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A year after Mexico City metro collapse, victims still demand justice

Despite investigations concluding that the structural flaws that caused the collapse were intentionally ignored, no one involved in the construction of the line has yet to be held to account.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Samuel Del Águila lost his son Immer when an elevated section of Mexico City’s metro collapsed on May 3, 2021, killing 26 and injuring more than 100 others. After a year of watching the government play the blame game and avoid hearings to hold those responsible to account, he is tired.

“I want justice. I want the government to take responsibility for this. This is very exhausting,” said Del Águila, 71, while making his way to a memorial service held at the site of the collapse on Tuesday. He remembers his son, who was 29 when he died, as a happy young man.

“My son Immer was a systems engineer with his whole life ahead of him, he had plans,” he later told reporters at the memorial while looking onto the gap in the elevated tracks that gave way a year earlier. 

“The government keeps putting it off. We need solutions, because this is still affecting us. They’ve given us nothing,” he said. 

Del Águila is one of dozens affected by the collapse who continue to await their day in court, hoping to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice by charging them with negligent homicide. He and others went to court Monday for a hearing that had been delayed three times only to hear the judge put it off again.

Samuel Del Águila, 71, whose son died in the collapse, speaks at the memorial held on the 1-year anniversary of the disaster. Beside him, survivor Adriana Gálvez cries after telling her story and pleas to reporters. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“The system the government uses is one in which there is no clarity, one marked by impunity and an obstruction to justice for the victims,” said Teófilo Benítez, the lawyer representing Del Águila and 11 victims of the collapse. 

The judge postponed the hearing after one of the accused presented documentation of being hospitalized for an infection and another cited an ill-prepared defense due to a recent change in legal representation. 

“After a year, the lawyer isn’t informed on what is affecting the victims and their right to clarification of what happened,” said Benítez in a phone interview. “It could be that the defense did this strategically in order to hold up the process and cause more desperation in the victims.”

The collapse occurred on Line 12 of the Mexico City metro in the southeastern borough of Tláhuac, a working-class neighborhood that experienced rapid urbanization and population growth in the second half of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st.

Opened in 2012, Line 12 is the newest of the capital’s sprawling light-rail system. Also called the “Golden Line” for its color on the system map, it has been plagued with problems throughout its lifetime. 

It was closed most of 2014 and 2015 due to technical and structural issues, and service was suspended again for a short time after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake rocked Mexico City in September 2017. 

An investigation conducted by the Norwegian firm Det Norske Veritas (DNV) in 2021 determined that the collapse had been caused by structural flaws like faulty welding, missing bolts and the use of different types of concrete. 

The gap in the elevated train tracks remain a year after the collapse in May 2021. President López Obrador promised to have Line 12 up and running in a year, but that date has been moved to October 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

On Monday, the Mexico City-based government watchdog Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity published the results of a four-month investigation into the paperwork behind the line’s construction. The review of over 15,000 pages of documentation found explicit warnings about structural insufficiencies that were apparently ignored, as well as the “theft” and “loss” of entire logbooks during the construction process. 

One of the private companies involved in the construction was Grupo Carso, owned by Mexico’s wealthiest citizen Carlos Slim. 

Slim defended the structural integrity of Line 12 after a meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in June 2021, saying he was “convinced” that there were no flaws in the construction, according to El País. He also promised to “not rebuild, [but] restructure, rehabilitate” the entire line.

López Obrador took over the public relations side of the disaster, relieving Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum of the responsibility, but not completely shielding her from public censure. Some called for her resignation after the collapse, as well as that of Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who was mayor during the line’s construction. 

The president also promised to have the line up and running again within a year, but that date has now been pushed back to October. 

Sheinbaum, for her part, said in a press conference on Monday that her administration “respects all the victims” and that “our role is always to come to them with the truth, giving them all the information.” She also mentioned a series of economic supports that the government has given to a large number of the victims. 

Members of the National Torch Movement speak at a rally also held at the site of the collapse. Speakers denounced government inaction and said the situation would be different had the disaster not affected working-class residents of the capital. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Benítez, the attorney, said neither response has been sufficient. He called the supports “illogical,” as they have no data to back up how much money would be needed to make up for the loss of someone who supported a family.

“They initially offered 650,000 pesos ($32,000) to families who had lost a loved one. And just imagine having lost a father with three children. How are those three children going to live and construct a future on that?,” said Benítez. 

For his clients, though, it’s not about the money. “What the victims want is clarity and they want those responsible to not go unpunished, so that this doesn’t happen again in the future and other families don’t have to suffer what they’re going through,” he said.

He hopes they will receive the justice they seek at the hearing that was pushed to June 6, which the judge ordered to be conducted no matter what.

“The defense is now completely up against the wall. The judge ordered that it not be postponed for any reason and that the public defender’s office be present,” he said.

While sorrow and desperation defined the memorial that Benítez’s firm held at the site of the collapse, the concurrent rally organized by the National Torch Movement, a political organization resolved to fight poverty in Mexico, was characterized by anger.

Speakers like section leader Jonathan González San Juan saw the issue in stark economic terms: “If this had happened to the children of the filthy rich, not people who work for a living,” he shouted to a crowd of about 150, “then we wouldn’t have to be here today!”

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