Tragedy bares Mexico’s opaque bureaucracy


The grief-numbed parents of Hermosillo buried their babies and waited for answers.

When none came, they marched. When they got desperate, they traveled the thousand miles to Mexico City and marched some more. They carried banners with photos of their children -- 48 in all -- killed when fire tore through a crowded day-care center named ABC.

More than a month after the June 5 blaze in the northern state of Sonora, satisfying answers are in short supply. Instead, the incident and its aftermath reveal much about what is wrong with Mexico.


Impunity. Corruption. Lack of transparency. Aloof politicians who are most nimble when ducking blame. Bureaucracies that bury you in red tape.

Residents avoid reporting crimes because they mistrust the police or have little faith that anyone will be punished. A federal justice official this week said that only 3% of criminal cases reach sentencing.

Many Mexicans view voting as largely useless -- one reason why many opted to deface their ballots in Sunday’s elections in protest.

None of the ABC center’s owners, including a relative of the first lady, are anywhere to be found. No top boss from the federal agency overseeing the center has quit or been sacked. No local official has been punished for approving a safety inspection weeks earlier, even though emergency exits were later found to have been blocked, unmarked or sealed shut.

Instead, federal and state authorities traded accusations that provided bitter grist for the final stretch of the campaign for Sonora governor.

It took federal authorities weeks to make good on their promise to release the names of those who run the 1,500 day-care centers nationwide that are under contract to the Mexican Social Security Institute, a sprawling federal agency that also oversees hospitals and health clinics. But when the list was finally made public during a Senate hearing Wednesday, it seemed to only confirm everyone’s worst suspicions: Sprinkled throughout were the names of dozens of politically connected Mexicans.

The registered owner of one day-care center, Happy Child, was identified in news reports Friday as the daughter of an alleged Sinaloa drug kingpin.

The apparent cronyism touched all three major political parties, including that of President Felipe Calderon, who has made law and order a centerpiece of his administration. It also encompassed the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which won Sunday’s midterm congressional elections on promises of a “new attitude.”

The list of names deepened the outrage over the day-care fire. “The ABC of Corruption” was the headline that El Universal newspaper put on its editorial Thursday.

“In any other respectable democracy in the world,” the newspaper said, “a prosecutor would have made direct charges against government officials instead of simply watching how they toss the hot potato from one to the other.”

Federal prosecutors so far have obtained arrest warrants against nine people, including officials of the social security agency. (The agency was singled out in January for having the nation’s worst red tape after a mother described the ordeal she had to endure each month to get medicine for her son who has an immune-system disorder.)

Authorities have declined to identify who they’re seeking, but news reports say they include the co-owners of the ABC center, one of whom is the second cousin of Margarita Zavala, Calderon’s wife.

Two of the owners are wives of ranking officials in the Sonora state government; the husbands quit their posts after the ties were made public. The owners reportedly have left the country.

Eight other lower-ranking state and federal officials have been charged.

The fire case could be Exhibit A for understanding the mistrust with which many Mexicans view their leaders.

“We don’t believe anything,” Hermann Turban, a 58-year-old software worker, said Sunday as he emerged from a polling station in Mexico City. “All the parties offer their promises. But in the end, nothing happens.”

That’s not the whole story, though. In the tragedy, some observers see signs of hope.

Anger over the day-care center fire was one reason why Sonora voters dumped the PRI for the first time in picking a governor. And there have been growing calls for citizen oversight of the nation’s system of day-care centers.

Release of the contractors’ list, though weeks late, was seen as a further sign that Mexico’s tradition of behind-closed-doors rule was giving way to demands for greater transparency and public participation.

“This is a very good example of the struggle between the old regime’s style of secrecy and a new demand from civil society and society in general for more openness,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, executive director of Transparency Mexico. “That’s a cultural change.”

Perhaps. But that’s not enough for Hermosillo’s anguished mothers and fathers, many of whom hold humble jobs in the industrial park where ABC had been fashioned from a warehouse.

They’ve petitioned the Supreme Court to take action. And, in case it might do some good, they plan another march today.