Mexico City subway train collapse – negligence, corruption and capitalism

Scene of Mexico City subway train collapse (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An overpass carrying a subway train collapsed in Mexico City on 3 May, killing at least twenty-six people and injuring eighty. The train was travelling on an elevated portion of Line 12 when a section near Olivos Station collapsed onto traffic below. This incident marks the worst disaster in the history of Mexico City’s subway system, the second biggest in North America, which carries four million passengers a day.

Line 12—the “Golden Line”—was the most recent addition to the subway network, announced by then-mayor Marcelo Ebrard in 2007. On its completion in 2012, President Felipe Calderon hailed it as “an engineering feat that competes with the best in the world.” The massive investment was used to justify a fare hike from three pesos to five pesos under Ebrard’s successor, Miguel Ángel Mancera.

Yet only two years after the line opened—and only two months after the fare hike—subway director Joel Ortega admitted in a news conference that Line 12 had become too dangerous to ride. While the line was closed for a year and a half for repairs, Mancera moved swiftly to find scapegoats, disqualifying 33 officials involved in the incident from public service in 2014, and issuing arrest warrants for six officials, including project head Enrique Horcasitas, in 2015.

Horcasitas was accused of using his position to give the contract to construction firm ICA, where his brother is a member of the board of directors. Yet while Mancera was quick to prosecute minor politicians, the three firms that constructed Line 12 faced no repercussions for their involvement under his term.

While ICA built much of Line 12, the construction company Carso, owned by Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, was in charge of the section that collapsed last Monday. Against recommendations from Grupo Riobóo, the engineering firm that designed many of the previous subway expansions, Carso decided against using concrete for the beams of the overpass, preferring to design them out of steel, to cut costs and increase profits by using Carso’s steel subsidiary Swecomex.

Following the magnitude 7.1 Puebla earthquake in 2017, locals noted that the section near Olivos Station had received serious structural damage, and the line was again closed. Under Mancera’s administration, 1,680 officials were sanctioned for corruption and misappropriation of relief funds following the 2017 earthquake. Officials continued to neglect necessary repairs and locals expressed fears that the structure was in danger of collapse.

Fernando Espino Arévalo, head of the Metro Workers Union (STM), stated that a number of problems on Line 12 were reported to authorities throughout the line’s operation, including vibrating support columns on elevated portions of track. However, the STM’s warnings about Line 12 and their calls to take over maintenance of the line were both ignored. According to Jesús Urban, secretary-general of the STM, damage at the section that collapsed last Monday was reported six months ago, but their warnings were ignored and subsequent maintenance work was inadequate.

The current mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, made public transit a centerpiece of her campaign. In 2019, Sheinbaum announced a 40-billion-peso (roughly $2 billion USD) plan to modernize the Mexico City Metro, including plans to expand Line 12 by 4.6 kilometers. These reforms granted her and her party some level of popularity, with polls in April putting her approval among Mexico City residents at 71%. Since the disaster, Sheinbaum has pushed the responsibility away from her administration, suggesting the underlying issues behind the collapse were there when she came into office. In polls since the disaster, less than 5% of Mexico City residents view her as ultimately responsible, with most assigning blame to the construction firms. But Jorge Gaviño Ambriz, Mexico City’s Metro Director from 2015 to 2018, says the collapse could’ve been avoided with proper maintenance—and with hundreds of millions already spent on expansions to Line 12 under Sheinbaum’s watch, the resources to address Line 12’s issues were certainly available. Yet Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that only 60% of the Metro’s maintenance budget was spent in 2019 and 2020.

ALMO

Claudia Sheinbaum belongs to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party, which broke with Ebrard and Mancera’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 2014. AMLO won the presidency in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform, positioning himself against the neoliberal economic policies that were imposed on Mexico during the 1982 debt crisis and expanded over the following decades. AMLO refuses to threaten the interests of Mexico’s wealthy, in a nation where the top 1% of the population receives 21% of the nation’s income. Instead, AMLO has embarked on a campaign of austerity, cutting money to education, public healthcare, childcare, and environmental programs. As COVID continues to ravage Mexico, with over 200,000 dead, Mexico is one of the few countries in Latin America — and the world—not to have provided economic assistance to working people. AMLO’s election shows the desire for change among the Mexican working class—but his refusal to challenge capitalism and take back the wealth stolen by millionaires and billionaires local and foreign means that his administration ultimately serves the same neoliberal interests he claims to stand against. This betrayal is not uncommon: SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos, in Spain, and other left populist formations have also betrayed the movements that supported them by not breaking with capitalism, showing the need for revolutionary socialist organization.

The people of Mexico City need safe, reliable transport, and the victims of this disaster need compensation and assistance as they deal with injury or death in their families. Yet politicians on all levels are busy shifting blame and protecting their careers, a fact that has not been lost on the people of Mexico City. Last Tuesday, the day after the disaster, a faction of the National Union of Workers of the Collective Transport System (SNTSTC) that represents 8,000 workers declared their intent to strike over the poor conditions they are forced to work in, though union officials denied the strike. Last Friday, protestors marched to the site of the collapse, chanting “negligence and corruption kill!” and “let the state fall, not the metro!” Only a mass movement of workers and youth, with the crucial involvement of unionized metro workers, have the power to demand and win the response workers and victims need.

The subway bridge collapse is another horrible example of how the capitalist drive to profit off of human needs like transportation and health care will always come before safety and human life. The working people of Mexico are the only group with the power to root out corruption, end austerity, and build a movement for safe, efficient, and free mass transportation.  Only a revolutionary socialist party in Mexico can lead the fight for public services that benefit everyone as part of the struggle for socialism.

 

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