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Mexicans hope earthquake will shake-up corrupt system

Jude Webber
People remove debris of a damaged building after a real quake rattled Mexico City on September 19, 2017 while an earthquake drill was being held in the capital.
Alfredo Estralla | AFP | Getty Images

The earthquake that killed 228 people in Mexico City last month has provoked a painful public debate about the role endemic corruption played in the destruction.

Did the Enrique Rébsamen school, where 19 children and seven adults died, collapse because of an apparently unauthorised extension to the owner's apartment perched on the top that city officials failed to stop? Did the six-storey office building where the last quake victim's body was recovered fall down because it was only supposed to have two floors?

Official investigations are under way into these and other alleged irregularities laid bare by the September 19 quake that has magnified scrutiny of what President Enrique Peña Nieto once called Mexico's "cultural" corruption.

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The earthquake struck in a year of mounting scandals, including the arrest of three former state governors from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) on charges of corruption and allegations that a senior government official took bribes from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company.

"I think the earthquake will be a watershed moment, catalysing people's anger and disappointment at the party system and politics in general . . . and channelling increased demands for greater vigilance against corruption," said María Amparo Casar, executive director of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, a civil society group..

She and other NGOs are pushing for a full assessment of quake damage "to see how much of this disaster was caused by corruption . . . and could have been avoided without it".

Public perceptions that graft is on the rise have surged, according to a GEA-ISA poll published this month. The survey was the first since the quake hit Mexico City and central states and a stronger tremor on September 7 that caused widespread destruction in the southern Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Mr Peña Nieto won praise in the poll with a more than 50 per cent approval in most of the country for his crisis management.

On September 19 1985, when an even more devastating quake flattened swaths of Mexico City and killed thousands, the then president was slow to respond and quick to try to cover up the damage.

By contrast, Mr Peña Nieto, who had been flying to the quake-hit south on September 19, ordered the aircraft back to the capital and has been active since.

However, he and Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior minister, have been heckled at damage sites. "Grab a shovel and get to work," one person yelled at the president. The incident underscored lingering anger with a government whose five years in office have been marred by scandals, notably over the unresolved disappearance of 43 students three years ago and the first lady's millionaire mansion, which was paid for by a government contractor.

Despite his handling of the quake, which killed 369 people overall, the gap between the president's approval and disapproval ratings shows no sign of closing ahead of elections in July next year.

The frontrunner in that race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a maverick leftist has made fighting corruption the leitmotif of his campaign, but some officials in his Morena party have also been tarnished by scandal. Furthermore, Morena runs two of the Mexico City boroughs hardest hit by the quake, including Tlalpan, where the Enrique Rébsamen school collapsed, making the party vulnerable if investigations conclude official negligence or corruption turned some buildings into death traps.

Amlo, as the Morena leader is known, casts himself as a champion of the masses and his voter base is concentrated in Mexico City. But he "was largely absent during the sombre days that followed the earthquake", noted Alejandro Schtulmann at Empra, a consultancy. "Young people — many of whom don't want to vote for the PRI but are otherwise undecided — are also disappointed in López Obrador," he added.

The conservative National Action party has not fared better. Part of the problem is that the entire political class is under fire. "Corruption is an endemic problem . . . no one can cast the first stone," said Viridiana Ríos, a visiting assistant professor at Purdue University and global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

The 1985 earthquake marked a "before and after" moment in Mexican politics, helping channel opposition to the PRI's one-party rule and paving the way for democracy. Following the 2017 quake, civil society groups feel emboldened in their campaign for a truly autonomous attorney-general and a national anti-corruption prosecutor with teeth.

But in a country where 94 per cent of crimes are not reported or investigated because of low public confidence in the rule of law, the task is titanic.

There are disasters waiting to happen, says Eduardo Reinoso, a civil engineer who has studied compliance with building codes introduced after 1985. He blames not only corruption and incompetence but also a culture of impunity that has encouraged people to build or modify their homes without planning permission because of a belief they can get away with it.

As Gabriel Guerra, a former diplomat and government official, put it: "Our collective negligence and corruption is coming back to bite us where it hurts."

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