Thirty years ago this Saturday, a devastating 8.1 magnitude earthquake tore through Mexico City, killing at least five thousand people. Regarded as the greatest tragedy in the capital’s history, the event would leave its mark on the country both socially and politically.
Occurring at 7:19 am on a busy weekday, the earthquake devastated several historic neighborhoods, causing some $5 billion in damage and leaving 150,000 residents homeless. Millions were left without basic services and some 200,000 people made unemployed.
“It changed the way we looked at ourselves, both as a city and as a people,” Cuauhtémoc Abarca, one of the citizens who led the aid efforts in the wake of the tragedy, told Latin Correspondent. “It was a watershed moment.”
At the time, the Mexican capital was the world’s most densely populated city with some 16 million residents, many of whom lived in shantytowns on the edge of the metropolis. Notoriously vulnerable to earthquakes because of its unusual geography, the area has a long history of seismic activity.
Yet the political aftershocks of the disaster were just as powerful. Notably, the lackluster response of authorities saw the emergence of one of Mexico’s most dynamic social movements and contributed to the decline of the seven-decade Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dynasty.
United by Tragedy
“Following the tragedy, there was a vacuum of authority in the city,” says Abarca, who worked to rescue victims and provide shelter for those who had been left stranded. “The government didn’t know what to do. They also imposed a news blackout. People were afraid and confused; they didn’t know where to turn.”
Residents of affected neighborhoods rapidly formed community organizations to deliver food and medicine to victims. College students formed brigades to dig survivors out of collapsed buildings while protesters pressured city officials to provide temporary housing units for those left homeless.
“It was something really beautiful,” Abarca insists. “The solidarity came out of nowhere; it was just the natural thing to do in the midst of such a crisis.”
The tragedy also exposed many other underlying problems in Mexico City. Impoverished sweatshop workers trapped under rubble were abandoned by unscrupulous factory owners while the corruption that had allowed construction firms to bypass safety regulations faced intense scrutiny.
The political ramifications were considerable. The PRI, six decades into its 71-year rule, was already losing public support in Mexico, but the tragedy only sped up the process of democratization.
Many of the people involved in the movement that grew out of the disaster – known as the “damnificados” – later joined the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which broke the ruling party’s stronghold on the capital in 1997.
Ironically, the thirtieth anniversary of the deadly earthquake comes at a time when the Mexican government is again facing protests from citizens. Violence, corruption and rising poverty have all seen the approval ratings of current president Enrique Peña Nieto tumble.
“The response in 1985 showed that citizens could take control of their own destiny,” says Abarca, who still works as an activist today. “It taught us that we could come together and make a difference.”