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2 Months After Mexico’s Earthquake, Some Still Wonder How Their Home Collapsed

Five students were killed in in an earthquake in Mexico City's elite Tecnologico de Monterrey university campus.
Jorge Valencia
Five students were killed in Mexico City's elite Tecnologico de Monterrey university campus when walkways collapsed during an earthquake on Sept. 19.

Juan Carlos Alvarez Blanco, a tall man with a shaved head and bags under his eyes, sat in a restaurant drinking a Diet Coke, scrolling through text messages in his phone. His son, also named Juan Carlos, was one of five students killed on the campus of the elite Tecnologico de Monterrey university during an earthquake in Mexico City two months ago.

“All the communication we’ve gotten from the university has been over WhatsApp,” the text messaging service, Alvarez said.

Alvarez got a message from university President Salvador Alva five days after the September earthquake, and in the message, Alva offers his condolences and says the Tecnologico de Monterrey community stands with the family, Alvarez said.

The president also invited Alvarez and his family to a memorial service held for the deceased students six days after the earthquake, and Alvarez declined. It bothered him no one called or met with the family, he said. But also, he wanted to know about the pedestrian bridges: what really happened?

It’s been more than two months since earthquakes on Sept. 7 and 19 devastated central Mexico, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. Countless survivors are still looking for answers on just how their homes collapsed or on how to rebuild them. But in some cases — including in the collapsed bridges of Tecnologico de Monterrey — some are calling on authorities to file criminal charges.

Alvarez filed a lawsuit calling on Mexico City prosecutors to determine whether the bridges collapsed on top of his son because they weren’t properly maintained — and if so, to send the negligent party to jail.

On the two-month anniversary, protesters marched and held a minute of silence on the street where a textile factory collapsed, killing 21 workers. It was the two-month anniversary after the earthquake, and they want to know what happened to the safeguards set in place after a devastating earthquake killed thousands in 1985.

So who’s responsible now? Mexicans Against Corruption, an independent NGO, is researching more than 400 cases of collapsed or damaged buildings with the goal of answering that question, but there has been no obvious common denominator, said investigator Miriam Castillo.

Castillo says each building is different, borough governments maintain records differently and people in the construction business know how to exploit the gray areas left by a bloated government bureaucracy.
The best known case is that of the Enrique Rebsamen School, an elementary school in which 19 children and 7 adults were killed. Records show some inspectors may have believed the building — which had an apartment on the top floor — was not stable enough. But two local government agencies say it would have been the other’s responsibility to shut down the school.

The Rebsamen school owner is on the run, and authorities have opened investigations in at least 150 other cases. The police have arrested a suspect in the case of a nearly new apartment building that collapsed. Castillo says the suspect in that case was involved in the construction, but not the building’s structure. Prosecutors did not respond to KJZZ’s request for an interview.

“It does seem this is a case of finding a scapegoat,” Castillo said.

Castillo says the case with Monterrey Tec is difficult to investigate because as a large private university, the school has much autonomy over its facilities and records. University officials have said in statements that their own investigation determined the walkways collapsed because of the severity of the earthquake and because the construction company didn’t build enough support for the bridges. University officials refused multiple requests for an interview.
Hector Cortes, an architectural engineer who has overseen residential construction projects in Mexico City for more than 40 years, says it will be very difficult for an independent investigator to determine fault. Little can be known without running lab tests on structure remains, Cortes said. The university cleared those remains the week of the earthquake.
“It’s very difficult because they’ve already taken away the rubble, so it’ll be difficult to determine whether it was the engineering, the construction materials or something else,” Cortes said.

Alvarez, the father of the deceased Tecnologico de Monterrey student, says he still wants an independent investigation. He says he wants to know whether the bridges hadn’t been properly maintained, and if so that he wants that to never happen again.

KJZZ has a partnership with Tecnologico de Monterrey.

Jorge Valencia was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2016 to 2019.