Mexico City’s crumbling metro system casts shadow on mayor’s 2024 ambitions

<span>Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

Smoke filled the subway station, the tunnel turning gray in the choking haze as hundreds of passengers were evacuated from the train. More than a dozen were treated for smoke inhalation, the authorities said, after a short circuit apparently caused the wafting fumes.

The incident on Monday, which soon billowed across Mexican social media, is just the latest in a string of mishaps on Mexico City’s cantankerous subway system which have left more than two dozen people dead – and potentially thrown a major wrench into the presidential aspirations of the capital’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum.

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Earlier this month, two trains collided between stations on the subway’s Line 3, killing one person and injuring 57. The deadly crash follows a devastating accident in May 2021, when a train overpass abruptly collapsed, killing 26 people and injuring more than 60.

In between, there have been at least a dozen other incidents on the metro, government data reviewed by the Guardian shows, including fires, flooding and train derailments.

The seemingly unending series of accidents have prompted widespread criticism of Sheinbaum’s management of the embattled transport system, which is used by millions of people every day, casting a looming shadow over her campaign to succeed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or Amlo, in national elections in 2024.

The mayor herself has rejected such critiques, and denied reports that she has slashed funding for the railway system.

“There has been a lot of information that isn’t real, that the budget has been cut,” Sheinbaum said during a news conference this month, noting that the subway’s budget had increased from about $775m in 2018 to nearly $1bn this year. “We are carrying out very important works in the Metro.”

But according to Mariana Campos, coordinator of the public expenditure and accountability program at Mexican research firm Mexico Evalúa, such figures don’t take into account factors like inflation.

“You’re comparing pears and apples and strawberries,” she said.

A recent analysis from Mexico Evalua concluded that government spending on the subway actually dropped by 13% in the first nine months of last year, compared to the same period in 2021. Spending on maintenance dropped by 7%, the study found.

“With great disappointment we see that the programmed budget has been in decline for several years, from about 2016,” Campos said. “The obsolescence has accumulated and in recent years the giant problem has not been addressed.”

Issues on the capital’s subway system, which is more than 50 years old, are hardly new: an outside analysis of the deadly 2021 crash found that it was caused not just by lack of maintenance but also faulty construction, which took place years before Sheinbaum’s term.

“The problems on the metro didn’t start with Claudia Sheinbaum,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City. “But if she has cut back on investment, especially in maintenance and renovation, well it’s not surprising that it’s exploded for her.”

But given Sheinbaum’s national profile – she currently leads in polling among rivals in the governing Morena party – a local infrastructure issue has become a national political one, with the subway potentially undermining the mayor’s legacy.

Far from dampening the media circus, Sheinbaum and her allies appear to be feeding it, suggesting without evidence that there is something nefarious behind the various incidents and deploying some 6,000 national guard troops to monitor the subway.

“Episodes have been occurring in recent months that we classify as out of the ordinary,” the mayor said earlier this month as she announced the deployment.

This week, a Morena congressman proposed a bill which would classify incidents on the subway as national security threats.

Given the widespread criticism that Amlo has faced for increasing militarization in Mexico, as well as the president’s own penchant for false or misleading statements, such steps have only served to fuel the fire in Mexican media regarding the subway.

But that, according to Regidor, might be the point: to deflect responsibility towards some imagined threat, and transform a potentially serious infrastructure issue into yet another political distraction.

“It transfers the focus of attention from what’s actually happening in the metro to the issue of political aspirations and political preferences,” he said. “We’re talking about politics instead of policy.”