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Quick Building Demolitions Raise Questions In Mexico


Mexico is also trying to recover from its own natural disaster. More than 340 people died in last week's earthquake, most of them in Mexico City. Dozens of buildings collapsed and thousands were damaged. Mexico's government says it will put more than $2 billion toward a regional rebuilding fund. But many Mexicans also want answers. They want to know why certain buildings collapsed and who should be held responsible. James Fredrick reports from Mexico City.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: In a light rain, Beatriz Montes lights a candle and sets it in an empty lot.

BEATRIZ MONTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says, "I'm feeling sad. That's the first time I've been through something like this. It's unbelievable having been here before and seeing how it is now. It makes you feel powerless."

I'm in a working-class neighborhood in the center of Mexico City. And you wouldn't know it now, but a five-story building, a textile factory, collapsed here last week during the earthquake. The lot is now totally empty, but I was here just a few days ago and there were hundreds of volunteers digging through the rubble. Now there's nothing more than a small memorial to the victims here.

Many of the 45 collapsed buildings in Mexico City have had their remains hauled away in dump trucks. Daniel Rodriguez, an urban planning professor and consultant to Mexico's disaster prevention center, sees something nefarious behind quick cleanups and scant information.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "By wiping away the evidence, the city's image can be cleaned up," he says. "Those who are playing politics can now focus everything on rebuilding, and many people will never know exactly what happened."

Rodriguez thinks the earthquake occurred at a dangerous time politically, as presidential candidates and hundreds of other representatives will soon begin campaigning for next year's elections. But in the remains of collapsed buildings is vital information, he says.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "This evidence is important because it allows us to know why buildings fell," says Rodriguez, "whether it was poor foundations or weak structures. All this information is necessary to know if construction was faulty or if there was corruption in the permitting. And it helps us prevent collapses in future earthquakes."

But the prospects of holding people accountable are bleak in Mexico's judicial system. The country ranks fourth-worst in bringing wrongdoers to justice, according to the Global Impunity Index, and the World Economic Forum recently listed Mexico as the 10th most corrupt in the world. Officials from Mexico's Civil Protection Ministry and the Mexico City government have not yet responded to NPR's questions about the decision to demolish buildings or ongoing investigations. But the capital's mayor has publicly stated that case files have been opened for each collapsed building.

In one of those lived Javier Morales with his wife, daughter and grandchild. He's back here at the empty lot where his four-story apartment building once stood. While no one died here in the earthquake, the families lost everything.

JAVIER MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says, "since no one was trapped in the building, some authority, some high-ranking member of the army, told us it was ready to be demolished. Everything we owned, all my documents, were lost in that moment."

It was barely 24 hours after the earthquake that dump trucks carried Morales' building away. He's been waiting here since then, and says no one has come to investigate the site.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "All they've told me is that the building fell because of the earthquake," he says, "that it's just the result of natural causes."

Simply blaming the devastation on natural causes and removing the debris means Mexicans won't be able to learn lessons for the next quake. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.