The Post-Earthquake Struggle Between Military and Civilians – by Marcela Turati (Proceso)

~ This crónica was originally published on September 21, 2017 ~

Photo: Miguel Dimayuga

Two raised fists: The signal for silence. The gesture quiets the hundreds of people surrounding the seven-story building that has collapsed into a heap. Chainsaws are stopped, and the motor of the excavator halts. From the top of the pile of blocks and beams, on the corner of a street in the Condesa neighborhood, a soldier shouts toward the rubble:

“Norma, Consuelo, or María, if you can hear me, shout or tap!”

The words cause goosebumps for those listening, imagining that those three women might be trapped under the suffocating layers of concrete.

All ears strain, hoping to hear a shout, a groan, the slightest sound. Even the heartbeats seem to slow, yearning to hear that sign of a miracle.

“Norma, Consuelo, or María, if you can hear me, shout or tap!” the commander repeats, pointlessly.

A few meters away, behind the yellow ribbon the soldiers put up to limit access by “civilians,” a man keeps vigil despite his fatigue. He had been a topo, a mole, crawling through the rubble of the building in search of survivors when it first collapsed, and he is frustrated: “That’s not how it should be done. Those in charge don’t know what they’re doing.”

Dressed in camouflage, with a red helmet and a badge identifying him as a federal functionary, the man—who is an expert in rescues and cave exploration—explains further: “the protocol they are following is bad. They are trying to do everything from the top of the site, but that takes too long and prevents progress in the search.”

The mountain of debris reaches above the tops of the trees that line Amsterdam Avenue (greenery that residents of the building once had a privileged view of).

It is noon on Wednesday, September 20. It has been 23 hours since the earthquake, and the wreckage of the building remains as tall as the trees.

Soldiers, Marines, Civil Protection workers have all climbed to the summit, along with some burly construction workers who for hours have been removing, layer by layer, the chunks of concrete. They throw them down the sides, sometimes reaching the chain of volunteers—the majority of them “civilians” who have organized to pass the blocks to be loaded into a garbage truck.

“In the quake of ’85, we went between the floors, we made tunnels and reached those who were trapped. We found people alive, or bodies,” the frustrated topo explains, “but with this tactic of taking everything off the top, of picking the layers up, there’s no advance, time is being wasted.”

He then ticks off the buildings where, 32 years ago, they used the “mole” method: in a building on Tenochtitlán street, they used the shaft of an elevator, in a hotel on Edison street, in the Nuevo Leon housing complex, where they rescued 15 people.

The expert says that this time, he only managed to convince one lieutenant to let him use this method, which is recognized worldwide. When he could, he was able to enter the rubble with the help of two firefighters: he went five meters down and clambered between the third and fourth floor, where he found a woman’s crushed body. At dawn, he had to stop his mission.

“We made a tunnel, but there should have been five more. In ’85 we were able to find people all over, and get them out, but here we were only able to make one tunnel because the military and Civil Protection workers don’t want to listen. The firefighters ignore even those of us who were around in 1985 when we tell them to tunnel in,” he sighs, dejected and annoyed. “Those in charge don’t know.”

This struggle between those in uniform and “civilians” is widespread.

On the night of the 19th, when the soldiers arrived to take over the rescue work on the corner of Laredo and Amsterdam, they installed a perimeter to block those without uniforms or vests from the area surrounding the collapsed building. On the 20th, at noon, federal police asked neighbors and volunteers to withdraw and stop removing rubble, because they were now in charge of that. In both instances, the assembled crowd resisted, and refused to move.

“We got here before you did, and spent the whole night, why are you making us go? Where have you been?” one neighbor says to a policewoman who is trying to get him to move back.

The reality is that on the first day, citizens took control of the situation. Bit by bit, the soldiers and Marines have been taking over, pushing the civilians out.

Since the first night, around the collapsed building, a barricade of women soldiers—carrying rifles—began to prevent anyone from approaching the site.

María, an elderly neighbor of the collapsed building remarks, “as soon as the building fell, all of us here in Condesa came out and began to work, removing the rubble piece by piece. We organized to bring water, food, whatever was needed. There were a lot of foreigners helping too.”

She is now at Casa Durango, a green-painted residence across the street that has become a collection site for donations and where the family members of the collapsed building are waiting.

Too many hands, too many uniforms
This earthquake has not been like 1985, although it is impossible to ignore the similarities. Like a bad joke, it happened on the same day, September 19.

The same images of collapsed buildings across Mexico City, though now they come not from journalists like Jacobo Zabludovsky on radio and television, they appear in real time, from the cellphones of any citizen, broadcast directly across the city thanks to social media.

