Suffering Quake Survivors Turn on Mexico’s Government
More than a quarter of a million families have been affected by the quake, which ruined well above 150,000 homes.
MEXICO CITY—It has been 11 days since the horror began—day 11—the day people know all hope for more survivors is lost. But across this city and in nearby states most of the conversations you overhear still center on the earthquake. Questions like, “Where were you? How is your house? Is your family OK?” And thousands who assisted in the rescue efforts continue to struggle to process what has just happened.
I, too, ask these questions. Most respond stoically before eventually our conversations devolve into rambling tears. Friends and strangers have retold the story of the moment the earthquake hit and the traumatic hours and days that have followed. It killed 358 people, and counting.
But the final tally will continue to rise.
Forty corpses have been pulled from the rubble at at Alvaro Obregon 286, an office building in the chic Roma Norte area of Mexico City, and still more people remain buried under debris.
Before midnight on Sunday, five days after the quake, I arrived at Alvaro Obregon 286 to watch the ongoing rescue effort unfold as hundreds of volunteers surrounded the building, sorting mountains of donated supplies, handing out clothing and food, and making frantic phone calls or blasting text messages and tweets in an effort to crowdsource concrete saws and diamond blades to cut through the larger slabs of rubble. With hardware stores closed across the city, and little help from authorities, a volunteer with connections in the construction industry explained that she had finally managed to wake up some colleagues, hoping to locate the critical tools before daybreak.
After hours of phone calls, text messages, and hundreds of tweets from volunteers and neighbors helping coordinate the effort on social media, the power tools eventually arrived. But it would be several hours more before the necessary blades were located and brought to the site.
A crane stood still, illuminated from below by massive industrial lights, as a small cluster of rescue workers slowly continued the efforts from atop the mountain of rubble that days before had been a bustling seven-story office building. Family members, children, slept on the grass at the intersection across the street, unwilling to leave in case further news came.
American photographer Jason Thomas Fritz rode out the quake a few blocks from this building in the Roma Norte area—one of the hardest hit in the city. “I instantly knew it was going to be bad,” he told The Daily Beast. “I walked two blocks and saw the crushed car,” a white Porsche.
Fritz then ran down Alvaro Obregon, arriving at the collapsed office building before the authorities got there. He watched three people pulled alive from the rubble.“They were lining people up on the sidewalk—bloody, dusty, major injuries. I knew there were going to be dozens, if not a hundred or so, people in that building,” he said.
He told the attendant at a nearby convenience store what had happened and asked to buy all of the water to take to the neighbors who had begun digging for survivors at the scene. “I think he realized from the terror on my face that people were desperate,” he said, adding that the attendant helped him run water to the building.
“An entire crew of people from a nearby work site marched in with poles to try and shore it up and start digging,” he said. “It reeked of gas.”
Quickly, the young people of the city were becoming hyper organized, coordinating delivery of supplies in the street—a scene that replicated itself at hundreds of improvised donation centers across the city and in nearby states.
Past midnight on the sixth day of rescue operations, young locals sat across from Obregon 286 and sang tragically appropriate lyrics borrowed from the Beatles. “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down. And I do appreciate you being ’round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you please, please, help me,” sang a young man with a guitar. “Help me. Help me.”
Though Tuesday marked seven days since the quake, and hope had begun to dwindle, there had been many survivors rescued from buildings across the city, both humans and animals—dogs, cats, a parrot, a turtle, all pulled out alive after days trapped under rubble.
Early Saturday morning, two more bodies were recovered. Nearby, people prayed for the victims at this office building, and workers who’ve remained at the site around the clock for eleven days finally suspended rescue efforts. In recent days, hope has dwindled that more survivors would be found as rescue workers whisper about an unmistakable stench seeping up from the debris.
Unfortunately, besides the remarkable feats performed by civilians and first responders—both foreign and domestic—there have also been stories of abuses and violations committed by the military and authorities, and families and friends of the missing or deceased have grown suspicious of their intentions, since they’ve taken control of the rescue operations and hurriedly worked to clear rubble.
