Parents of children killed in Mexico quake want justice

Maria Elena Gonzalez lost her sister Gloria in the earthquake. — AFP
Single mother Miriam Rodriguez Guise lost her seven-year-old son Jose Eduardo in the Rebsamen elementary school collapse. — AFP
Mireya Rodriguez (L) and Alejandro Jurado lost their seven-year-old daughter Paola in the earthquake. — AFP

MEXICO CITY: It has been nine months since the Rebsamen elementary school collapsed in the earthquake that devastated Mexico last year, and the families of the 19 children and seven adults killed inside want justice.

In what has become a politically charged case ahead of Mexico's July 1 elections, some of the families have brought criminal charges against the local authorities, alleging corruption was behind the school's shoddy construction.

The main person they want to face investigation is Claudia Sheinbaum, the leading candidate for Mexico City mayor.

At the time of the earthquake, Sheinbaum – a close ally of the fiery leftist leading the presidential race, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – was the top official for the capital city's Tlalpan district.

According to experts, the district granted dodgy construction permits to the school's owner – who is today on the run from the law – allowing her to construct an apartment for herself on top of the building, which destabilised the structure.

Sheinbaum has vehemently denied responsibility for the collapse. She did not respond to a request for an interview.

The Rebsamen was one of 47 buildings across the city that collapsed in the quake because of corrupt construction practices, according to the Mexico City College of Architects.

In interviews with AFP, five of the people who lost loved ones inside the school shared their memories and told their stories of mourning and outrage.

Democracy?

Mireya Rodriguez, a doctor, and Alejandro Jurado, an auditor, lost their seven-year-old daughter, Paola, a bright student with a full schedule of activities including dance, swimming and taekwondo.

With a stab of nostalgia, they show off her medals and the black belt she was posthumously awarded.

"Rebuilding our family without her is very hard," said Rodriguez, 48, recounting how Paola's brother recently celebrated his 10th birthday – and dedicated his cake to his little sister.

"Even going to the supermarket, buying things she liked, is hard for me," said Jurado, 47, his voice breaking.

Staring into the distance, Rodriguez called for an investigation into the authorities responsible for the school's building permits.

"Their omissions killed our children," she said.

"They were killed by negligence. Even if Sheinbaum is elected mayor, someday she'll have to face a judge," added her husband.

"If (Mexico) were really a democracy, these officials would have resigned and shown their faces."

Corruption

Oscar Vargas, a TV producer, barely looks up when he talks about his "big runt", his nickname for his late son, seven-year-old Raul Alexis.

Vargas, 50, displays his son's football boots and jersey, from his favourite team, America. Raul Alexis was cremated wearing a jersey just like it, donated by the team's star forward, Oribe Peralta.

"I used to tell him I'd always be there to take care of him ... but it wasn't possible that day," Vargas said.

"It's been an ordeal. I still can't assimilate it, accept it, understand what happened."

Seeing Sheinbaum and other officials who were responsible for the building's safety continuing their political careers infuriates him.

"I don't have words for it," he said.

"My stomach burns inside when I hear her say she's going to end corruption."

'Impunity'

Miriam Rodriguez Guise, a single mom, had planned her whole life around seven-year-old Jose Eduardo.

She opened her own business, a pharmacy, because she wanted to set her own hours.

"Jose Eduardo was everything to me. I was 100% a mom. I'm not living anymore, just surviving with my pain," she said, clutching an album entitled "My Timeline," with pictures of Jose Eduardo spanning from her pregnancy to Sept 17, two days before the quake.

She resents the fact that no high-level officials have been investigated over construction irregularities at the school.

"It creates impunity and makes us feel powerless as parents. That's why we're fighting," she said.

Change

Maria Elena Gonzalez Perez lost her sister Gloria, who cleaned the school owner's penthouse apartment.

"For us, heaven and earth collapsed into one that day, and we couldn't find any way out," she said on the verge of tears.

Gonzalez, 50, is now raising Gloria's 18-year-old son.

"He's at a very difficult age, and he needs his mom," she said.

"He's tired of all this. He doesn't want to talk about the court case because he says nothing will happen, they won't do anything to the politicians, and why are we wasting our energy."

Gonzalez sees it differently.

"It's worth it, because we don't want anyone else to have to go through what we're going through," she said. — AFP