Homero Aridjis

The death toll from the earthquake that struck on 19 September has reached 338, with 199 in Mexico City, while more than 100 perished in the quake on 7 September in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Around 150,000 dwellings were damaged, including 57,000 that were totally destroyed. 250,000 people lost their homes. The federal government puts the amount needed to build or repair affected housing at 16 billion pesos, the equivalent of £660 million. It will cost more than 13 billion pesos to repair 12,932 damaged schools; 577 are a total loss. Around 1500 historic monuments have been damaged, mostly churches, convents and museums, and 8 billion pesos will be required for their repair. The government is appealing to the business community for funds.

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the site of the collapsed four-storey building at 168 Bolívar Street, on the corner of Chimalpopoca.There had been several garment workshops inside; dozens of seamstresses died. The government bulldozed the ruins three days after the earthquake and carried off the bodies. The site has become an improvised cemetery, a vast Day of the Dead offering. Hand-lettered signs unanimously blame corruption for the womens’ deaths. ‘Collective organisation,’ the largest sign says. ‘Not a single other woman buried by corruption. Alive or dead our bodies are NOT rubbish. Corruption and machismo kill.’

An image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (invoked by several recent popes as Queen of Mexico and Patroness of the Americas) was propped up on a mound of rubble in the wasteland strewn with clothing, lengths of fabric and bunches of flowers. Two funeral wreaths stood forlornly. A white papier-mâché dummy could have been the ghost of a seamstress. There were dozens of stacked buckets, which had been used by volunteers to move the rubble.

Five crushed cars hunkered at the far side of the site. They probably belonged to the owners or managers of the businesses. Next to a primary school behind the building, a wall that crumbled during the earthquake had been replaced by varicoloured plastic sheets. The official death toll is 22, but neighbours – men, women and children – standing outside the site told me that at least fifty women had been working there and only six got out alive; nobody knew what had become of the bodies. A woman living near the collapsed building told the BBC that more than a hundred women had been inside. Some of the employees were from South Korea, China, Taiwan, Honduras and Guatemala, and most were probably in Mexico illegally.

The building used to be occupied by the Federal Electoral Institute and the Office of the Agrarian Attorney General. In the 1990s, it was evacuated several times because its collapse was feared. A former government employee said they had been relocated because it had been weakened in the 1985 earthquake. Four or five years ago telephone antennas, weighing 42 tons, were installed on the roof.

As well as the sweatshops the building housed a security camera business and a toy wholesaler. The building’s owner’s name isn’t known, but many people are sure it belongs to an influential politician. A local resident who works in construction pointed out that the floor and ceiling slabs were made of styrofoam covered with a thin coating of cement, and the bent rebar wasn’t the right size for the building’s weight.

As I was leaving I saw a teenager sound asleep on broken down cardboard boxes on the pavement. I assumed he was a street kid, but a man suggested he might be the orphaned son of a seamstress.

Nineteen children and seven adults died at the Enrique Rébsamen K-12 private school in the east of Mexico City when a wing of the school collapsed. It should have been shut down years ago, or never built in the first place.

In August 1983, the borough of Tlalpan issued a permit for a four-storey building at 11 Rancho Tamboreo to house a kindergarten and two apartments. Three months later, a permit was granted for ‘apartments, offices and a games room for the exclusive use of the apartments on four floors at the Rancho Tamboreo site’. In March 1984, a permit was given to build ‘an enlargement of construction on three floors, including a parking lot’. In March 1990, permission was granted to turn the building into a private secondary school, against zoning regulations.

According to the head of Mexico City’s Administrative Verification Institute (Invea), the school was twice ordered to close, in 2010 and 2014, because a residential building was being used illegally as a school. Since schools are ‘low impact’ establishments, however, Invea was required only to tell the school’s owners to ‘regularise the situations for which they had been sanctioned in order to continue in business’. A neighbour reported on his Facebook page that ‘closed’ seals were fixed to one of the doors for three years, but construction went on and the school continued to function normally using other entrances.

Between 2010 and 2014, the owner of the school, Mónica García Villegas, installed marble floors, granite counters and a jacuzzi above the classrooms that collapsed last week. The buildings were remodelled towards the end of 2013, raising the third and fourth floors, installing drywall divisions, and partially demolishing the floors to build a stairway, weakening the structure. In 2014, the school paid a fine of 21,000 pesos (about £920).

After an earthquake that year, the architects and engineers in charge of construction claimed the school and the apartments had all the equipment and security systems required for emergencies, and declared that the building ‘had passed all the load-bearing tests’.

In 2016, a local resident reported the construction of a roof garden on top of the school. Invea inspected the school and found the construction ‘unsuitable’. It ‘invited’ the owners either to close the school or get proper permission for it it. García Villegas and her brother produced a certificate, apparently dating from 1983, giving them the right to operate as an education centre. Suspecting the document might be phony, Invea began legal proceedings in February this year. According to Invea, a decision on whether the school should be allowed to continue operating has yet to be taken. The president of the administrative court, however, says a verdict was issued on 31 May, empowering Invea to proceed against the school, because the land-use certificate is indeed phony. According to the court, Invea could have shut down the part of the school that collapsed in the earthquake.