Trust in the government here is never high, and some families suspect the rush to clear away debris is a way to cover up coding violations and dangerous construction practices that almost certainly contributed to the massive and mounting death toll.
Wesley Bocxe, an American photojournalist whose building collapsed in the upmarket Condesa neighborhood, managed to survive the destruction that killed his wife, photographer Elizabeth Esguerra. He now clings to life in hospital.
But journalists—colleagues and friends—noted early on, while reviewing photographs from the scene of the rescue operation, that members of the military had taken the opportunity to steal what little Bocxe had left. Photos show numerous soldiers wearing vests and bags designed by the photojournalist Boxce, who created the Newswear brand after growing dissatisfied with other photo vests. Across the city, similar thieving has unfolded, but none as well documented as the Boxce case.
Just before dawn after one long night I talked to a dozen volunteers who sat under tarps preparing food for marines and workers near. Throughout the night, at a half-dozen sites, women and children offered cookies and warm atole, which I had chosen to not accept. But here, there was no refusing.
“We have too much hot food that we can’t transport,” volunteers fanning a fire insisted. “If you don’t eat it no one will.”
I sat with the volunteers, drinking coffee, as they explained that they had been sending all of their supplies south to Xochimilco, where the people had benefitted from less generosity. There, in neighborhoods adjacent to the polluted lake—what’s left of the water that once filled the Valley of Mexico—lack of water has become the biggest issue post-earthquake.
Volunteers explained that local authorities had come to pick up all of their donations on Sunday, to take to a distribution center managed by the the city government, which would decide where to deliver the donations. But the volunteers, faced with mounting reports of government misappropriation of donated aid, refused to hand over the supplies.
Jose Walterio, a young volunteer coordinating southbound distribution, explained that a volunteer with government contacts had been alerted by a text message from a friend who works for the city that the authorities were on their way.
“She asked me, ‘Where are your donations heading? We’ve been told to intercept donations that are leaving the city, to move them to warehouses in the city’,” said Mildred, a low level city employee who took the week off work to help with donations as a citizen volunteer. They did their best to hide donations behind a makeshift tent that volunteers napped in. And then stood guard and at the ready. The authorities, volunteers insisted, came but left empty handed. Mildred had to leave because she had to return to work that day or risk losing her job.
“Watch them try to use this aid for political purposes,” said Jose Walterio. “You’ll see. The aid will reappear around campaign time [before the 2018 elections], and they’ll pretend to show generosity with stolen donations.”
At the multi-family Tlalpan complex that collapsed near Coyoacán in Mexico City—where 18 people were rescued and nine bodies retrieved—I stood alone in the rain for more than an hour in the hours before dawn, watching the painstakingly slow rescue efforts. A white Schnauzer had been rescued there just hours before.
But now, less than a dozen workers stood atop the pile of rubble, occasionally pounding the roof with sledgehammers, but mostly standing still, elbows akimbo, sometimes walking from one point of the roof to another.
Family members had obtained a stop order, which bought them five more days to prevent workers from entering with heavy machinery that could further jeopardize the safety of any survivors, but it also left workers pacing with arms crossed, seemingly unwilling or incapable of doing anything to accelerate the rescue operations.
On Tuesday, Fausto Lugo, the Mexico City head of civil protection, said the rescue operation at this building has come to an end. “We no longer have a registry of people [under the rubble],” he said. “If we did, we’d be working more carefully.”
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera invited citizens to visit the official collection and distribution center on Monday to guarantee that there were no irregularities—as allegations mount in nearby states that donations are being appropriated and relabeled for political purposes—in a brief video clip that shows him passing bottles of water along a line of city workers.
But the city has been rushing a return to normalcy, even with bodies still being pulled from rubble. The Mexico City metro system, which has allowed civilians to ride for free—and carry their shovels, pickaxes, and sledgehammers on the subway with them—as of Thursday was no longer free for the public. On radio stations across the city, the chatter has returned to the usual subjects—traffic, air pollution, sports.
Social media, which was dominated still, just days ago, by hashtags related to the earthquake—addresses that need help, allegations of corruption and code violations, reports of collapsed buildings built without retaining walls, irregularities the local government should have been aware of and dealt with before the tragedy—is now once again saturated by talk of TV shows, and simple-minded but uplifting hashtags like #HappySaturday.
