Unsettling Earthquake in Mexico City Reveals Governmental Shortcomings

Last month an earthquake rocked the Mexico City area. The greatest damage was experienced in the capital of the country where more than 200 hundred people died or are missing, 38 buildings collapsed, and many others structures are no longer suited for living. The colossal metropolitan area – with its 20 million inhabitants – remains in chaos.

The response to the disaster from ordinary people was probably the most impressive part of the story. Mexico City’s government said that about one million people went out into the streets to help on the streets. They were not just trying to rescue the victims from the ruins, but also directing traffic, gathering food, medicines, and clothes, and even trying to get together people with their lost pets.

It was normal people doing extraordinary things. It was them, and not the government, helping the most.

Naval officers helped clear the ruins of several buildings, including a school in the south of the city where 19 children died. Enrique Rebsamen elementary school got the attention of the media because there was a girl, Frida Sofía, who was reporting from within the collapsed building by text messages. A naval official told reporters that they were in contact with her. After 2 two days of intense television broadcast on her rescue, it was confirmed that she didn’t exist. No wonder people got very angry with that scam.

At the same time, another collapsed building didn’t get that much attention. Located on Chimalpopoca street in Mexico City, it appears that the building may have been used for illegal textile activities. At least 21 people died when the building collapsed, including several foreigners. The Mexican Government doesn’t want to talk about it and the reason is simple: it was damaged during the 1985 earthquake, they knew it, and they didn’t care enough to demolish it. The Chimalpopoca building is one of many examples of government negligence that showed up because of this tragedy.   

The outstanding behavior of civilians after this earthquake mirrors the response to the 1985 earthquake. The immense public reaction is interesting since Mexican civil society is not known to be particularly active. In general, Mexicans don’t seem that interested in what happens outside of their private sphere.

In the last presidential election, 4 out of 10 citizens didn’t show up to vote. There’s little involvement in organizations. And other than some public demonstrations, you don’t see a lot of interest in democratic life in the country. Edna Jaime – important public figure, and Director of a Mexican think tank –  says that this is the outcome of the authoritarian regime that ruled Mexico the whole 20th century. People didn’t have power: even the elections were a masquerade.

The earthquake made clear that Mexican citizens are willing to care for others, but they are sick of politics.

A change.org petition is circulating through social media to demand that the President redirect government financing for the political parties’ budget and to use it those funds for the reconstruction effort. However, such actions would be illegal, since the money for parties is allocated by law and the President cannot overturn that. Still, this petition shows the generalized ignorance about the structure of power in the country, as well as the desires of citizens. It is hard to measure how far (or close) it may come to the “All of them must go!” cries of the Argentinians during their 2001 economic crises.

Given this context, it’s normal that politicians seem worried about the possible outcomes of this tragedy. The head of one political party proposed to donate 20 percent of its budget to help victims of the earthquake. The President is everywhere promising any kind of help, and the Mayor of Mexico City said that there will be a subsidy for rent for those who lost their homes. They might be doing their job, but they are probably most concerned about next year’s Presidential elections.

The choices for the next election in Mexico leave a lot to be desired. The ruling party (PRI) has lost a lot of popularity because the current President has been accused of several acts of corruption, the violence they promised to end is still here, and the Mexican peso lost almost half its value in the past year.

The right-wing party (PAN) is divided by internal quarrels, and one of the probable candidates is the wife of a former President who started the “war against Narco” that has cost the lives of around 170 thousands civilians.

In recent years, the left party split up, giving life to a new alternative that doesn’t sound new at all. The novel party (Morena) is led by a very controversial politician who has run in every presidential election since 2006.

Political memories in Mexico are short, but this natural disaster doesn’t seem likely to be forgotten anytime soon. The earthquake is no politician’s fault, but they may pay for it, and it is not completely unfair because they have been doing poorly for a long time. The way in which this earthquake will shake Mexican politics is yet to be seen. There’s always a vague hope that the political elite will finally listen to their citizens.

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Esther graduated from Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE) Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Relations. She will pursue a master’s degree at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where she will focus on International Development Studies. Before coming to GW, she worked for Mexico Evalúa, Centro de Análisis de Políticas Públicas as a researcher on public budget and accountability. She has also worked as an analyst for Fundación IDEA and as a research assistant at her alma mater, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. During this time she has also volunteered for several worthy causes, including most recently Citizen Action Against Poverty where she volunteers her time to improve public policies to alleviate poverty in Mexico. 

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