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A look into poverty, inequality, and marginalization in the aftermath of Mexico's earthquakes

by Beatriz Ulloa Montemayor


A week after the earthquake of 7.1 with the epicenter in the municipality of Axochiapan, Morelos a total of 338 people have been reported dead.1 Of the total 199 were in Mexico City, 74 in the state of Morelos, 45 in Puebla, 13 in the State of Mexico, six in Guerrero and one in Oaxaca.

The earthquake affected mainly the center of the country, however, it should not be forgotten that few weeks ago on September 7, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake with the epicenter on the coast of the state of Chiapas (Pijijiapán) affected the south of the country, the strongest tremor recorded for a century. A total of 96 people died; the state of Oaxaca was the most affected with 76 deaths, Chiapas with 15 people dead and four in Tabasco.There are records of more than 85 thousand homes affected3 in different municipalities of Chiapas and Oaxaca, states that have the highest poverty rates in the entire Mexican territory.

There are still no official figures for the total losses in both earthquakes. Last night, President Enrique Peña Nieto reported that there are records of more than 400 people killed and about 190,000 buildings damaged or collapsed.4  Therefore, we do not yet have estimates of the costs and the recovery processes that will be taken by the states to recover. However, how are we to understand the crisis that each state experiences before the same natural event? How are these tragedies lived from the capital of the country or from the southern states?

There are differences derived from the inequality, poverty and marginalization that allow differing dimensions of the severity of this catastrophe between states. On the one hand, thousands of the collpapsed homes of the states of Morelos, Oaxaca, Puebla and Chiapas could have been avoided, if they had not been built of adobe, tin sheets or cardboard. While in Mexico City, the corruption of real estate and local government are the main culprits of the collapse of at least 38 properties5, the eviction of hundreds of families from houses on the verge of collapse, the deaths of hundreds of people and of some that unfortunately have not been rescued yet.

The earthquakes that occurred in September have shown (thanks to social networks) problems in a society that have always existed and are no longer so easy to hide: corruption in building permits, real estate speculation, sensationalist mass media, opportunistic public institutions, the use of catastrophe for electoral purposes (elections in 2018), corrupt local governments, lack of strategy between the army, navy, rescuing experts and citizens, sexual violence towards women and girls and increased crime. These problems amid conditions of extreme poverty, inequality, mistrust and inefficiency of public authorities, an excess of political centralism (concentrated in the capital) among many more.

The earthquake of September 19 has shown a government incapable of dealing with an emergency situation; it has been citizens who have taken to the streets. The importance of the government's role carrying out a rescue operation through the army, navy and federal police (expecting not to suffer the same as in 1985) was decimated by thousands of women, men and, above all, young people who surfaced and endorsed the right to organize. Despite the tragedy and the unexpected nature of natural disasters, both earthquakes have given rise to a civilian uprising, similar to what happened 32 years ago.6

With all the mobility of civil society to help the thousands of victims, Brigaders, rescuers as well as the establishment of collection centers and shelters, it can be questioned, what has been the role of the churches in this situation? The specialist and sociologist of the religions Bernardo Barranco has pointed out that it has been mainly the evangelical churches that have gathered quickly to collaborate in this emergency. The very structure of the churches has allowed a rapid linkage with the population by mobilizing, convening, collecting and directly sending aid to various disaster areas (mainly affected regions outside of Mexico City). Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure which has delaysed its link with the communities because it uses its own humanitarian aid agencies that have different filters and prevents a rapid mobilization of emergency attention.

What’s next? There are two situations that are perceived in this catastrophe; on the one hand, Mexico City as a capital (regrettably) has concentrated many of the governmental and civil supports. The earthquake has uncovered the enormous corruption between the city government and real estate companies; in the next electoral year citizens will not forget who to blame for tragedies that could be avoided. On the other hand, the poorest states are the most affected by this catastrophe and, as always occurs, are the most forgotten; government’s support in these populations is usually limited and used in a clientele way, also because of their location they are not within the care of international organizations. There are communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas that still have not solved their emergency situation,7 combined with the majority of the inhabitants being indigenous and living in extreme poverty.

There are years of reconstruction, it is time to take advantage of the juncture, the rupture and the lack of credibility of the government to build a better Mexico.


1Updated information to September 28 by Luis Felipe Puente, National Coordinator of Civil Protection.
5There are still no precise figures on the number of buildings or houses collapsed. This note does not include losses in areas such as Xochimilco and San Gregorio that were severely affected by the earthquake. 


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