The damage is less extensive: 32 years ago, the city’s center appeared a war zone; at least 10,000 were estimated to have died. On Tuesday, some 50 homes and buildings were pulverized by the shaking, and the deaths had reached 104 in the capital.

But the drama has been intense, in places like the housing complex on Álvaro Obregón, the clothing factory in Colonia Obrera, and the collapse of the Rébsamen school with children inside and a girl who reportedly was communicating from beneath the rubble [which turned out to be untrue. –ed.].

Politicians, functionaries, and those in uniform again and again trying to impose control, but often failing because the crowds resist. By the thousands, people turned out in the streets to help however possible: by feeding rescue workers or neighbors (although in places like Condesa, offering a sandwich to a neighbor could be considered an insult), by organizing donation centers along with others, by offering to help remove rubble from the sites.

There is a shortage of experts, but a surplus of hands, an excess of willingness, an abundance of young people offering to work to exhaustion.

Everything goes to help in the face of tragedy, to salvage from the ruins. Youth arrive with bicycle helmets, lacking hardhats; dishwashing gloves in the place of proper work gloves; Caterpillar boots or simple sandals.

Every urban tribe that arrives in Condesa finds a role or organizes: there are human chains to remove rubble from the collapsed buildings, moving it to where others can load it into trucks; there are brigades of neighbors and strangers who offer food, medicine, blankets or water, or who take donations to a collection site; hordes of motorcyclists who offer to serve as messengers; citizens directing trafficking; representatives from far-off neighborhoods coming to help; professional photographers hoping to capture the moment of a rescue; gawkers who want to take a selfie or who spend hours perched on beams in order to have a front-row seat; trucks loaded with workers who arrive, with picks and shovels, at the scene of the catastrophe.

Here, in one of largest cities in the world, with 20 million inhabitants (including the urban sprawl), the sites of the fifty collapsed buildings were overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to help. And so much help became uncontrollable.

On the radio, the representative from the Benito Juárez district, Christian Von Roherich, asked people to stay away, not to come to help: “we don’t need more disorganization,” he said, almost pleading.

On the news, people are asked to stop trying to reach Xochimilco in the city’s south, because the roads are so congested that ambulances are struggling to get through. Photographs confirmed it: the scene appeared a pilgrimage. Police had no choice but to close the road and turned back the sandwiches, jugs of water, and spirit of solidarity.

In a donation center in the Roma neighborhood, a woman watches two kids loading a truck with supplies and tells me, alarmed, that she no longer has control over who is taking what, and to where. There are too many people, the street is overflowing.

A video showed how crowds in the streets of the Obrera neighborhood heckled and harassed the interior minister, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who had the idea of visiting one of the collapsed buildings.

Meanwhile, at Amsterdam 107, at 10 AM on the 20th, shouts are heard, alternating between threatening and pleading, profound and tasteless. A soldier yells:

“Civiliaaaaaaaaaaaans, move backward! Can’t you see you’re risking the lives of those working here? The best help is staying out of the way!”

District employees repeat the request in chorus.

The crowd ignores the demand, half plea, half insult, even as those in uniform are inching out the cordon marking the perimeter. Other than the government employees, the only “civilians” allowed access are the construction workers sent by their firms.

Yes You Did, Mexico
From the top of the rubble, the gesture is repeated constantly: raised fists. Everything freezes. Silence. False alarm. The movement and noise returns until the next signal.

Fragments of conversation drift down from the top of the pile. “He’s here, and he’s alive.” But for hours after, nothing is seen, no one is brought out.

The frustrated rescuer missed the moment when they were able to extract three bodies from the building.

‘Silence… Stretchers… Sheet… A clean box… Water… A doctor… Call the ambulance… Another sheet… Call Sergio’s brother…’ the shouts from those in charge of the rescue are repeated like echoes through the crowd. A prelude that this would not be a false alarm.

At 11 AM, the first body emerges: draped in a white sheet, strapped to a stretcher that is passed down hand over hand.

Tears well up, a generalized knot in the throat. Before the spectators dry their tears, another body appears. By the shape of the sheet, the body has been mangled.

“Turn off your phones, this isn’t a circus!” the soldiers shout, furious at the volunteers overcome by the temptation of a photo for their social networks who had whipped out their cameras to record the moment.

Once again, the wrestling match between those in uniform and civilians.

At 11:16, after a count of one, two, three, the rescuers strain, and pull someone from the rubble. Alive. It was Sergio, the one they had talked about, the one asking about his brother from beneath the earth. Sergio, whose family waited in the green house.

More tears make a path downward, reaching the surgical masks and cheeks dusty with the building’s remains.

