“The Economic Power of Developers Is Just Stronger”

In Mexico City, putting developer profits before earthquake preparedness yielded lethal results.

Rescuers work in the rubble immediately after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City on September 19, 2017. Rafael S. Fabres / Getty

Misfortunes in Mexico City never come singly. Built on an ancient lake bed that sinks an average of eight inches a year, the city is also situated on the Ring of Fire, a volatile basin of the Pacific Ocean that produces 90 percent of the world’s earthquake activity. Together, these infelicitous conditions help explain why a 7.1 magnitude quake rocked the city last month — killing 366 and injuring 6,000  — just as an 8.0 quake rocked it exactly thirty-two years ago.

But questions remain. Why, three decades after the devastation of 1985, was the city so badly damaged by an earthquake ten times weaker? Why did forty-four buildings — many of which were constructed in just the last few years — collapse? And why are three thousand more so close to collapse that residents had no choice but to abandon their homes for good?

The answer is that, in Mexico City, the law is a negotiation, and business typically wins. Despite years of reform, the city’s urban planning process still bends away from earthquake preparedness and toward developers’ profits. Slowly but surely, bribes from developers and lax oversight from regulators have undone the city’s resilience.

The flexibility of Mexico City’s housing regulation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is necessary for most of the city to survive. Roughly two-thirds of Mexico City residents live in informal settlements, or colonias populares, where families construct the homes they can afford — mostly out of cinder block and cement. These settlements are technically illegal: the Mexican government maintains a “zero-tolerance” policy toward informal construction in order to discourage unsafe living conditions. But, thankfully, the policy is not enforced. At least in this respect, the poor are not punished doubly for their poverty.

On the other hand, flimsy enforcement allows business to line its pockets. Consider the case of Norma 26, a policy that was supposed to encourage low-income housing construction through generous tax breaks. Real estate developers had a field day. Rather than build social housing, developers constructed apartments priced for Mexico’s upper class: more than 75 percent of their buildings failed to comply with the policy’s price ceilings. The city government turned a blind eye. In just three years, developers reaped more than 2.5 billion pesos — $170 million — in government subsidies.

Compliance with earthquake regulation is similarly for sale. “Suppose your building has a legal limit of eight floors, and you want a ninth,” says Josefina MacGregor, lead organizer of the progressive group Suma Urbana. “If you have the money, they will transfer you the rights to build another floor, just like that.”

Suma Urbana and other like-minded organizations have led a long campaign to promote compliance in the capital. Over the last five years, more than six thousand real estate projects in Mexico City have been reported to the Office of Environmental and Territorial Planning for failing to follow city regulations. A majority of these “irregularities” were located in the areas hit hardest by last month’s earthquake.

Yet the city hasn’t sanctioned a single developer. “We have tried to make a muscular civil society,” MacGregor says. “But the economic power of the developers is just stronger.”

The September 19 earthquake, then, is a reckoning for lessons unlearned over the last three decades.

In the aftermath of the 1985 quake — with the Mexican government in a state of paralysis — the victims, known as damnificados, organized to rebuild the city. The moving scenes of street-level solidarity from last month’s earthquake look just like those in 1985: neighbors gathering to remove rubble, distribute resources, and look for survivors. The damnificados became the symbol of a larger movement to challenge the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and establish a new party, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), that cared for the safety of its citizens.

In the years that followed, the Mexico City government — led by the PRD — made significant progress in earthquake preparedness. They set up a new crisis fund. They constructed new homes for the dispossessed. And they created new protocols for construction.

But much of that radical spirit is gone. Since the late 1990s, the PRD has descended into the same bog of corruption as its political competitors. The Mexico City mayor, PRD politician Miguel Mancera, prefers to operate in complete opacity, riding roughshod over Mexico’s citizen participation laws. Much of Mexico City has been effectively handed over to billionaire Carlos Slim to remake in his image — skyscrapers and condos and upscale shopping malls. The damnificados do not figure in this urban vision.

Perhaps, as then, the earthquake will spur legislators to action, and a more resilient city will rise from the rubble. But in the midst of mourning, we should remember that none of this was inevitable. Despite Mexico City’s seismological misfortune, no buildings had to fall, and no lives had to be lost — those of twenty-six children, especially.

All tragedy is political. It is a lesson we seem to be relearning constantly. First, at Grenfell Tower, where city councilors ignored residents’ safety concerns and installed flammable cladding despite them. Then, in Houston, where policymakers encouraged city sprawl that cemented over marshland that once protected the city from floods. And now in Mexico.

If we are to prepare for the next disaster, we must first hold to account the governments that failed to protect residents from the last.