Mexico City’s building code stipulates that ‘the owner of a property is responsible for damages resulting from changes in the use of a building which produce loads larger or with a more unfavourable distribution than the approved design … The owner will also be responsible for damages that may be caused by modifications to the structure and the architectural project that alter the response of the structure to seismic activity.’ Tlalpan’s borough chief, Claudia Sheinbaum, has promised that no demolition will take place until the College of Civil Engineers has carried out a thorough inspection.

The day after the earthquake, García Villegas’s daughter was photographed removing clothing, shoes and bags from an upper floor apartment, and heard remarking to a companion: ‘At least we didn’t lose everything.’ Last weekend, while rescuers were still searching for the body of a cleaning woman who had worked in the owner’s apartment for ten years, García Villegas – in a blue helmet and with several helpers – used shopping carts to carry out clothing, shoes, documents, books, notebooks, boxes, basketballs, sealed plastic bags, a bed and a cast-iron garden bench. She also tried to take her Mercedes Benz, but was prevented by navy and federal police officers.

At a press conference yesterday, Sheinbaum announced that criminal charges have been filed against Mónica García Villegas and two officials who worked for the borough in 2010 and 2014. Corruption kills.

There has still been no satisfactory explanation for the mystery of Frida Sofía. Was the saga of the 12-year-old girl believed for thirty hours to be trapped in the collapsed building, under a granite counter from García Villegas’s kitchen, a collective hallucination or a government cover-up of something that went wrong in the rescue efforts when a propped-up part of the school pancaked in the early hours of last Thursday? Many people wonder if more dead children are buried in the rubble.

At Alvaro Obregon 286, three bodies were recovered last night, bringing the total to 35 so far. The search for the missing continues and anxious families complain of a lack of information.

Half a million people in the east of the city are without water. There are 800 leaks in the pipes. Residents stand in line to fill buckets from tanker trucks, but there isn’t enough to go round. Drivers complain that trucks have been hijacked by armed robbers. One driver was shot and the others are afraid to work, complaining that instead of protecting them the police say it’s better to hand over the trucks.

Elsewhere in Tlalpan, hundreds of residents evacuated from an apartment complex after one of its ten buildings collapsed have been living for nine days in tents flooded by rainwater, sleeping on the ground with no mattresses, plagued by rats, asking for canned food, underwear, childrens’ shoes. ‘It isn’t right that they keep us here like orphans,’ one of them said. ‘Many of us have nowhere to go.’ ‘We’re living in a disastrous situation because the government is a disaster. The government hasn’t brought us anything.’ Eighteen people survived the collapse and nine bodies were recovered, the last by the Japan Disaster Relief Team. Last night the evacuees learned that residents of five buildings can return to their apartments.

In Juchitan, Oaxaca, thousands are sleeping in the street on folding chairs, barely shielded from the driving rain by plastic sheets. The mayor is urgently asking for 20,000 tarpaulins.

Popocatepetl, the Smoking Mountain, an active volcano 43 miles southeast of Mexico City and about 100 miles from the epicentre of the 19 September earthquake, has been acting up. In recent days the volcano has experienced hundreds of low-intensity exhalations, three volcano-tectonic events and nine explosions, emitting incandescent fragments, steam and a rain of ash. Twenty million people live within 60 miles radius of the crater, and 200,000 in the volcano’s immediate vicinity.

The earthquake has derailed the July 2018 elections (presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and municipal). Politicians are using the quake to propose that electoral candidates no longer receive public financing, to be funded instead by ‘themselves, sympathisers and supporters’ – potentially opening the door to lobbyists, favour-seekers and abuses, as in the United States’ super-PAC system. No one doubts the enormous waste of money poured into campaigns, but care must be taken in any return to private fundraising.

How many aspiring candidates will make political capital out of the earthquakes? Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, has already announced his intention of running for president. He has put rebuilding the city in the hands of property developers. The politicians’ responses to the quakes – both real and perceived – will inevitably influence election results. Many Mexicans are now wondering if there is any way out of the labyrinth of corruption. A question posed by a former governor of Chihuahua comes to mind: ‘If we put everyone corrupt in jail, who will close the door?’


  • 30 September 2017 at 8:19pm
    ksh93 says:
    As the Grand Old Man of Mexican politics, Carlos Hank Gonzalez used to say "A politician who is poor is a poor politician” ("Un político pobre es un pobre político"). In the Neoliberal era European and North American politicians have relatively recently started mining the full potential of Gonzalez' aphorisms ("Third Way" politicos and their progeny, in particular, seem to have a particular weakness for them):

  • 3 October 2017 at 5:08pm
    John Cowan says:
    The translation of "Ni una más sepultada" is a little off: it should be not "Not a single other woman" but "Not one more woman".

  • 4 October 2017 at 5:55am
    a says:
    in the absence of sovereign money there is this I guess to spend, whether wisely or corruptly: catastrophe bond triggered and for once they are paying out:

  • 4 October 2017 at 6:14am
    a says:
    "Mexico is evaluating whether the quake will trigger a payout from a World Bank-backed catastrophe bond, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade said on Friday. Meade said the bond's coverage could reach $US150 million ($186,000), depending on magnitude and location. But he said Mexico has sufficient funds to pay for a clean-up whether the bond was triggered or not."