A few hours after the earthquake hit Mexico City, social media was filled with messages of love, respect, and concern for the country. Over a week has passed since September 19, when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the city. We now know that over 250 people died, dozens of buildings collapsed, and, at least, 3,000 others were damaged. The real death toll remains unknown as rescuers are still looking for people under the rubble.
In 1985, on the same day of the year, another devastating earthquake hit Mexico City. Official records say there were 10,000 deaths, but some sources, like the Mexican National Seismological Centre, claim there were more. This destruction lives in the collective memory of the citizens. Everyone, including those of us who weren’t alive to experience it, knows that on that tragic day it was the citizenry, not the inefficient government, who came together to save one another.
Many of these deaths can be attributed to corrupt building codes and agreements. The administration of then-President Miguel de la Madrid appeared to recognize its mistake. The administration’s reaction was to disappear from the damaged areas, attempt to diminish the impact of the disaster on the news, and deny international support for several days. Common people formed rescue brigades to make up for the government’s inaction. Since then, Mexico has developed one of the best disaster response teams in the world, and it holds the vice presidency of the UN Rescue Committee.
Last week, a similar event occurred. While it is true that this time the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, visited the damaged areas on the day of the earthquake, and armed forces aid brigades were deployed within a few hours, it is also true that, just as in 1985, civil society was the first to participate in rescue efforts. Aware that the government might abandon them again, people rushed to streets and started to organize to help in every way they could. Tens of thousands of volunteers went into the streets and helped remove the rubble, rescue the injured, hand out supplies, and feed those who were tired. Most of the volunteers were young—unsurprising, because almost a third of Mexico’s population is under thirty years old. What surprised the older generation was that it was millennials, who can be perceived as apathetic and self-centered, that helped the most.
Too soon, the government proved to be, once again, inefficient and guilty of corruption. Buildings that were built after 1985 shouldn’t have fallen; their building codes were specifically designed to withstand earthquakes. But due to corruption on the part of contractors and government agencies, they did.
Televisa, the biggest broadcaster in the country, known for its ties to the government, deceived the population reporting for about 12 hours the story of a girl under the rubble that didn’t exist. They successfully diverted attention from the disaster and when people realized everything was staged their suspiciousness towards the government immediately turned into complete mistrust.
Volunteers didn’t have a chosen leader; they organized through social media using retweets to locate missing people. The government dependency for family development (DIF) started to deviate supplies to organize them and distribute them. The people, distrustful of the government, and knowing they could organize this better, started to avoid government dependencies in order to help without intermediaries.The number of volunteers on the streets was so big that rescuers in some zones had to ask people to leave.
Millennials also used geo-localization technology to pinpoint the places that needed most help, which the official rescue workers themselves eventually adopted. Since then, the volunteers haven’t left the streets and the human chains; they have worked day and night, refusing to leave those in need.
The most powerful effect of this situation is that the Mexican people realized that they could help each other largely without government aid.This had an almost immediate political effect: if the government wasn’t solving the situation, they should, at least, provide the economic resources to do so to more capable groups. This is how a demand and a hashtag started: #PoliticosDenNuestroDinero (Politicians, Give Back Our Money). This was a call to take the budget destined for the campaign of political parties in the 2018 presidential election and redirect it to help rebuild all the damaged locations across Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Mexico City.
For some months now, Pedro Kumamoto, a millennial congressman, has fought to pass a bill that reduces the budget for political parties and works according to the number of supporters of the party in the last election. The bill has faced consistent rejection from the political class, and even though he was able to pass it in his state, Jalisco, he is still fighting to make it federal. What took months of work is moving much faster with the initiative to redirect this budget to aid. This can be attributed to the magnitude of the pressure put on the government by civil society. For example, more than 3 million people have signed a petition in Change.org to make this happen.
At first some politicians said doing so would be logistically impossible, but the Mexican people have been so insistent that now every party has agreed to “donate” their money. One of the candidates, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, says he agrees, but that he won’t give the money back to “the corrupt Treasure Ministry.” Even though it did nottake long for politicians to agree on the initiative, it has taken a long time to decide how it will be implemented. A functionary from the Electoral Institute said that Morena, a party founded by the demagogue López Obrador, and PRI, the president’s party, are more worried about being perceived as catalysts than cooperating to actually make the initiative work.
It is easy in this environment to be opportunists, but Mexicans are not buying it. The people are demanding their tax money back, arguing that you can’t “donate” something that didn’t belong to you. They are right, but there is a problem with the initiative. It would privatize the elections and that would mean only the richest people could fund a campaign. Some analysts like Sabina Berman propose that the entire campaign is based on ideas spread through the internet. That proposal also entails some problems because not all of Mexico has access to the internet, and even though online politics can make powerful progress, it can also spread a lot of lies fed by trolls. Kumamoto´s bill still sounds appealing to me. Even though it would raise 4,000 million less than the other initiative, it would prevent the privatization of elections. Maybe we should rush to push that initiative and suggest to cut the budget even more than what it was initially proposed.
The amounts of solidarity and civil participation are inspiring, but to have a real political influence, the movement must become more organized. Hierarchy is not necessarily required, but the challenge now is to find a way to canalize all the energy and support in a way that benefits us all. This new awareness of what ordinary people can do in the public sphere will definitely have an impact in the presidential election, as long as we don’t fall back into our routines, forgetting that all of our country, not just the people in the damaged zones, needs our help and our committed participation.
Once the state of emergency passes, we should question the corruption of contractors, the precarious situation that Central American migrants that helped in rescue brigades face, the sexism and exploitation that led to the deaths of working class women in a sweatshop, the centralism that made us care about the disaster only because it affected Mexico City, the 50% or higher poverty rate that all the states affected have, and the bias in mainstream media that led it to only highlight light-skinned volunteers. We must address these flaws in Mexico’s foundation, or our cities will continue to fall down.