Many believe this is coming suspiciously soon, as they relive memories of the past social media manipulation in support of the government.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, I’d made it to the corner of Escocia and Gabriel Mancera before daybreak, in the Del Valle borough of Mexico City, one of the few sites that was still in need of civilian volunteers. There, two buildings had collapsed into rubble.
Marines guarded the perimeter of a two-block radius, keeping civilians and the media out. At the volunteer tent a line of men in their early twenties had formed and waited in hard hats to enter the site. Two young ballerinas, 22-year-old dance students from a Mexico City university, stood waiting in oversized vests over pink sweaters, too-big gloves, and donated boots.A volunteer coordinator asked, “Who will lead the women’s brigade?” as reporters stood along the perimeter, unable to enter the site.
The girls stayed shyly silent, so I raised my hand. Within minutes I had a vest, a hard-hat, two right-hand gloves, and a Sharpie that I used to write my name, emergency contact, and blood type on my left arm. I was asked to write a list of the young women who would join the brigade, copy the information they had written on their arms, and make sure they all had masks and boots. I wore my own.We were unable to enter the site until we’d gathered a team of 15 women. Two groups of male volunteers that had arrived after us marched in as we waited. I tweeted a request for volunteers and within minutes more young women had arrived. Still, more than an hour went by as we stood waiting for the go-ahead. We then walked single file for two blocks to a collapsed building two blocks away, past a cordoned-off and cracked apartment complex that threatened to collapse. Several men in suits arrived to make an appearance, and nearby cameras began rolling, pointed directly at marines working at the scene.
We were taught the hand signs—a raised fist for silence, two fists for total silence, an open palm to stop everything and stay still, two palms for water, and a lasso sign made with a raised index finger meant resume working.
Then came more waiting, as we watched civilians, marines, and metro maintenance workers in pink vests work at the rescue site. But the long wait and demands we form a 15-person brigade had been in vain, as a young woman named Alejandra—the sub-chief of the women’s brigade we had formed—and I were the last civilian volunteers allowed into the site.
We ran to grab wheelbarrows and begin working. The system was simple and self-evident.
Workers atop the rubble broke up large pieces of concrete, which others then put into buckets and dumped into wheelbarrows, which we would then roll down the street and dump on the ground once more in front of a garbage truck. There, others would shovel the moved rubble back into buckets, which were then relayed along a human chain into the dump truck, as buckets were rushed back to the front of the line and wheelbarrows resumed their positions at the back of a separate line to slowly make our way back to the multi-storey mound of rubble.
It wasn’t the most effective system, but it kept the chaos to a minimum and everyone working in straight lines, with one specific task to not waver from.
The sun had finally come up. And from the collapsed building came the cry of “¡Vida!”—signs of life.
We raised our fists and for a moment believed 19-year-old Juan Pablo Irigoyen—who had returned to the building on Tuesday moments before the collapse to rescue his dog—had been found, alive.
He’d been in contact with his family from below the rubble before his phone battery eventually died. Family members and friends had spent days demanding that authorities avoid using heavy machinery and keep tunnelling manually to rescue the teenager. As we moved aside, paramedics rolled an oxygen tank on a dolly to the front of the line. A minute of silence passed before the paramedics rolled by once more, now leaving with the oxygen tank.
Moments later we were told to all go home. “Work’s over for today,” said authorities standing by. “We’re bringing in the heavy machinery.”
Juan Pablo did not survive.
His corpse was retrieved in the early morning hours of Wednesday. The priority is now demolition and removal of debris.
At the Chimalpopoca factory in Mexico City’s Colonia Obrera an unknown number of women—some undocumented—died trapped under the rubble. The government of Taiwan on Thursday confirmed that four Taiwanese women and one man with dual-nationality died in the factory, but a full tally of just how many women and men worked there is still unknown.
