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Thirty three years ago, and a year ago

The 1985 and 2017 earthquakes in Mexico shook the nation. In the former case, the collapse of the national pediatric hospital, the incompetence of authorities, and the mass death left a lasting scar on the citizens of Mexico. 20, 000 deaths and a million made homeless. Even with the deaths and destruction, despite all of the international help, Miguel De La Madrid declined international aid and stubbornly spearheaded a widely criticized effort to help victims. This truly was the last nail in the coffin of his political party, PRI, and a legacy that would haunt him for the rest of his political career.

Illustration for article titled Thirty three years ago, and a year ago

However, on the same day of the 1985 earthquake in 2017, and a mere three hours after the official drill, another earthquake hit Mexico. The damage was far felt from Mexico City, causing flooding and death across the south western area of the country. Reports of the earthquake reached as far as Guadalajara and even Monterrey; cities that typically don’t feel seismic activity.


Immediately after the earthquake shook the Mexico City police, the navy, army, federal police, and Mexico State police reacted, but it was not enough. For a few days all medical services were made free, so were toll roads, thousands of official, and unofficial, shelters popped up across the city. Citizens were key to the initial rescue efforts and the continuous care of those rendered homeless due to the earthquake.


Haunted by the widely criticized response of his forebearer, Peña Nieto tried to act with the most competence as possible, but even then many shortcomings remained. Authorities outside Mexico City stole donated food and supplies, and a mediatic circus made around a made up girl “Frida Sofia” wasted precious resources digging into the ground just for extra ratings for Televisa. This without even mentioning that many of the buildings damaged are still damaged and people never did receive the help or money they needed for their lives to return to normal.

Social housing collapsed, and that did not beface the agencies that approved them. Our former mayor Miguel Angel Mancera tried to erect a monument to the earthquake even though many people remain homeless due to the quake.


Peña Nieto was caught off guard, flying in the presidential jet, he was caught saying “We should we landing in about a minute, no, faster, in about five minutes” This perceived disaster even granted us an empathetic tweet from the President of the United States; which should underline how unprepared we were for this.

I think our experiences are best summed by these two literary pieces:

One of Jose Emilio Pacheco’s 1985 poem

Earth unknows mercy

It only desires

To prevail, transforming.

Earth we destroyed made itself present

No one can claim: Twas a vengeance”

Earth is mute; it speaks only through disaster

Earth is deaf; it never hears the screaming.

Earth is blind; it never sees the death.

-Jose Emilio Pacheco

Proceso Magazine “Ten times weaker”

For your information, the “richter seismic scale”is logarithmic: Not linear. This means that a 8.1 magnitude earthquake is ten times stronger than one of 7.1 magnitude (not 10% or 15% stronger as one might think). In other words: yesterday, an earthquake ten times weaker than the one in 1985 downed 40 buildings and killed almost 100 people in Mexico City.


In summary: in 32 years we’ve learnt fucking nothing. A school and a textile workshop collapsed; illegal building permits were granted; people were allowed to live in older, and damaged, buildings (and people chose to live in those buildings); authorities did not carry out enough reviews, or did them wrong, or no one cared about them; our consciousness and capacity to expect more did not improve either, nor did anyone ever care to explain the difference between magnitude and intensity, as such, today we uncovered, bewildered, that we were not in fact in the safe hands of planning and prevention, but in the hands of luck, we learnt that an earthquake ten times weaker than the one in 1985 could still tumble the capital of this nation to the ground.

Risk analysis did nothing to avoid catastrophe; it only told us where to look for the bodies: the same places we found them three decades ago.


When I studied journalism and reviewed the coverage of the 85' earthquake, I was amazed by a small hole: little to nothing was written about sanctions to those that built those shitty buildings, only sanctions to public officials who gave a blind eye. It was for a simple reason: there never were any fines.

With that in mind we know those responsible for what happened today, that have a known name and surname, accomplices and protectors, interests and riches. Who gave them the building permits? Who didn’t do their job? Why did schools, supermarkets, and apartment buildings fall if by law they needed to be built with much more structural integrity? Why did a bridge at a university, known for their engineering school, fall? It’s been 32 years, shouldn’t we be prepared for a quake larger than even the one in 1985 instead of being befaced by one much, much weaker? Which role did gentrification play? Which one did ignorance play? What should we, the people, be responsible for? What are we going to expect now?


Let’s keep something straight: the earthquake killed few, impunity cost most of the lives lost. This wasn’t an unpreventable catastrophe.

Now let’s get ready for the political shitshow that will suggest that given the size of the quake, 200 or even 250 deaths represent a small number; blame the proximity of the epicenter to Mexico City: a city proud of it’s response, who alike the governor of Morelos, wanted this to be an open-shut case. Yet I’d like to insist: today we were hit by an earthquake ten times weaker than the one in 1985 and yet again, our capital collapsed, or that the majority of emergency responders were citizens( the government was overwhelmed, again.), that in a city with thousands of structures only forty overwhelmed the capacity of our government.


The State failed. It’s function is to provide safety and it failed, again. Let’s not kid ourselves: citizens are not the prime worry of politicians. The amount of public funding fought for next year’s election is not comparable to the amount set aside to undo this mess.

We’re atop a lakebed and a seismic area, but we’re also atop ignorance and impunity. Yet we can stand on our own feet, lift our fist and shout “silence!” just to listen carefully to the creaking of our nation.


-Juan Carlos Ortega.

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