- - Thursday, March 1, 2012

BUENOS AIRES — Shock over last week’s deadly commuter train crash has turned into outrage at President Cristina Fernandez’s government after reports of a victim being left in the wreckage for days and ignored warnings about the railway’s safety.

The body of Lucas Menghini Rey, 20, was found late Friday, 57 hours after the Sarmiento line train, which connects the Argentine capital with its suburbs, slammed into a barrier at Once terminal, killing 51 and injuring more than 600.

Government officials had told Mr. Menghini Rey’s family that all bodies had been taken to the morgue. His relatives had searched dozens of Buenos Aires hospitals and distributed thousands of fliers.

The Ministry of Security said he was not found earlier because he had been traveling “in a place off limits to passengers.”

Maria Lujan Rey, Mr. Menghini Rey’s mother, said Sunday that the attempt to “turn the victim into the culprit” repulsed her.

Critics highlighted the case as the tragic climax of what they view as Ms. Fernandez’s inability to fix the capital’s overcrowded and outdated train system. They say the government’s dealings with the privately owned operator, Trains of Buenos Aires, (TBA) are marked by corruption and incompetence.

Since 1995, TBA has held the concessions for the Sarmiento and Mitre commuter rail lines, and last year benefited from some $32 million in government subsidies, according to the Ambito Financiero business daily.

Its owners, brothers Claudio and Mario Cirigliano, hold stakes in several other highly subsidized transportation ventures, and are said to have close ties to the Fernandez administration.

Leandro Despouy, the head of a congressional oversight body, said that frequent warnings about TBA’s “deplorable” safety conditions were ignored, but that the company never lost its concessions, unlike other operators.

In fact, a National General Accounting Office report specifically mentioned the poor state of the brakes on TBA trains as early as 2008, Mr. Despouy said, adding that the report would have allowed the government to rescind its contract with TBA.

“[The crash] could have been anticipated and prevented,” he told TN television. “[TBA] has demonstrated that it has not changed and has no interest in changing.”

On Sept. 13, there was a major accident on the Sarmiento line when the barrier at a crossing did not lower completely, causing a collision between two trains and a city bus that killed 11 and injured 228.

From 2002 to 2011, the National Transportation Regulation Commission had fined TBA some $15 million for 451 safety violations, the Clarin newspaper reported.

The government took control of TBA’s operations this week but so far has ignored widespread calls to rescind its concession.

In the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 22 crash, Transportation Secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi blamed the accident on bad luck and local customs.

If the crash had happened on a holiday or if fewer passengers had crowded in the first two cars - as he said Argentines tend to do to exit a train more quickly - the consequences would have been less grave, Mr. Schiavi said.

His comments were received with disbelief and ridicule among Mrs. Fernandez’s friends and foes alike.

Alberto Fernandez, Cabinet chief to Mrs. Fernandez‘ late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, called the comments “absolutely unfortunate” and “hard to tolerate.”

Mr. Schiavi further enraged critics the day after the accident when he said the government wanted to be a plaintiff as the judiciary looks into the crash, something Mr. Fernandez dubbed “legal nonsense.”

Observers took note that the president herself, not usually coy about declarations, did not speak publicly about the accident until Sunday and then did so at a scheduled event and after discussing a host of other issues.

Ms. Fernandez answered her critics by urging them to “never expect from me, faced with the pain of death, faced with tragedy, to bet on an easy photo or an easy speech.”

She urged the judiciary to determine within 15 days those directly and indirectly responsible for the crash.

“I want [all Argentines] -those who love me and those who don’t - to know that I will take all necessary decisions once the judiciary decides,” Ms. Fernandez said.

Mr. Fernandez said he could not understand the need to let 15 more days go by.

“What does the president have to wait for?” he said. “These are political decisions.”

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