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Symbol of national pride, or shame?

By Oswaldo Mejía

In January President Felipe Calderón inaugurated the structure known as Estela de Luz (Light Trail) in Mexico City, a monument located on Paseo de la Reforma that commemorates the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. “I sincerely congratulate all Mexicans for this great work, symbolizing the past we commemorate and the future we aspire to,” said the president during the opening ceremony for the structure, which, in his words, “pays tribute to the heroes who in the last two centuries have forged this nation.”

The fireworks, light shows, orchestral music, choral performances and speeches were a riot of extravagance, characteristic of every national holiday celebration. However, what should have been a source of joy and happiness in every home, in every school and every neighborhood, as President Calderón had predicted in one of his speeches, has instead aroused enormous controversy.

Just after the opening, writers on social networks had already begun to condemn the construction of the Estela de Luz, which they called a “monument to corruption,” and the media began to criticize the 104-meter-high, quartz-covered structure.

The first issues to come under fire were the completion date and the cost of the work. Originally estimated to cost 350 million pesos, the monument instead cost 1036.46 million pesos and was completed 16 days later than scheduled.

The Estela de Luz was intended to be a part of the festivities planned for September 2010 to celebrate the bicentennial, but it was not ready until one year and four months after the celebration. According to some newspapers, the opening date was suddenly changed in 2012 due to threats from groups criticizing the federal government for having made an expenditure of this magnitude on a monument, instead of using the money for priorities such as health care, education and security.

President Calderón explained that the delay and the increased cost of the work were due to the lack of studies to ensure the structure would be stable. “When it was put into execution, the project showed some inconsistencies that jeopardized its viability,” he said, but he stressed the importance that this “symbol of national unity” would have for future generations. According to Ignacio López, general director of III Servicios, a subsidiary company of PEMEX that was in charge of the project, the abnormalities of construction and administrative failures referred to by Calderón were the result of receiving “an incomplete project . . . that was not suitable for construction.”

López placed responsibility for the problems on César Perez Becerril, the architect who designed the monument as part of a competition and who recently has been accused of presenting a proposal that generated delays and excess expenditures.

Faced with such accusations, the architect defended his credibility and submitted to the Legislators Chamber an opinion on the Estela de Luz, issued by the Mexican College of Civil Engineers, providing evidence against the accusations that his project was incomplete. Such report explains: “The project was performed according to the professional practice of cutting-edge structural engineering and attached to the existing regulations in the metropolitan area. The analysis coincides with what is considered in the original design, and there was no need for any adjustments to the foundation of the structure.”

Now the responsibility for evaluating the project is in the hands of the Federal Audit of the Federation, which is conducting investigations to determine the irregularities surrounding the monument. Pérez Becerril has filed a lawsuit against the Bicentennial Trust.

In the original project, Pérez Becerril designed a lift for elderly and disabled people, areas covered with obsidian, a wooded area, walking paths, structural elements made of solid granite that would endure for 200 years, reorganization of bus routes and several other proposals that were canceled, reduced or modified.

In an exclusive interview for Atención, the architect stated that not even 15 percent of his design was carried out. Why then, he wondered, did the total cost of the monument increase? Why was so much money spent if the changes actually represented a considerable drop in the budget? Why did Ignacio López refuse to allow Pérez Becerril to participate in the construction of his own project, after the former director of III Services was fired for his alleged role in the mismanagement of the funds for this monument?

The investigation is ongoing. As President Calderón put it, “The Estela de Luz will become a symbol of national history and a landmark of Mexico City.” For now, however, it is a symbol shrouded in controversy.

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