Letter from Mexico, November-December 2017: Earthquake: Mexico’s wake-up call

November 15, 2017

From the November-December 2017 issue of News & Letters

by J.G.F. Héctor

On Sept. 7 and 19, two deadly earthquakes struck Chiapas, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Morelos, Puebla, Guerrero and other states in the country, killing around 400 people and leaving thousands homeless. What has been the response from State and capital? What have been the possibilities opened by the self-organization of the people from below?


Earthquakes are natural phenomena and impossible to avoid. However, their consequences are not “natural.” They are directly related to social conditions.

Most of the earthquake victims are families who live in old apartment buildings, workers in antiquated constructions, Indigenous communities in precarious housing.

Even when the buildings are new, as in Portales Sur in Mexico City, why did they collapse? If builders and contractors didn’t follow the proper building codes, why did the State allow them to build?

The earthquakes brought to the fore the corruption of the government, as well as social inequalities in the country.

While the poorest people are always the ones most affected, it was they who made possible, through their collective self-organization, the rescue of dozens of people trapped under the debris, as well as the collection of food, clothing and health items for the victims. Officials were often an obstacle to relief efforts as they closed access to disaster zones and stopped civilian rescuers from working. They bureaucratized the delivery of aid. There have been reports that some officials stole it.

A fraction of the earthquake damage in Mexico City on Sept. 20, 2017. Volunteers work to rescue survivors. Photo: Germán Gutiérrez.

Two scenes show the government’s way of handling the situation versus that of ordinary citizens: 1) When the Secretary of State wanted to capture the attention of the television cameras in the middle of a rescue in Mexico City, people pushed him away, demanding that he “let them work,” as this was no place for interviews, and 2) when, after just 36 hours, the army wanted to look for corpses instead of living human beings, the people demanded that looking for survivors must continue without the use of destructive machinery.

A few days after the Sept. 7 earthquake, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) raised precisely the question of solidarity that springs from below versus the opportunism that comes from above:

“As is usually the case, the bad governments are only going to mock our suffering, taking pictures of themselves in front of the rubble and making money off the pain of the people struck by tragedy. For this reason we call upon the men and women of good conscience, the collectives of the Mexican and International Sixth and the Mexican people as a whole to be in solidarity and to bring blankets, medicine and non-perishable foods in support of the [affected] villages.”


Earthquakes don’t destroy class divisions but reaffirm them. Capitalism turns natural phenomena into deeper tragedies. Capitalism, in order to save production costs, puts workers in old buildings, like the ones that fell down in Mexico City. Capitalism, by paying minimum wages, forces families to live in precarious homes.

This is a system that, by concentrating work in big cities, causes chaotic growth, raising the risks from “natural disasters.” It is capitalists who want to build an airport on the highly seismic zone of the Texcoco Lake, putting in peril the life of millions while dispossessing hundreds of their land.

September was a month of grief and commotion for all the Mexican people. For days, our efforts had to be aimed at trying to rescue survivors of the earthquakes, as well as to help other victims. It is precisely here, in the solidarity and self-organization that springs from below, that the possibility of a new world, beyond capital, with new human relationships, appears. How can we make it blossom? Will this movement from below, splendid in itself, suffice, or would we need something else in addition?

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