Anatomy of a Disaster

Alessandro Zagato

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“By removing rubble they want to disarticulate popular solidarity”: The earthquake aftermath in Mexico City

The earthquake that hit Mexico City and the wider region on September 19 was not as strong as the one that occurred on the same day in 1985, but it was the most devastating the city has seen since then. While the official death toll has reached 370 and thousands of people are still sleeping in their vehicles or in one of the emergency shelters erected across the city, the popular mobilization that followed the tremor continues to grow and evolve.

Young people have systematically transformed their leisure spaces into hubs of solidarity. They organize the collection and distribution of goods to the affected areas. Some of them offer free psychological support. Many are opening their own houses to the displaced.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, volunteers across the city worked together to clear rubble in search of survivors. Neighbors continue to provide one another with basic goods. Bikers and cyclists deliver messages and supplies, and restaurants give away food and access to the internet. Trucks full of carpenters and workers reach the affected areas.

From day one, ordinary people have spontaneously taken control of the situation. “After that building collapsed, neighbors got together and started removing the remains piece by piece. We also got organized to bring water, food, blankets and whatever else was needed” one resident explains.

Photo by Francisco Lion

At the same time, the army has been gradually taking position, forcing civilians to step back. On the first night, heavily armed military units lined up and surrounded a number of collapsed buildings, preventing the people from getting closer. “We are now in charge,” they declared. Politicians, public servants, and police officers are trying to take control of the situation—but popular resistance is firm.

“Why should people who arrived first and spent all night volunteering be forced to leave?” asks one volunteer. Civilians are challenging the legitimacy of state agents who arrived late and show little commitment to the cause. “Where were you before?” a young man asks the officer who is pushing him away.

On the radio, authorities have requested that people not get involved and instead leave relief efforts to the authorized personnel. Critics targeted Graco Ramírez, a member of the ruling PRI and governor of Morelos, after he ordered “the end of the rescuing operations” just twenty-four hours after the earthquake. Typically, search and rescue efforts continue for a minimum of three days after a disaster of this magnitude.

The army and government response serves only to increase the suspicion that their aim is to disarticulate popular mobilization in order to preclude conditions that might lead to a mass movement like the one that followed the 1985 earthquake.

Even the authorities’ decision to use heavy digging machinery is controversial. “Those who pretend to give us orders have no clue of what they are doing” is a sentiment shared by many topos, the famed volunteers who led rescue operations in 1985. “The army is employing heavy machines to accelerate the process, but they refuse to collaborate with us in the rescuing operations because that’s not their priority”.

Photo by Francisco Lion

The topos recommend a strategy that allowed them to rescue people for 15 days after the 1985 earthquake. It consists of opening breaches through the remains of the buildings, making use of still intact structures like elevator ducts or load bearing walls. This allows rescuers to reach areas where people may still be alive. “Heavy machines could kill them,” the topos warn.

Moreover, a serious investigation should look for causes and responsibilities before the demolition of collapsed buildings takes place. Hashtags like #RescatePrimero (rescue first) and #NoMaquinaria (no machinery) are currently gaining traction on social media.

Mainstream media outlets are trying to impose an artificial and openly ideological narrative that often has only a tenuous relationship to facts. An illustrative example is the coverage of the tragedy that hit the Enrique Rébsamen School, where 21 children and 4 adults died. On the morning of September 20, Televisa (a national TV channel) began disseminating the illusion that a primary school girl trapped under the building could still be saved.

“We found a girl who is still alive. But a big effort will be required because the operation is highly risky,” a police officer told a Televisa reporter.

For nine hours, the live broadcast of the operations captivated millions of Mexicans awaiting a miracle in the midst of the tragedy. The coverage resembled a reality show; cameras, microphones, and drones were deployed to cover every single detail of the process.

A teacher confirms that the girl attended primary school. A soldier says that he saw her asking for water and moving her hand. Other media outlets reveal that the girl is twelve years old. The presenter constantly calls for hope, repeating the slogan “fuerza Mexico” (go Mexico) as a mantra.

Frida Sofía (the name given to her by the media) was never found. In fact, no girl with that name was ever part of the school’s register. At 5 AM Televisa announced that the rescue operation was suspended. Civil rescuers were removed from the area – and nobody ever mentioned Frida Sofía on Televisa again.

The cynical reality show manufactured to hypnotize the public and manipulate their emotions was also an attempt to conceal the increasingly acute polarization between organized sectors of civil society and a profoundly unpopular government.

Now, three weeks since the earthquake, the popular movement is reflecting on duties and goals for the upcoming months. Numerous open assemblies are taking place across the country. With so much governmental inconsistency, it is clear that a population with an outstanding capacity for self-organizing will provide the foundation for what comes next.

This is the first installment in an ongoing series from Alessandro Zagato on the ground in Mexico. You can follow Alessandro on Twitter at @ale_zagato