Mexico struggles a year after quake. Government gets mixed review on handling disaster's aftermath

A year ago today, one of the world's major earthquakes devastated major areas of this overcrowded city, killing thousands and leaving many more, like the family of Pedro L'opez Gonz'alez, homeless. But after 10 months of living in a wood and tin shack, the L'opezes are relieved to be in a new apartment, which the government built for earthquake victims. Small as their new home is, 450-square feet, it is bigger than their old one, in which Mr. and Mrs. Lopez lived with their six children. Not only is it bigger, but it has running water.

The L'opez family is among the first of the earthquake victims to move into the newly constructed homes.

A year after the destruction created by the Sept. 19 and 20 earthquakes, the recovery score card is a mix of pluses and minuses.

On the positive side, the government has come out of the crisis with no major political bruises. Although critics say that the government initally moved too slowly with the reconstruction efforts, the issue has been overshadowed by Mexico's economic crisis and by disputes over local elections in various states. And critics speak only of ``marginal'' misspending of relief and reconstruction funds.

On the negative side, the government faces criticism that its enforcement of building safety codes was, and still is, lax.

Three-quarters of the families whose homes were destroyed or damaged are still waiting for permanent homes, although construction continues. Families are crammed into one-room, one-window, temporary units of tin. Or they are squeezed in with relatives or live in makeshift shelters. Some rent homes at higher rates than they previously paid, but receive government financial aid.

For most victims of the Sept. 19 and 20 earthquakes, the wait for a home goes on. Rosa Salvador Mart'inez, for example, still lives in a temporary unit. She and six others share a room measuring about 12-by-8 feet. Cooking and toilet facilities are in a larger room used by a number of families. She is looking forward to moving into the new home the government is building for her family. Although her rent will increase from the $10 a month she use to pay a private landlord to about $25 a month she will pay the government, she will receive a title to her new home. ``It's better'' to be an owner than a tenant, Rosa says.

Others, like Sophia Padilla, rely on makeshift shelters. For the first five months after the earthquakes, the Padilla family of eight lived in a tent -- a donation from the United States. While living there, they were subject to heat, rain, and cold. They moved back into their still-damaged home when the government declared it was sound enough to merit repairs. On a recent visit, Mrs. Padilla and a neighbor were cooking outdoors, under a plastic sheet, as workmen repaired cracks in the walls of their home.

Though her home is being repaired, the bulk of the 81,000 housing units planned for quake victims are new. About 18,000 units are completed. This includes some 13,000 built for other purposes before the quakes and made available to victims, the government says.

According to government figures, of the new homes planned and apartments to be repaired since the quake, only 8 percent are complete.

The government says that major damage to hospitals, schools, and to the telephone and water systems has demanded much time and effort. Federal expropriation of lands where homes were destroyed has caused further delays.

Nevertheless, critics charge the government with moving too slowly at first. On the issue of its spending relief funds, the government appears to have spent most of the money properly. There was speculation at the time the funds were provided that they were being missused.

US Embassy spokeman Bill Graves says that the total amount of international aid for the earthquakes was about $87 million. This included about $54 million from the US. Most of the aid came from private donations. He says US officials here agree there ``wasn't a lot of graft and corruption'' in the Mexican government's use of US donations.

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a leading Mexican intellectual, says there probably was some corruption in the spending of the recovery money. But, he adds, ``I think large amounts [of recovery funds] were not diverted to other things.''

The Mexican government has public and private specialists supervising the spending of private donations -- Mexican and international. One government official says total Mexican expenditures on recovery will be considerably higher than the international aid.

The actual number of people who died in the earthquakes may never be known. One reason is that many bodies were buried by tons of cement.

The government estimates 6,000 people were killed. The US Embassy estimated the number of victims went as high as 20,000 shortly after the quakes. Mr. Aguilar says the number is between 6,000 to 12,000.

``There was a deliberate effort on the part of the government to present the human magnitude as smaller than it was,'' Aguilar says. ``They think if the tragedy is very big, it's seen as the reponsibility of the government.''

But in an interview with the Monitor, a member of the Mexican Cabinet, Manuel Camacho Solis, denied the government tried to minimize the casualties.

``The government has no interest in limiting the numbers,'' said Mr. Comacho, Mexico's Minister of Urban Development and Ecology. ``It [the catastrophe] is not our fault, it's a natural disaster.''

Camacho received his post when his predecessor was removed after a series of confrontations between the government and quake victims over issues related to the earthquake. Under Camacho, the Ministry has ``been responsive'' to many of the needs of the victims, says Aguilar.

The issues behind the confrontations remain unsolved. Does blame for the collapse of buildings lie anywhere but with the earthquake itself? Were substandard building materials or methods used? Were building safety codes violated?

Tenants in some cases had been pressing for better code enforcement before the disaster, says Aguilar.

Marco Antonio Michel, an executive under Camacho says that many of the buildings that collapsed were built before stricter building codes were adopted following the 1957 Mexican earthquake.

Aguilar says building codes are sporadically enforced. ``The government has dragged its feet'' on the issue of possible government responsibility, he says. The idea of moving people out of some parts of Mexico City's overcrowded downtown was being studied long before the 1985 earthquake. Some places were being considered as choice sites for expanded commercial or tourism operations, says an urban analyst here.

But strong resistance from the earthquake survivors apparently overcame such plans. They want to move into their new, though more expensive, homes.

Nina Bohlan of the Ford Foundation office here says that as low as rents on the government-built houses seem to an outsider, they will be a challenge to many Mexicans. ``A lot of people are getting locked into contracts they'll never pay back, and ultimately will be evicted,'' she says.

But those interviewed expressed determination not to let that happen.

``I can't pay it,'' said Mr. L'opez of the $25-a-month rent he will soon be charged. He is a furniture repairman. His work has been been infrequent recently. His wife is a maid.

``But we're going to do what we can, because it [the new home] is an inheritance for our children,'' Mr. L'opez said.

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