This year’s deadly earthquake in Mexico City exposed to harsh light what experts and activists had been complaining about for years: Construction in Mexico City often violates safety standards, a practice fueled by corruption.

By Julieta Pelcastre

The collapse of dozens of buildings in Mexico City during an earthquake in September exposed systemic corruption and regulatory failures in the mega-city’s urban building code enforcement. Some 369 people died in the quake. Which struck exactly 30 years after a devastating earthquake killed thousands and pushed the government to overhaul the city’s building codes. Photo courtesy of Blanca Eligio.

Xóchitl Gálvez is head of the city’s Miguel Hidalgo community delegation, which encompasses some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, including upscale Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec. When she took office in 2015, she launched an investigation into construction manifests granted to developers by her predecessors.

This fall, Gálvez showed that one company, the company Grupo Inmobiliario Deviratán, built at least three housing complexes with falsified documents, according to records obtained by 100Reporters and Journalists for Transparency.

In Mexico City’s Anzures neighborhood, Deviratán erected a five-story building that was supposed to be three stories tall, on just 430 square meters of land, according to the registry. The developer was granted the right to build four apartments, but built 15 instead.

In addition, payments for development rights never reached the delegation’s coffers, according to Gálvez. “There are delegates who are accustomed to personally giving work manifests to the developers, so that they owe them a favor.”

Deviratán’s owner, Vinod Kumar Mangwani Gidwani, did not respond to numerous requests for comment on the reported irregularities in his construction projects.

“In the world of construction,” complicity and corruption underpin exchanges between authorities and builders, Gálvez said. “As an authority, you can’t claim to be unaware of what is happening in your neighborhood.” The consequences have proved deadly, especially in Mexico.  Gálvez blames corruption for the collapse of many buildings after the September earthquake in Mexico that destroyed 38 buildings and claimed 369 lives.

Following the earthquake, city officials disclosed to the Mexican Senate that a staggering 270,000 buildings in the city are susceptible to collapse in earthquakes.  The lack of maintenance, the geological characteristics and the conditions of the subsoil in the city are not the only elements that pose risks for the structural integrity of these buildings.  Corrupt exchanges between authorities and real estate companies produce a growing chain of irregularities in construction and land use that further compromise building safety.

A 2012 study for the Mexico City government found that just 15 of 150 buildings four stories or taller that were built since 2004 appeared to comply with construction regulations in the Benito Juárez, Cuauhtémoc and Venustiano Carranza neighborhoods.

Through revisions of building plans and other records, the study found that basic structural information was ambiguous or often absent entirely. Roughly 70 percent of the structures had weak floors.

“The developers act like teenagers instead of taking responsibility,” Eduardo Reinoso, lead author of the study, told 100Reporters and Journalists for Transparency.

Sudden Growth and Lax Standards

Dramatic population growth in the 1970s, combined with aggressive public policies for housing between 2000 and 2012, spurred substantial development in the Mexican capital.

Government programs lured residents from shanty towns on the city’s fringes to planned communities. Dozens of cookie-cutter housing developments and apartment buildings quickly emerged. What was slow, well behind the pace of construction, was oversight of construction standards and basic services such as running water.

This disorderly and voracious urban growth led to rampant outlaw construction. Some 4,500 illegally developed buildings popped up in Mexico City alone, according to Josefina MacGregor, president of the civic group Suma Urbana.

Frenetic growth also generated an “escalation” of bribes and illegal payments to public servants, according to Paulina Escobar, head of administration and development at engineering firm APL Ingenieros Consultores. It quickly became “more important to build, sell and fill the pockets of a few, than [to ensure] the physical integrity of people,” Escobar said.

How It’s Supposed To Work

Builders are required to hire Directors Responsible for Works, known by their Spanish acronym DROs, to oversee projects. DROs are selected by fellow architects and engineers, and then certified by the government. But the builders pay DROs for their service, which activists say creates a conflict of interest.

A DRO is responsible for directing, monitoring and ensuring compliance with regulations during construction, with authorization and registration granted by the city’s Housing and Urban Development Ministry, known by its Spanish acronym, SEDUVI. The regulator is also the official body in charge of issuing land use certificates.

DROs are supposed to report errors in building plans or construction. DROs who fail to do so can be suspended, fined, lose their licenses or in the most egregious of cases, face jail time.  And, indeed, 61 DROs have been fined since 2012, another 30 were suspended and 17 were stripped of their licenses, SEDUVI chief Felipe de Jesús Gutiérrez Gutiérrez told reporters in September.

The Lone Ranger

While buildings may fall, corruption stands on a firm foundation, built by the many who profit from illicit construction. “Corruption does not end because citizens do not want it to end,” said Gálvez.  “It generates a lot of profit.” Of 150 properties the Gálvez’s Hidalgo delegation examined, 30 violated the terms of their construction permits, she said.

The apartments, measuring 125 square meters, were advertised in pre-sale for $385,600 each.

Gálvez said Deviratán built two more buildings in the neighborhood using false documents. Salvador Ximénez Esparza, a public notary based in the faraway community of Chalco of Díaz Covarrubias, some 25 miles from the construction site, issued deeds for the buildings.

Official records showed that architect Juan Luis Llano Gutiérrez certified to the city government that the project was done properly, according to documents obtained by 100Reporters and Journalists for Transparency.

In an email, Llano Gutiérrez told 100Reporters and Journalists for Transparency that he resigned as DRO for the project in September 2016, and no longer has any relationship to the building, located at Gutenberg 126. “I’m not in a position to comment on this, because there are apparently investigations and legal proceedings in progress in relation to this property.”

Mexican building regulations state that builders must deliver the work according to the project manifest authorized by the delegation.

The Miguel Hidalgo delegation has filed a criminal complaint against Ximénez Esparza for issuing deeds with false documents. In June 2017, the government of the State of Mexico