Applause, cheers, patriotic cheers of “Viva Mexico” and “Yes we can, yes we did.” A voice shouts to the survivor tied to the stretcher, “You can do it, Sergio! Get well!”

After almost 24 hours of digging, Sergio was the sixth person to be rescued from Amsterdam 107. Before him, there had been a man who had managed to reach the roof when the shaking began, and was badly hurt; then a woman and child, dead. Now three adults: two dead, one alive. The number of people still trapped was unknown.

Returning to work, from the top of the destroyed building, soldiers began throwing down what they found at their feet: the base of a bed, a broken chair, what appeared a piece of a dining table, a metal doorframe, a black box, a pack of paper labeled with a name. Intimate life passing from hand to hand, in full view of everyone.

The many photographs found on the seventh floor caught the attention of those assembled. Photojournalists keeping vigil around the building would explain later that the residents there were a beloved couple, both photographers, who had an impressive collection of images. Wesley—who was a war correspondent—was rescued alive, but badly hurt. The assembled had no idea what happened to his partner Elizabeth.

The frustrated topo had found family photographs of a couple, some passports, and papers. According to his theory, the building fell because the construction company used only half-inch rebar to support the seven stories, when they should have used a minimum thickness of two inches.

“It is criminal. From an engineering standpoint, it is what should have been done. They put the half-inch in to save money. It was an act of corruption,” he says, indignant. Later, he points out how the construction workers cut the thin bars with little more than a cheap saw.

A neighbor says that the family of the building’s owner is waiting in Casa Durango, hoping he will be rescued. A young woman comes by, offering bread sent from a nearby gourmet bakery. Every five minutes, someone offers food, coffee, water, milk, sandwiches, cheese, juice. Whatever you can imagine.

This crater on Amsterdam Street, and the armed soldiers in the street, seem out of place in a neighborhood as upscale as Condesa. Google Maps streetview shows the collapsed building painted pink and gray, each of its 21 apartments with a balcony.

Just two days before the tragedy, an advertisement online offered one of the apartments for sale: “Exterior unit, 5th floor, 936 square feet, 37 square foot balcony, two bedrooms: the master with full bath, and another full bath. Full kitchen. One parking spot, with valet service. 24/7 private security. Eighty square foot utility room on roof, and laundry room one floor up.”

The advertisement was accompanied by a note: “Attention investors: The apartment rents for between $18,000 and $24,000 pesos. Ideal for AirBnB. View of the trees along Amsterdam and in Parque México. Located between the two most beautiful parks in CDMX: Parque México and Parque España. Tourist zone of La Condesa. Perfect location, near Insurgentes, Patriotismo, Constituyentes, Revolucion, Metrobus. 10 minutes to the Cibeles fountain and Álvaro Obregón. A block from Superama Michoacán. Galleries, restaurants, school, gyms.” In the interior photos, the crowns of the trees are always visible through the windows.

The price: four million, 850 thousand pesos [approx. $273,497 USD]. The building’s age: 36 years. It was built before the 1985 earthquake.

“It was criminal to use that rebar,” the anonymous rescuer says repeatedly. He did not know the building until it collapsed.

People keep arriving. The parks, roundabouts, medians, sidewalks have all become emergency centers.

On social networks, people keep sending requests for assistance, whether names of those who are still missing or are hospitalized, disseminating the locations of donation centers, new collapses, announcements of free services, or news of rescues.

“Urgent: axes and hydraulic cutters and chainsaws and welding gloves needed at Amsterdam and Laredo, please share” – a woman asks to use my phone to write my contacts.

On the social networks there are also now patriotic announcements celebrating the extraordinary solidarity demonstrated by residents of the city, who took over the streets, opened the doors of their homes, and one person yells “Viva Mexico, cabrones!” and even starts to sing the national anthem, skipping the verse that says “and the earth shakes at its core,” in order to avoid summoning more earthquakes and trying instead to add new words about donation centers.

Early on the morning of September 21, the military cordon was extended. The ability of unauthorized volunteers to approach the site is now totally cut off.

This story was originally published by Proceso on September 21, 2017 under the title “El forcejeo entre “civiles” y militares” and is available at:

Marcela Turati is an independent journalist specializing in human rights, social conflicts, and victims of violence. She has published in various magazines both in Mexico and around the world. She is a founder of the Red de Periodistas de a Pie. She is the author of the book Fuego Cruzado and the coauthor of Entre las Cenizas, La Guerra por Juárez, Infancias vemos migraciones no sabemos. She has been recognized with the prize for excellence from the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano in 2014, and the WOLA prize for Human Rights. She was a 2016-2017 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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