Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reaction to the Absolution

Last week, the Supreme Court absolved all of the high-level officials connected to the ABC day-care center fire (namely, former Sonora Governor Eduardo Bours, IMSS chief Daniel Karam, and Karam's predecessor Juan Molinar Horcasitas) of responsibility, a decision that provoked much hand-wringing (understandably, given that 49 toddlers' lost their lives in the event). Here's Leo Zuckermann:
Arturo Zaldívar put on the Supreme Court's (SCJN) table for discussion the role of responsibility for high-ranking public officials in an incident where 49 children died. The minister elaborated a magnificent document that will be read in political science classes in the future. For the first time in history, a member of the SCJN proposed the make a cabinet secretary and other top-flight officials responsible for grave violations of human rights.

But his colleagues rejected the proposal. They were probably legally correct. The majority of lawyers think so. The question is if it was the best decision from a political point of view. It hurts me to say it, but I think so: the lamentable decision of the SCJN was also correct within the context of minimizing the political costs for the Court.

What will be the costs for the SCJN for having rejected the proposal from Zaldívar that placed responsibility for the fire in Hermosillo's ABC day-care center on officials like Daniel Karam, presently the director of IMSS, and his predecessor, Juan Molinar, presently the secretary of communications and transportation?

Unfortunately, few. Very few. It seems to me that the justices had it calculated. They knew they could release a decision like this without many consequences. Why?

Because they also live in the country where no pasa nada. [A very common expression in Mexico meaning something like a combination of There's nothing wrong and Everything's OK.] Where there aren't great social mobilizations to demand justice. Where the word responsibility doesn't exist in the dictionary of the majority of the population. Where justice is a long and frustrating process for the parents of the 49 children who died burned or suffocated in a warehouse that was functioning as a day-care center. Where the resignation of a high-ranking official is interpreted as an act of ignominy.


The attitude of the justices would have been different had they received thousands of letters demanding accountability for the officials. Or if there had been a large demonstration outside of the Court. Or if the citizens had cooperated to buy spots on the radio and the television to demand justice (sorry, I forgot that this option is prohibited in a Constitution that limits expression).

In summary, while the SCJN feels no social pressure but it does feel political pressure, well it's clear where it will lean: toward the side of the country where nothing happens.

I'd say he's wrong to place too much blame on the Court. If it was legally sounds, that's a decision that we probably shouldn't complain about too much, regardless of whether or not it squares with political convenience.
However, the broader point about the lack of accountability at the top of the Mexican political system certainly holds up. One thing that the Bush administration really made us appreciate was the need for heads to roll when things go horribly wrong. You don't want all government officials operating in fear for their jobs, but you do want them to know that catastrophic failure has consequences. That understanding has been lacking in Mexico; as Zuckermann says, aquí no pasa nada. Accountability doesn't have to imply criminal charges, but if 49 children, defenseless in every sense of the word, can be killed in a fire and no one has to answer for it, well, something is seriously wrong. Calderón couldn't well fire Bours, but Karam and Molinar (who left his post a couple of months before the fire) presided over the body responsible for regulating the ABC day-care center, that regulation was plainly insufficient, and both are still on the cabinet, holding the same position they did more than a year ago when the fire was sparked.

No comments: