Quake Recovery Seen as Challenge to Leaders

Times Staff Writer

By Friday, the Mexican government had reported that fewer than 2,000 people died in Mexico’s devastating earthquakes last week, while the mayor of the capital put the death toll at 4,000, the police counted more than 4,500, and the U.S. ambassador here stuck by his estimate of at least 10,000.

As attention turned from rescues and burials to reconstruction and attempts to grasp the magnitude of what has happened here, the casualty figures have become a point of controversy.

The widely varying tabulations arise, in part, from different ways of counting the dead. But the track record of the Mexican government in accurately reporting casualties from natural disasters or the actions of its security forces is poor, its critics say.

Out of national pride and a desire to deflect criticism of its own possible responsibility for losses, both human and financial, the government has consistently understated the magnitude of its tragedies. Such sensitivity is understandable, for in this part of the world, governments can topple on the basis of how they handle major disasters.

No one is suggesting that the government of President Miguel de la Madrid hangs in the balance, or that the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party could lose control. But, in the midst of this disaster, many people are pointedly blaming the government for responding too slowly to the disaster and for failing to organize the relief efforts. And now there is skepticism that De la Madrid’s government can effectively relieve the suffering of families shattered by the quakes, house the homeless and rebuild the city’s center.


“The earthquake may not bring the political system down, but it can crack the political edifice,” said Froylan Lopez Narvaez, news editor of the left-wing Proceso magazine.

Complaint of Relatives

Fernando Perez, the undersecretary of the Interior, stunned the press Thursday by announcing that the government counted only 1,840 dead. That low count led the relatives of some victims to complain bitterly that officials wanted to avoid blame for those killed in government-built structures.

“First, they were slow in rescuing and then they say not many died,” complained Rene Arevalo, a security guard who said that his wife was trapped and probably died in a building in Mexico City’s garment district.

“Who can believe them?”

The government has admitted that its rescue efforts were uncoordinated. On Friday, no new rescues were reported, although search-and-rescue teams continued to comb tirelessly through the ruins of the 12-story Benito Juarez Hospital, where more than a dozen survivors have been found this week, and of other buildings.

More than 700 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged in the quakes--and, fairly or not, the government has been held responsible. Architects and engineers have charged publicly that building codes are laxly enforced in Mexico and that costs were shaved in the construction of private and public buildings by using cheap materials.

“The government must look into building materials and into the whole range of techniques used in construction,” declared archeologist Eduardo Matos, a member of the Group of 100, an environmental watchdog organization.

Three major hospitals were among the buildings that collapsed after the first quake hit Sept. 19. Ten per cent of the capital’s school buildings were rendered unusable. Yet building codes require that hospitals and schools be especially reinforced so that they can withstand earthquakes--and serve the public as emergency shelters after such disasters.

At least 100 structures built or used by the government, including several ministries, also crumbled. The main telephone communications building burned, and two large government-built apartment complexes were demolished; each had been repaired after previous quakes.

On Friday, as demolition crews began to raze some buildings, there were muttered complaints here that one reason the government wanted to clear away the rubble was to prevent architects and construction experts from inspecting the quality of the materials and construction techniques.

New Homes Demanded

Already, homeless inhabitants of damaged buildings are petitioning the government for new housing. “We want action, not words,” said engineer Enrique Garcia, a resident of the Multifamiliar Juarez apartment complex, one of those that collapsed. “No one has come to attend to our needs,” he said. “We demand that our homes be replaced.”

About 50 Juarez residents marched on the presidential palace Friday while about 500 residents of the Tepito neighborhood staged a sit-in on Paseo de la Reforma, demanding reconstruction of their barrio. They fear that developers who have long eyed the centrally located neighborhood will use the earthquake as an excuse to hatch new development plans.

Government officials have acknowledged that a slow response to the problems brought on by the earthquake--finding housing for the homeless, rebuilding what has been destroyed--may lead to more political criticism.

“We have been hit on many fronts and not started solving them all,” said presidential spokesman Manuel Alonso. “This can create dissatisfaction.”

Although reconstruction is months away, some politicians openly warned against embezzlement of reconstruction funds. “It’s indispensable that the administration of these resources . . . be watched to to avoid international shame and discredit,” said Heraclio Zepeda, a member of the leftist United Socialist Party of Mexico.

This week, the government released a report on the quakes which tried to divert criticism away from the De la Madrid administration. It pointed out, for example, that less than one-fifth of 1% of the city’s buildings suffered damage and that the rest of the city’s structures survived because of “the strict building code and . . . the progress of Mexican seismic engineering.”

Alonso said that the government would resist taking responsibility for cleaning up all the damage or resolving long-term housing problems of the thousands driven from their homes.

“Some building owners are waiting for the government to clean up the debris from their lots. They have money, they made a profit from rents. They should do it,” Alonso declared. “We will provide housing for people who lived in government housing, not everyone else.”

The government attributed the differences among death toll estimates to different methods of counting. The national government relied strictly on the issuance of death certificates. “We don’t speak of the dead,” said Perez. “We speak of cadavers.”

Estimates Included

The office of Mayor Ramon Aguirre and the police department added estimates of the thousands believed trapped and missing to the final toll. U.S. Ambassador John Gavin made his estimate--of at least 10,000 dead, perhaps twice that--after a helicopter tour of the city. Many bodies were buried so quickly that not even the cemeteries kept records.

Alonso admitted that there was confusion in the death statistics, but he said that the government was correctly “reticent” in speculating about the numbers trapped in major buildings, such as the hospitals and apartment complexes. No effort has been made, however, to take a census of those buildings and their survivors.

Traditionally, the Mexican government has underestimated casualty figures. In 1968, when soldiers fired on student demonstrators at the National University, the government said that fewer than 60 students died. But eyewitnesses counted hundreds of fatalities.

Last year, after a deadly explosion at a government-run gas-distribution plant in a crowded Mexico City neighborhood, the authorities froze the death toll at 400 before excavation of the barrio had even been completed.

In the past, Latin American earthquakes have caused political instability when already-shaky governments responded inefficiently.

In Nicaragua, reconstruction funds that poured in after a 1972 quake were siphoned off by the late dictator Anastasio Somoza for his own profit. Companies owned by Somoza and his friends dominated what little reconstruction did take place, on land owned by Somoza.

The scandal greatly reduced support for the government and opened the way for the triumph of the leftist Sandinista rebels seven years later.

In Guatemala, the government paid little attention to highland villages damaged in a 1976 quake. Private church groups moved in and, in tandem with peasant unions, helped create almost self-help organizations that persisted and helped nourish a continuing guerrilla movement.

Presidential spokesman Alonso rejected the comparison between Mexico and other nations whose governments have been threatened by quakes. “With all respect, Mexico has many more resources at hand and much more solid political and social structures than those countries,” he said.