At 1:25pm on 19 September 2017, a powerful 7.1 magnitude earthquake tested the stamina and strength of millions of Mexicans – and of the country’s authorities – to their core.
Dozens of buildings collapsed, leaving nearly 300 dead, scores injured and thousands homeless or too scared to go back to their apartments. Mexico had turned into something out of an apocalyptic film.
When a tragedy such as this takes place, collective adrenaline kicks in. In a country that knows better than wait for authorities to take charge, the initial panic quickly turns into an overwhelming sense of collective unity and strength.
One I had never seen before.
As I walked back home to the Roma neighbourhood (one of the most affected areas in the city) from my office – still shaken by what had happened, trying to check if my friends were ok and wondering if my building was still standing – I saw the city that I had come to call home transform before my eyes.
What I saw was not only utter destruction and desperation but hundreds of thousands of people springing into action in an almost unexplainable unity.
Builders, office workers, students and shops clerks ran to the collapsed buildings to sift through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors. They did it with the tools that poured in as donations, or with their bare hands. Human chains of people passing buckets of rubble would become a common sight across the city.
In other parts, people began cooking; others set up collection centres for donations. Improvised volunteer-run shelters sprang up like flowers; cyclists became food distributors, taxis were free.
President Enrique Pena Nieto had an opportunity to show its people that he and his government care. He badly missed it.
Three days after an earthquake changed our lives, anybody walking through the destroyed and cordoned-off streets of Mexico City’s most affected neighbourhoods would have been hard-pressed not to encounter several collection centres per block, strangers offering each other food and fresh water, scores of men and women armed with helmets and shovels everywhere.
What were once some of the fanciest parks in town had become tent cities.
The formerly chaotic donation centre, where I had spent many hours on the day the earthquake hit Mexico, had turned into an impressively organised operation. Each area clearly marked according to the type of donation – water, meals, food supplies, blankets, tents, medicines, toys. Lines of volunteers loading cars, bikes and trucks with whatever they were told was needed in other parts of the city and across the country. Other volunteers shouting out instructions and carefully writing down the donations coming in and out.
Most of them, including myself, had never done this before. Most had never been in a humanitarian disaster – let alone seen their city collapse around them – they were too young to remember the 1985 earthquake which left at least 10,000 dead and a city on its knees, ironically exactly 32 years to the day from this new disaster.
I looked around the various centres I had helped in and thought to myself that, perhaps, this is what democracy and community are all about.
This week, Mexico surprised me. Its people inspired me to my very core. Their stories and their compassion are an example to the world.
There was the old woman who had travelled from a town 60 kilometres away from Mexico City to make sandwiches for the rescuers because she could not “sit by the TV and watch all the destruction happening again without her doing anything about it”. The 12-year-old boy who joined his dad loading boxes that were clearly too heavy for him onto a truck destined for remote communities, away from any attention. The architect who had, in the space of an hour, become an expert in organising bottles of water. The therapist who had come up with a way to help heroic rescue dogs relax as they battled through seemingly endless days and cold nights under the relentless Mexican rain.
The rescue workers, the doctors and nurses, the drivers, the victims forgetting about their own suffering and joining efforts to help others.
But there was one scene that particularly stayed with me – a disturbing one.
In every donation centre, groups of people gathered around tables or on the floor, frantically scribbling down with big indelible ink markers on every single bottle of water or bag of food that had been donated the words “help” or solidarity messages.
“We do this so the government doesn’t steal things. So that they don’t take credit or political advantage,” people told me time and again.
The fact that Mexican people do not trust their politicians is hardly surprising.
That a government would use this tragedy for political advantage is, put simply, repugnant.
Mexico’s deep problems – corruption, massive inequality, soaring crime, shocking levels of disappearances and violence against women and the systematic lack of justice, to name but a few – will not end when the rescue efforts finish or when people can finally find a new place to call home.
President Enrique Pena Nieto had an opportunity to show its people that he and his government care.
He badly missed it.
As volunteers across the city acted as rescue workers, organised donations and ensured those in need were helped, accusations of government corruption spread like wildfire.
People accused the authorities of deploying professional rescue workers too late, relying on volunteers to run shelters, failing to distribute donations, preventing ordinary citizens from reaching those living in remote areas. Investigations are being demanded to review the deeply corrupt real estate business, which is being blamed for allowing the construction of unstable structures in a city prone to earthquakes.
Today marks a week since the earthquake that changed, once again, Mexico’s face. Today is also the third anniversary of the still unresolved enforced disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero.
It is going to take a lot more than grandiose speeches to break the deep mistrust people here have with those in power. Pena Nieto should, at least, try taking a leaf out of Mexican citizens’ book.
Josefina Salomon is a journalist based in Mexico City, reporting on human rights issues across the Americas.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.