Members of the self-labeled Feminist Brigade, a loosely organized group of women who worked tirelessly to coordinate aid—just one of many brigades that self-organized immediately after the quake, using networks they’d created previously for different purposes—had been helping move rubble at the site until they were kicked out of the area just days after the quake. The women have been demanding the list of names of women who worked at the factory—a request that has still not been fulfilled.
Most of the search and rescue operations have been based entirely on the testimony of people who’ve appeared and alerted volunteers and authorities that their children, friends, and parents, were inside the buildings that collapsed. But many of these factory workers did not have a network of people looking for them, and many of their names are still unknown.
Suspicions and rumors about this site have been so widespread that even after the building had been cleared of corpses and rubble, and the national anthem sung in situ, civilians so mistrusted the authorities that they returned to break open the floor, in search of a rumored basement allegedly housing undocumented women. No basement was found.
The name of the building’s owner has also not yet been released, but a report from investigative magazine Proceso claims this is very much intentional. Before the building—which was already structurally compromised in the 1985 earthquake—was used to house factories, several government offices were based there.
When the earthquake hit last Tuesday, it took mere seconds for the building on Chimalpopoca street to crumble into its footings.
Going back as far as the early 1990s, government officials had complained of the dangers there, and cracks that hadn’t been fixed after the previous earthquake. By the late ’90s the government offices had relocated and evacuated the building citing fear that it could collapse. Twenty years later, it did, killing dozens of people—mostly women. Many of the bodies were not retrieved from the site, which took mere days to fully clear of all rubble and evidence of what occurred, and women’s organizations are demanding answers, names, and a proper tally of the dead.
Similarly, in 1985, an unknown number of women died after more than 200 textile factories collapsed in Mexico City. Most of the bodies were never recovered, and were removed as debris, but estimates of the number of seamstresses killed in that quake range between 600 and as many as 1,500. Thirty-two years later, history repeats itself.
“Dead or alive, our bodies aren’t trash,” read signs placed at the site, where hundreds of people have come to set up a memorial for the unnamed.
The 22-year-old student from Mexico City in the above video, filmed five days after the quake, asked to remain anonymous, which is why her face is covered.
In interviews with The Daily Beast she spoke of the chaos of the rescue efforts, and the impotence at watching exhausted city workers and authorities work haphazardly while hundreds of hyper-organized volunteers were willing to come in to support the rescue efforts—which they had initially led in the first hours, when multiple people were pulled out alive. She said the work was careless, and frenzied, and that Marines had used sledgehammers to break up rubble even when they knew that beneath the slabs there were topos—the self-titled “moles” who heroically tunnel through rubble, sometimes with rescue dogs, trying to reach survivors.
“After the earthquake, I didn’t go home,” she said. “I couldn’t stop trying to help. I worked for seven days—first in Mexico City, and then Morelos—before I finally went home.”
She was especially impacted by what she saw at the Chimalpopoca factory.
When she finally made it back home, she met with friends and family, and began trying to process what she’d seen. On Thursday the student met with the psychology department of her university to ask for help dealing with the trauma of what she has experienced. She is hardly the only one struggling to deal what the events of the past twelve days—the frantic calls for help, lack of supplies, official obstruction and perceived disinterest, the body parts she saw pulled from the rubble, the voice of a survivor they were unable to save.
Irma, the woman who spoke from underneath the rubble, died a terrible death, as did hundreds of others across the city and central Mexico. The bodies of both Irma Sanchez and Irma Chavez were pulled from the rubble last week, before the last of it was cleared. The young student does not know which woman she heard speaking, but is haunted by the news that the woman who had felt so close to rescue never made it out alive.
Across the city, signs placed by volunteers offer others free therapy, and on social media dozens of students and practicing therapists have also offered help to those affected by the quake.
“It’s brutal,” she said, adding that the worst is not yet over. “We’ll continue pulling people from the rubble. Poorly built buildings will continue to collapse, and then be demolished.”
“People will move on with their lives, and stop caring about the people who’ve lost everything,” she said. But her life cannot yet return to normal. The building where she interns is cracked and cannot be safely entered. Despite the attempts to move forward, for many the earthquake isn’t over.
“This is something that I’ll never forget,” she said on Thursday. “Never.”