Is Mexico City's newest monument a tribute to spirit or graft?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 12, 2012 

MEXICO CITY — The newest addition to this city's skyline, a monument of steel and luminescent quartz that soars some 30 stories into the sky, is destined to "become an icon of our capital," says Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

But rather than boost national pride, the Stele of Light, which the government says cost some $77 million, has sparked an angry debate over corruption, fueling street protests and drawing ridicule on social media. Even the architect says he's unhappy with the project.

The huge monument, which sits at a privileged juncture along Mexico City's most important boulevard, the Paseo de la Reforma, has become such a flashpoint that Calderon advanced its inauguration by a day last weekend, giving the slip to protesters who'd planned to disrupt the unveiling of the slender tower.

Instead of a large public event, Calderon spoke Saturday only to his Cabinet and a few hundred invited guests. Fireworks lit the night sky behind the monument. Lights inside the structure illuminated the translucent quartz panels, spelling out "M-E-X-I-C-O" on its side, later swirling in a mesmerizing show as reflective bits of paper rained down from atop the monument.

Some 1,200 police officers stood guard to keep last-minute protesters at bay.

The day after the hurried-up inauguration, hundreds of protesters disrupted a cultural show at the Stele, shouting at dancers from the National Fine Arts Institute and hanging banners. One said, "Museum of Corruption, Coming Here!"

How a monument intended to honor Mexico became such a major point of contention says much about this country's mood just five months before this summer's presidential election. Through September, six years of drug violence has killed 47,515 people, the Calderon government said Wednesday, and there are persistent feelings that the country is barely under control. Many blame Calderon, a member of the National Action Party, who cannot run for re-election but whose sinking reputation will certainly prove a drag on his party's candidate.

The Stele initially was to have been unveiled Sept. 15, 2010, as part of Mexico's celebration of the bicentennial of its 1810 independence movement. Its design was intended to link the country's indigenous roots to its modern era.

The monument's imposing shape echoes the sculpted stone slabs, known as stele, that the ancient Mayans used to commemorate battles and funerals or to delineate territory. It was given an honored location, near two of Mexico City's most storied landmarks, Chapultepec Castle and the world-class National Museum of Anthropology.

But the project ran into delays of more than a year, and its costs soon ballooned.

At the inauguration, Calderon said that erecting the 341-foot high, 1,700-ton structure in the earthquake-prone capital had to "overcome the most unimaginable obstacles." Pylons had to be sunk 164 feet into the ground, significantly deeper than planned. The pylons are as deep as those anchoring the nearby Torre Mayor, Latin America's second tallest building, Calderon added.

The current CEO of the company that built the Stele said Thursday that the project faced other unexpected hurdles: the price of steel, cement and quartz zoomed while it was being built, and water kept flooding into the site, requiring extra retention walls and pumping.

But others believe the delays and the cost overruns were owed as much to corruption as to engineering challenges.

The contract for the Stele went to a quasi-government construction company, III Servicios SA de CV, which is an offshoot of the national oil company, Pemex. A leftist legislator, Esthela Damian Peralta, charged that giving the contract to a Pemex-linked company was the first of what became many flaws in the project.

"It was so that they could avoid any public bid procedure," she said, vowing that her Democratic Revolutionary Party would not rest until "those people who tried to fool us Mexicans are punished with jail time."

A government watchdog agency agrees that there were problems in the way the job was handled. In December, it barred III Servicios' former director general, Agustin Castro Benitez, from any government work for 12 years because of unspecified irregularities in the monument project. Two mid-level managers with the firm were banned from similar work for a year.

Others doubt that construction costs really reached the $77 million the government now claims and suggest that graft is the real cause of the skyrocketing bill, more than double what was originally budgeted.

"We call it the Stele of Corruption," said Pablo Escudero Morales, a Green Party member of Mexico's Congress and chief of that body's corruption watchdog committee.

Escudero said a study by Mexico's National Academy of Engineers showed that the actual cost of construction was $37 million. Moreover, he said, in at least 20 areas, workers cut corners on materials and design, saving additional money.

"So who took the rest of the money?" Escudero asked. "We are demanding that this money be returned."

The Stele has become the target of criticism from a wide range of Mexican society.

"The inauguration of the Stele of Light made me feel ashamed!" actor Ari Telch tweeted. Referring to the cost overruns, renowned comedian Consuelo Duval tweeted: "And our children and elderly dying of hunger and cold? And the schools? And streets? This sucks!"

The project's architect, Cesar Perez Becerril, is angry because he says contractors didn't follow some of his specifications or use materials he suggested. Moreover, no word of thanks was offered to him at the speeded-up inauguration.

Escudero, the Green Party legislator, said the monument is likely to become a historical albatross for Calderon as he completes the final year of his six-year term. He leaves office Dec. 1.

"This project can't be forgotten because it's in the heart of the capital on the biggest boulevard," Escudero said. "There's so much annoyance in the citizenry that this Stele will always hang about the neck of the Calderon administration."

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