Sarah DeVries
President López Obrador believes austerity measures for government agencies help root out corruption. President López Obrador believes austerity measures for government agencies help root out corruption.

Good oversight, not austerity, will root out corruption

Austerity measures mean only 90 of 2,000 at-risk bridges across Mexico are slated for repair anytime soon

One of my biggest secret fears as a kid – I say “secret” because it didn’t occur to me to mention it to anyone – was of bridges.

It’s not a phase that lasted long, but for at least a couple of years when I was in elementary school, I’d hold my breath on car trips while going either over or under a bridge. Before getting to them I’d send up a quick prayer: “Please don’t let this bridge fall!” and then another one: “Whew, thank you!” when we’d made it safely to the other side.

I have no idea where this fear came from. Had I seen something on the news? There certainly hadn’t been any collapsed bridges in my city. Maybe I just heard someone mention it in passing, and my small anxiety-prone brain grabbed on and flagged it as yet another thing to be irrationally terrified of.

I’d forgotten about that childhood dread completely until I read last week about the 90 bridges in danger of collapse.

I’m sorry, what? In danger of collapse, you say?

One of the ways I’ve calmed my natural skittishness through the years is by 1) relying on statistics, and 2) taking available precautions. Yes, terrible things can happen. Terrible things do happen. But most of the time, most individuals are pretty safe going about their everyday lives, especially if they take simple actions like buckling their seatbelts and looking both ways before crossing the street.

But as the coronavirus especially has taught us, we’re not always 100% in control of our own safety. Sometimes simply leaving the house wrests a reasonable expectation of basic security out of our hands.

When it comes to road safety, some places in Mexico (unfortunately) don’t get a whole lot of points in their favor. Potholes pepper the city streets, lanes abruptly end, one-way streets display scant signals, if any, that they are one-way streets. All of these are things that those of us who choose to live in Mexico must simply accept as part of life.

Municipal governments are in control of keeping city streets safe and functional, and actually do this to varying degrees. When I lived in Querétaro, at least the major thoroughfares were quite good. Here in Veracruz, they’re decidedly tougher, with the exception of Orizaba. The drivers of Jalisco last year, meanwhile, saw a 602% spike in car accidents, 16% of those “due to infrastructure, including road conditions and their design.” Yikes.

So let’s go back to these potentially-collapsing bridges. Fine, the chances that you’ll be on or under one of those bridges right at the time it starts collapsing are pretty slim. Have you heard the Mexican phrase, “Cuando te toca, ni aunque te quites, y cuando no te toca, ni aunque te pongas”? My best translation is, “When it’s your turn, it is, even if you get out of the way; and when it’s not your turn, it’s not, even if you put yourself right out front.” Suffice it to say, I find most people around rather resigned to their fate, or at least to the idea of the concept of fate.

But I, for one, am not. I believe in preventable safety measures, and that sometimes people die needlessly for stupid reasons, not just because the gods wanted it so. Call me unromantic, but dying because a bridge fell on you doesn’t happen because it was your fate, it happens because the bridge should have been fixed.

It’s dumbfounding to me that so many bridges are in such dire need of disrepair and yet are still being allowed to be used.  According to the article, there will only be enough money for the repair of 90 bridges out of 2000 that need it (that’s 4.9%).

As I’ve said before, now is not the time for austerity. I understand AMLO’s desire to do away with the kinds of ridiculously extravagant spending that has marked Mexico’s government for the past several decades as officials at all levels lined their own pockets. And the Ministry of Communication and Transportation has historically been one of the worst offenders, according to Mexico’s chief auditor, who earlier this year called into question the ministry’s use of 8 billion pesos in 2018. The president has been happy to move many projects that would normally fall under their responsibility to the military, a move that many viewed with unease and that prompted the retiring of the ministry’s head as a result.

It feels a bit like an inverted version of the “scandal” surrounding “welfare mothers” in the US during the 80s and 90s: the desire to punish a few abusers led to the majority of families who really did need help to suffer much more than they should have.

But, Mr. President: might I suggest that the way to stop corruption (which, by the way, has shown no sign of going away despite claims to the contrary) isn’t by refusing to give out a large percentage of the normal budget for already existing government infrastructure but rather by creating foolproof methods to monitor and account for spending?

When it comes to public works, depriving those responsible for them of their normal budgets doesn’t just frustrate them, it neuters their ability to do things right and to help average the Mexican citizens who benefit daily from these public resources in all areas of society (Conacyt funding comes to mind).

I understand the desire to punish for past irresponsibility. Average citizens are free to grumble about it. But in my own humble opinion, a leader’s job isn’t to spend his or her time finding ways to punish but to find solutions for getting things done the right way.

I found the bonus surprise in the article about the bridges toward the bottom: 8 of those in danger of collapse are in my home state of Veracruz. Okay! Good to know – I’ll be sure to avoid those then until they’ve been repaired! Except that I might go on them anyway, because the ministry isn’t revealing which bridges they are.

Well, great.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com.

Reader forum

The forum is available to logged-in subscribers only.