The best and worst of Mexico have been on view since the earthquake of Tuesday, September 19 that rocked Mexico City and surrounding states. This was the second major quake in Mexico in 12 days; the first affected principally the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. As the officially-acknowledged death toll from the most recent tremor surpasses 400, it is important to recognize the work of students and other citizens who, with or without experience or expertise, have collected massive amounts of food, water, personal hygiene items, and blankets and distributed them to displaced persons and have cleaned rubble—manually, which is the only way to find survivors. Within minutes, people came up with ways to help: offer rides or glasses of water, find and go to buildings that had caved in or were at risk of doing so, collect provisions and move them immediately toward affected neighborhoods and towns, and go with groups of engineers, doctors, paramedics, psychologists, lawyers, veterinarians, and other specialists to affected locales. All of this apparently non-controversial human and humane activity is seen as a threat by the federal government, which knows that during Mexico City’s last massive earthquake, exactly 32 years earlier, citizen response to government neglect and to the earthquake itself was a key event in the building of resistance to one-party rule. And more recently, the 11-year-old war on drugs has led to an increasing militarization of the country, augmented by a fear of losing control in the wake of protests against atrocities like the forced disappearance of 43 education students three years ago (September 26, 2014). Authorities hoped that suppressing civilian participation in relief efforts would help in the pre-existing U.S.-style public relations strategy of glorifying police and military personnel as heroes.
In recent days, it has become increasingly evident that some of the most horrific accusations against state, local, and federal government officials and compliant mainstream media and personnel are true, ranging from inventing a little girl (“Frida Sofía”) who supposedly was communicating from under the rubble of a collapsed private school, Colegio Rebsamen in Mexico City, to government officials and military personnel actively blocking civilian efforts and confiscating relief supplies or forcing them to be surrendered to government warehouses. Volunteers and activists have asked donors and transporters of supplies to cross out barcodes on all products and write messages like “Not for resale—earthquake relief” or “No use of this material by governments or political parties is permitted”.
Burying victims alive?
Perhaps the gravest human rights violation committed by various governments—especially that of Mexico City mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera and president Enrique Peña Nieto—has been to bring in demolition equipment to knock down buildings before a thorough and skilled search has been made to rule out the presence of buried survivors. One such case is on Petén street, where rescue workers who arrived on Thursday were interrupted the next day by police who forced them out and began to move in demolition equipment. This despite rescue workers’ insistence that ten days would be necessary to search the site for survivors. Foreign rescue teams have been denied entrance to the country or have been left stranded at the airport.
Another troublesome site is on a street called Bolívar where it passes out of downtown into the Obrera neighborhood. Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, Peña Nieto’s top cabinet official, tried to visit a collapsed factory the day after the quake and was run off by neighbors and workers who threw everything they had at him and reportedly hit him with two bottles and one fist. Here, the disagreement between survivors and officials is also about the rush to demolish.
Government theft and repackaging of citizen-donated relief supplies
A report by Rubicela Morelos Cruz of the newspaper La Jornada documents an example of what numerous personal testimonies have asserted: that truck drivers carrying supplies from the state of Michoacán to Morelos (where Cuernavaca is the capital and Jojutla and Axochiapan are among the hardest-hit municipalities) were stopped by soldiers at roadblocks. These roadblocks prevented supplies from arriving to the state or forced that they be turned in to warehouses controlled by Elena Cepeda, wife of governor Graco Ramírez of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). This husband and wife team intercepts materials and puts stickers on them announcing that the relief is courtesy of the state government, i.e., them. A bizarre gender-role institutionalization persists in Mexico. When a president, governor, or mayor is a married man, his wife is president of the system of Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), a vehicle for distributing patronage under the guise of social services. A similar piece in the same newspaper the next day quotes the bishop of Cuernavaca corroborating the accusations and offering more examples.
The biggest television network in Mexico, Televisa, spent nine hours covering, non-stop, an effort to rescue a supposed student named Frida Sofía, who, according to government sources, Televisa, and other media, was under a desk which sheltered her from the rubble and was in contact with five other people in a similar situation. More than ten people from the school had already been found dead. While many people noticed that there was something suspicious about a tragedy of the magnitude of this earthquake being reduced to the possible rescue of one person, it took a while for people to question whether Frida Sofía existed. It was almost as if propagandists had researched what names the liberals on the south side of Mexico City give to their daughters and come up with the combination of Frida and Sofía. People associated with the school obviously knew that she did not exist but kept quiet out of fear that, if they spoke, their building, too, would be subject to premature demolition before the fate of people who really were missing could be clarified. Carlos Loret de Mola and Denise Maerker, the Televisa news anchors who peddled the story shamelessly, expressed shock and outrage and even criticized the military on the air when they realized that they had been used by their allies (or that the story whose fabrication they had participated in was no longer credible).
As in New Orleans and now Houston, disaster is an opportunity for certain parties. The mayor of Houston recently named a former Shell Oil executive to head a task force to rebuild the city. Mexico City is divided into 16 delegaciones, similar to boroughs. The head of the one that encompasses the center of the city, including several fashionable neighborhoods that were hard-hit by the earthquake, is Ricardo Monreal, who in the past 30 years has held elective office under the banner of five different political parties. He recently lost a bid to become the mayoral candidate of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s center-left party, Morena, and announced that he will resign from the party. The day after the earthquake, he said that he has spent years trying to convince a group of residents of the Doctores neighborhood to leave their building, on the verge of collapse, according to him, since the 1985 earthquake, and now really about to come down. Will these residents heed his advice? Not likely; la Doctores is adjacent to la Roma, one of most hipster ‘hoods in the city, and la Doctores, in spite of its “poor and dangerous” reputation, is also heading that way. These neighbors, logically, feel that if they give up the little bit of turf that they have they will never make their way back into the city, let alone into any centrally-located neighborhood with access to subway and bus service. Monreal has been, along with mayor Mancera, one of the leading spokespersons and movers for real estate speculators, and both are licking their lips about the possibilities. At the same time, the tendency to build taller and shoddier buildings, exacerbated since 2007, has made the city much more vulnerable to the movements of an ever-shakier earth. (Colegio Rebsamen had two or more buildings; the one that was just built was the one that collapsed.)