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A Year After Deadly Mexico Quake, Corruption, Negligence And Forgotten Victims Remain

Retirement for Guadalupe Padilla Mendoza meant pursuing her passion: rescuing dogs. The former public servant had begun taking street dogs into her home in Mexico City, squeezing as many as she could into a humble apartment.

But a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that ripped through her city and killed hundreds on Sept. 19, 2017, changed her plans.

The building unit next to Padilla's trembled, then fell; its top four floors pancaked onto the ground level. Padilla's belongings were scattered across the floor, glass was broken and her walls were cracked. But she was alive.

After days of rescue efforts, nine people were confirmed dead in the unit flattened by the quake. All of the nearly 1,500 residents of the Multifamiliar Tlalpan — a previously public housing complex in the south of the city where Padilla lived — were forced to leave their homes behind.

The now-homeless residents quickly set up shelter in adjacent parks. Padilla corralled her rescue dogs into a little tent. The 60-year-old has since expanded her makeshift home, stringing tarps across a playground and adding rickety gates, and today she marks one year of living on the street.

"It's not easy living here," she says. "We're exposed to the elements. It's raining a lot nowadays and my place floods."

While most have moved in with family, about 100 people like Padilla continue to live in makeshift camps outside the complex.

"Pain, disaster, it has united us," Angel Fuentes Martínez says. In the aftermath of the disaster, the 50-year-old former customs official left his job to organize his neighbors at the housing project. "We feel like a family that has come together to support each other through the worst possible thing."

Angel Fuentes Martínez, 50, receives about $200 per month in government aid as an earthquake victim. But he says it's not enough to rent a new apartment, and he often spends it on health care since he frequently gets sick living in a tent next to the complex.
/ James Fredrick for NPR
Angel Fuentes Martínez, 50, receives about $200 per month in government aid as an earthquake victim. But he says it's not enough to rent a new apartment, and he often spends it on health care since he frequently gets sick living in a tent next to the complex.

But the prevailing sentiments in these makeshift shelters are still anger and desperation. That's especially the case for Padilla, who spent decades as a public servant and now feels abandoned by the government.

"They don't answer my questions even though I'm out here in the streets fighting the elements, and literal rats," she says.

Each of the residents receives about $200 per month in financial support from the government for rent, but those who still live in the camps — many are retired and elderly; others, single mothers — say it's not enough for rent, much less daily expenses. Padilla has come out of retirement, working a night shift as a security guard, because her monthly $75 pension and the government disaster aid don't make ends meet.

"I've gotten sick so often living out here that some months, I've spent almost all that on health care," Fuentes says. The camp dwellers complain of frequent respiratory illness and the flu from braving the chilly, wet nights of Mexico City. According to their counts, 17 of the camps' elderly residents have died since moving in.

"Some died from existing condition," says Iván Martínez, another organizer from the complex. "But my neighbor seemed perfectly healthy before and then fell ill from anxiety and stress and later died."

Many residents have been racked with a question over the past year: Why were the buildings of the Multifamiliar Tlalpan so devastated by the quake, while buildings next door seem untouched?

Laura Sanchez Ley, an investigative reporter at Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (known by its Spanish abbreviation MCCI) dug into that question. Along with a team, she investigated 28 buildings in Mexico City that were collapsed and damaged in the earthquake.

She says the the disaster can be explained in three words: "Corruption, negligence and impunity."

MCCI's report is a damning rebuke of Mexico City, which claimed to be a global example of earthquake preparedness after learning from a 1985 earthquake that flattened hundreds of buildings and led to a death count of over 5,000.

"Mexico's construction regulations are supposedly the best in the world," Sanchez says. "But we saw that when construction actually happens, the regulations are ignored by authorities and developers."

MCCI's analysis showed the 28 collapses occurred not just in old buildings in disrepair, like the Multifamiliar Tlalpan, but in buildings raised less than a year before the earthquake. They discovered falsified building plans coupled with cheap materials, dangerously thin weight-bearing columns and floors added to buildings without permits.

In Mexico City, workers shovel debris off the top of the rubble of a building that collapsed in 2017's 7.1 magnitude earthquake.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
In Mexico City, workers shovel debris off the top of the rubble of a building that collapsed in 2017's 7.1 magnitude earthquake.

Their analysis also revealed corruption among the responsible works directors, known by their Spanish abbreviation, DRO. This certification emerged after 1985 as a way to ensure an architect or civil engineer signed off on each building in the city to confirm that all structures met earthquake standards.

MCCI's report found a complete perversion of DROs. They say developers bribed DROs to sign off on shoddy buildings while authorities looked the other way. They discovered 27 DROs who did not have the required civil engineering or architecture degrees — one DRO held a degree in physical fitness.

"A system has been designed in which authorities at every level, DROs, and real estate developers can wash their hands of responsibility," the MCCI report reads.

Negligence was also a major cause of collapsed buildings, as in the case of the Multifamiliar Tlalpan. The complex was built as public housing for civil servants in the '50s, but by the '80s, the government began selling its apartments.

With that privatization, Sanchez says maintenance of these old buildings fell to the wayside. In the case of the collapsed building, MCCI found only 197,000 pesos — about $10,400 in today's dollars — of maintenance since the privatization. Leaky water tanks, broken sewage pipes and decades-old tree roots had weakened the foundation.

"The culprit in this case is public policy," she says. "There's massive public housing projects that are forgotten about and fall into disrepair."

The case also carries on a tragic legacy: With Multifamiliar Tlalpan's 2017 collapse, each of Mexico City's three major earthquakes in recent history resulted in the collapse of at least one public housing building.

Maddeningly, Sanchez says, citizens who flagged faulty buildings weren't heard. "In the majority of cases, we found that residents had discovered and reported something wrong in their building but authorities ignored them," she says.

The MCCI report also highlights impunity for those responsible for building safety. "The real estate developers and the DROs are at large. Not a single public servant has been sanctioned for signing off on building permits or land use" that resulted in a collapse, it reads.

Nearly a year later, some repairs begin

While on paper the Mexican government has allocated billions of dollars for reconstruction, few citizens feel whole a year later.

"There is a significant delay in getting access to these [earthquake recovery] resources," says Manuel Guadarrama, public finance researcher at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank. "There are a lot of communities that are still waiting for the help of the government."

Just a month ago, repairs finally began at the Multifamiliar Tlalpan. The unit that collapsed will be rebuilt and every other building will be reinforced and repaired.

"It didn't come from nothing," says Fuentes. "We've been marching, and protesting and banging on doors to get the government to respond to us."

And there's certainly not full trust in authorities.

"We're still hoping to bring in an independent auditor because we don't trust the government to build properly or use the funds correctly," says organizer Martínez.

He says they're actually doing better than many victims of the disaster.

"In [the boroughs] Tlahuac and Iztapalapa, there are a lot of people who haven't received any support from the government, and many more in other states that are still desperate," he says.

A long road still lies ahead for victims like Padilla, who saw her entire life disappear in the wreckage of the earthquake.

"I own that apartment; it's the only thing I own," she says. "It's the only thing I could leave to my grandchildren. I'll defend it, whatever the cost."

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