of fatal accidents. A bus carrying a group of tourists traveling of Mazatlan fell of the edge of a mountain road a year ago, leaving a dozen people dead and 22 people injured.
Government planners expect the new highway to eventually become a key conduit for transportation and commerce, playing host to 5 million vehicles per annum and more than quadrupling the number of vehicles which traversed the old road.
Officials from the state of Sinaloa, which has become synonymous with Mexico's bloody drug wars in recent years, also hope that the new highway will provide a pivotal boost to the violence-wracked area's tourism industry and reduce the dependence of local residents on the trade in illegal narcotics.
"It will change the landscape of this part of the country," said Sinaloa state tourism secretary Francisco Cordova. "It is an opportunity to develop these areas and diversify the local economy."
The regions through which the highway passes are among the worst affected by Mexico's drug wars since the turn of the century. From December 2006 until September 2011, Sinaloa and Durango, situated on either side of the Baluarte Bridge, were close to the top of the list of Mexican states with the highest number of drug-related homicides.