Latin Lawyer / By Emilio Demetriou-Jones / Published on 26 January 2018.
In the aftermath of Mexico’s fatal 7.1 magnitude earthquake, the legal community responded quickly to help the shaken country back on its feet. Emilio Demetriou-Jones hears how, in an unprecedented move, the country’s three clearing houses used the media to reach those most in need.
On 19 September, as Mexicans commemorated the anniversary of a deadly earthquake that ripped through the capital in 1985, catastrophe struck the country again.
This time, the earthquake’s epicentre was some 50 kilometres south of the city of Puebla, but its impact was felt across several provinces. The human toll was high, with some 370 people killed. Of that number, 228 were in the capital city.
Hours after impact, pro bono lawyers were already mobilising. Some firms took part in the logistical mission of organising and distributing tonnes of donations. They drew on experience gleaned just a few days earlier, when another deadly earthquake had hit the southern coast of Mexico, near the state of Chiapas. Julio Copo, an associate at Basham, Ringe y Correa, says that after the first earthquake hit the states of Tabasco and Chiapas, the firm started collecting goods, working side-by-side with Ayudar por Ayudar, a grassroots organisation from Oaxaca. “There were around 25 of us in total, and we dedicated a space in the office to sort through all of the goods. It took all day,” he says.
Immediately after the Mexico City earthquake, Maru Cortázar, director of Appleseed’s pro bono foundation in Mexico, began devising an emergency counselling strategy with the country’s two other clearing houses: Centro Mexicano Pro Bono and Fundación Barra Mexicana. “[The earthquake] happened at 1pm, and by 6pm we were in a conference call with two other clearing houses to determine what would be most urgently needed,” she says.
Within a few days, the three organisations had brought together firms and independent lawyers to identify immediate priorities for people affected by the quake.
They put together a legal handbook containing advice for those affected by the disaster, which included chapters on property and real estate law, insurance claims, government benefit eligibility and civil protection programmes. The handbook was uploaded on Appleseed’s website two days later – on 21 September – and has already been updated multiple times. Appleseed invited those affected by the earthquake to fill out online forms, then connected them with law firms and independent lawyers according to their legal needs.
Under the spotlight
After criminal lawyer Luis Pérez de Acha published a damning statement about faulty infrastructure in Mexico City, lawyers faced a surge in requests for criminal liability advice. At the helm of a group of writers, architects, academics and social activists, Pérez de Acha lodged a criminal complaint against Mexico City’s governmental authorities and constructors at the Attorney General’s office (PGJCDMX) in October, seeking to establish those responsible for possible acts of corruption and wrongdoing that exacerbated the damage of several buildings.
Daniel del Río, partner at Basham, Ringe y Correa, says the firm is helping one client file a claim against the local government over its responsibility for the collapse of a housing block. “In this case, there was a construction site next to the building which apparently didn’t meet regulations. We are in the process of analysing documents, and if a strategic litigation case is opened, it could well last for four or more years.”
Local and international press soon picked up on the allegations that endemic corruption in Mexico’s political system had played a role in the extent of the earthquake’s damage. The earthquake’s path of destruction was extensively documented by television and radio coverage and the Mexican legal community sought to capitalise on the high level of scrutiny, by using the media to orchestrate their relief effort.
Hogan Lovells (Mexico) lawyer Lila Gasca – who works full-time on pro bono cases – and some of her colleagues appeared on Mexican television, most notably channel Imagen Televisión during the 6am news on 11 October, in a two-hour call-in slot dedicated to answering victims’ questions and generally raising awareness about the help on offer in certain areas.
They also appeared on the widely watched talk show El Ombligo de la Luna with Appleseed’s Cortázar and Greenberg Traurig associate Elba Gutiérrez, outlining general advice for victims, and were guests on radio shows. It was the first time that lawyers and pro bono representatives had used the media to notify the public of the legal aid available to them. “Broadcasting through the media was effective, and many of the victims we helped expressed their gratitude for the legal support received,” Gasca says.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, when monetary donations and material aid quickly flowed in, clearing houses used media sources to establish where help was most needed.
Fundación Barra Mexicana set up three collection centres where it received over 23 tonnes of aid, including fresh and canned food, water, blankets, medicine, hygiene products, clothes, toys and tools. As well as contacting official government phone lines, volunteers monitored television and radio as well as social media. “This way, we made better decisions and assured that help was distributed efficiently,” says Juan José Serrano, director of the foundation.
Following its appeal on various media sources, Hogan Lovells received more than 145,000 pesos (US$9,000) in the space of a few days. Before depositing the sum to the Carlos Slim Foundation, the firm tripled the total amount. Slim’s foundation pledged 5 pesos for each peso received, which it will add to its US$100 million relief fund for the reconstruction of houses, apartment blocks and schools in neighbourhoods in Mexico City.
A growing culture
The collaborative effort to help those affected by the earthquake is indicative of a growing pro bono movement in Mexico. More and more law firms are implementing internal structures to underpin the practice. The rising number of international firms that have set up shop in Mexico, and the influence of US-style pro bono practices, is one factor fueling the evolution, but local firms are playing their part too. During his tenure as president of the Fundación Barra Mexicana, Del Río helped inject new focus and commitment to bar’s pro bono arm, entering into agreements with various organisations, including the city board to support private welfare institutions and the Mexican Center for Philanthropy. Firms are clocking more pro bono hours as a result. The three clearing houses are integral to this progress. Their close collaboration during the aftermath of the earthquake was the engine behind many law firms’ contributions to the disaster. Gasca describes the clearing houses’ joint response as the first time in Mexican pro bono history that the legal community has gathered together and responded so efficiently as a whole.
The success of the coordinated response to the earthquake provides the momentum to facilitate further progress towards establishing a true pro bono culture in Mexico.
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