Mexico City (CNSNews.com) – Authorities here have opened 140 separate investigations into possible building construction, design, and permitting irregularities following the collapse of nearly 40 buildings during the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that shook the city and central Mexico on Sept. 19.
Investigators will examine site and environmental permitting as well as failure to comply with building and design codes, according to Adrian Ramos, a spokesman for the city’s office of legal affairs. Homicide charges could result, he said.
“We’ll be looking for fraud and if builders need to be held responsible,” Ramos told CNSNews.com.
Thirty-eight investigations are focused on buildings that totally collapsed during the earthquake, the city’s chief attorney Edmundo Garrido Osorio told reporters in a news conference Tuesday.
Specialized forensic engineers are gathering evidence and looking at the construction materials used, he said.
City officials, he confirmed, are investigating the collapse of an administrative building at the privately owned Colegio Enrique Rebsamen for pre-school, primary and secondary students in the Tlalpan section of the city. Nineteen children and seven adults died when the building collapsed.
Last February, the school filed a falsified site permit with city authorities, according to Luis Mendieta, a spokesman for Tlalpan local government president Claudia Sheinbaum.
City officials knew the permit was irregular but did not shut down the school’s operations. “It’s their responsibility to do this, but they didn’t,” Mendieta charged.
Sheinbaum announced at a press conference last week that she has filed a lawsuit against city officials, alleging they failed to perform proper oversight during construction work at the school in 2010 and 2014.
“We have to act because we are on the side of the victims and the law and we want justice. We are asking the city’s attorney general to carefully review all of the school’s papers.”
Local officials have the necessary documentation showing that the school’s buildings complied with local building codes, said Sheinbaum.
Nonetheless, she is calling for a thorough investigation of construction at the school.
More than 200 people died in the earthquake, according to Dario Ramirez, director of communications at the citizens group Mexicans Against Corruption.
The group is inviting city residents to participate in building a database of information on all of the buildings damaged in the quake, including the names of builders and whether they had the proper permitting. A Twitter handle, @miedificio, has been created for the purpose.
“We don’t have confidence in public officials to carry out this type of investigation alone,” said Ramirez. “Civilian participation is needed. There is a lot of work to do.”
Five students were killed in the collapse of several enclosed walkways connecting floors of separate buildings at the prestigious private university, Tec de Monterrey, also located in Tlalpan.
The university has refused to reveal the name of the builder who constructed the walkways while an investigation is underway, according to Max Kaiser, director of anti-corruption at the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (Mexican Institute for Competitiveness) think tank
Kaiser said he trusts the university will carry out a thorough and transparent investigation, but he called the walkway collapse unusual given the university’s reputation as a top national engineering school.
“There could be an explanation, but to everyone it seems strange.”
The think tank has joined an effort by 30 civic groups to investigate responsibility for building collapses in the city and monitor the proper use of public funds targeted for reconstruction efforts.
“There is a story every day about new buildings, or even recent buildings, that didn’t comply with building regulations,” Kaiser said.
Referring to an apartment building in the city’s Portales section, Kaiser said a quarter of the building fell to the ground in the quake even though construction had been completed just nine months ago.
He said investigations of collapsed or damaged buildings will hopefully put pressure on public officials to do their jobs correctly when reviewing construction.
“In the worst case, there could be corruption to speed up permits, collusion with builders, or the delivery of work that is not in conformance. We could see more cases of this.”