Fuerza, México: Cracks in the Government’s Foundation

“...escritura de fuego sobre el jade, / grieta en la roca…” Octavio Paz, “Sunstone”

On the afternoon of September 19th, the thirty-second anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Mexico trembled again during the most damaging quake since. More than 300 official deaths have since been recorded in Mexico, which never established such a death toll for the 1985 quake; now, a month later, Mexico strives to pick up the pieces. It is hard to forget the earthquake as celebrations of Dia de los Muertos take place in the streets filled just a few weeks before with wails and shouts. The Mexican government, plagued by accusations of corruption and sanctioned violence, is at the epicenter of the aftermath.

Unlike in 1985, the ubiquity of cellphones allowed for thousands of videos and pictures to capture the earthquake as it was happening; in one, shouts of “¡Dios mío!” can be heard as a building collapses in Mexico City, when just seconds before onlookers pleaded for those inside to leave. In videos capturing the days after the earthquake, hopeful calls slip into silence as corpses are dragged from the rubble of apartments and businesses. Alongside the loss of life, the historical and cultural damage are simply incalculable. Untold artifacts and celebrated churches are lost forever, and streets of the city have desolate gaps where venerated buildings once stood. (or, even now, debris stills sits throughout the federal district and neighboring towns, including Puebla. The digital age allowed for the events to plaster social media as they were happening, prompting a wave of support with the transnational hashtag #FuerzaMexico on social media that has since died off. Now, not dissimilar to the hollow platitudes of ‘thoughts and prayers’, #FuerzaMexico pops up with pictures of celebrities and minor politicians, smiling and besuited. What has sustained, however, are the governmental cracks evinced by the earthquake.

Expectedly, poor citizens were disproportionately affected by the quake. After 1985, the government instituted more stringent building codes, but grandfathered buildings and corruption resulted in incomplete preparation for future seismic events. The government’s inept response thirty two years ago was well remembered this September; in a Los Angeles Times article, Alejandro Hope recounts that “[t]he government pretty much disappeared for the first 24 hours”. In a Chicago Tribune article, Javier Saucedo, the father of a trapped child, laments the government’s response: “¿Por qué nos están haciendo esto? ¿Por qué nuestro propio gobierno juega con el dolor de las familias? Lo que están haciendo no se vale”: “Why are they doing this to us? Why is our own government playing with the grief of our families? What they are doing is not right.” Political parties are accused of exploiting the tragedy, while the acting government seeks quick fixes, like water delivery, for long term problems. This is far from the only claim made against Mexico, the 53rd most corrupt country, where accusations of complicity for the kidnapping of 43 students and vote-buying remain unresolved. Drug violence is increasing alarmingly, and the government (along with the United States) is often blamed for mismanaging the War on Drugs that has led to civilian casualties. The handling of the earthquake reflects decades-long political exploitation that may have reached the brim.

Political dissatisfaction runs high in Mexico, with decreasing support for the PRI and President Peña Nieto and unlikely candidates gaining momentum. The leftist candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is the frontrunner for the upcoming election, a radical change from the status quo - but not necessarily a good one. Some are worried about the populist movements rising in Mexico, where historian Carlos Bravo warns, “Nineteen eighty-five, in many ways, represented a spring, where 2017 might become, alas, the beginning of a winter.” But few defend the current state of affairs, where high-profile arrests of Mexican governors seem almost commonplace. This expansive government corruption and innumerable transgressions is embodied by the rubble still filling Mexican streets. The United States, too, has a vested interest in preserving Mexico by virtue of being next-door neighbors, but it is unlikely the current administration is interested in long-term support and propping up the (f)ailing state. Mexico must save itself, but no one knows how. 

Hope can be found in unlikely places like the Day of the Dead and with international support and pan-Mexican nationalism (an unlikely resurgence) through social media, but as the dust settles the government is implicated in mismanagement in a manner entirely expected. To begin repair, looking toward grassroots change seems more viable than governmental oversight for governmental problems: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Although the earthquake brings new immediacy to the faults of the government, it’s unclear where Mexico is headed, and how it may begin to rebuild.