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Mexico City’s 1985 and 2017 Earthquakes: A Display of Civic Engagement

We exercise agency in our capacity to make decisions in a manner that is free and independent from natural and institutional constraints, in our ability to both set goals for ourselves and to realize them.1 There was never a more apparent demonstration of Mexico City’s agency than the events of September 19th, 1985, when the City was shaken by a two-minute earthquake at 7:17 am. The tragedy caused the deaths of thousands of people, demolished more than 300 buildings and directly impacted approximately 30 thousand inhabitants of the City.2 The most affected neighborhoods were the low-income areas near the city’s downtown—the most socially vulnerable segments of the population. In the midst of the tragedy and in the absence of emergency response teams, Mexican citizens became actively involved in rescue initiatives and aided others in clearing debris with nothing but their own bare hands.3

Citizen-led radio links were established with the help of amateur communications experts through which information on safety procedures could be disseminated. The very citizens that were left unprepared for such disasters were their own salvation as civic engagement became the crux of the City’s resiliency. Through the need for improvised rescue missions and social support networks, Mexican citizens developed a sense of control and displayed the full strength of their creativity in the face of humanitarian challenges.

The events of the 1985 earthquake would have been much worse without the enormous contribution of the thousands of citizens who went out into the streets to help victims. Citizens undertook several roles including driving the wounded to and from hospitals in their private cars, donating medical supplies and preparing meals for the first-responders. The most painful part of the process was undoubtedly the removal the bodies and their transportation to a local baseball stadium where they could be identified. Volunteers worked side by side with police, military, doctors, first-responders, nurses and many others. In response, the civil group Brigada de Rescate Topos Tlatelolco (The “Moles” Rescue Brigade) was founded and established as a civil protection group that has since operated in different parts of the world in relief efforts related to earthquakes. Five years after the fact, Mexico equipped itself with one of the world’s most effective early warning systems for earthquakes. The Seismic Alert System of Mexico (SASMEX) comprises more than 8200 seismic sensors located in the most active earthquake zone that runs between Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Mexico City.4

The city became aware that safety measures were needed for new constructions. A year after the first major earthquake, a by-law for the construction of more structurally sound homes was established, replacing the 1976 building code. This by-law has since been updated with the Complementary Technical Norms of Design, which requires all new construction to be approved by a state construction manager. In addition to upgrading its early warning system, Mexico has also invested in reinforcing its road infrastructure in order to bolster its resistance to seismic activity. Most of its hospitals and clinics now comply with the 2004 revised building codes for Mexico City and have been reinforced with concrete and steel to another major collapse.5

Instalación de servicio telefónico gratuito
Instalación de servicio telefónico gratuito

One year after the earthquake, Congress presented an initiative from different parties attempting to make Mexico City, called the Federal District at the time, an autonomous state. Although the legislation did not pass, it contributed to the creation of the Assembly of Representatives, which made it possible for citizens to elect representatives, beginning with legislative representatives in 1986 and with the Federal District Head of Government in 1998. The solidarity shown by the population was the result of a lack of effort made by the government to respond to natural disasters. Fortunately, the Mexican government has also taken many steps to increase its preparedness. It now runs frequent earthquake simulations led by the National Center for Prevention (CENAPRED), and has established programmes such as the Seismic Alert System from the Center for Seismic Instrumentation and Register (CIRES).6 Furthermore, the social progressivism adopted by most citizens had a great influence in the self-determination needed to establish their own agenda. The engagement of the Mexican people in the events of September 1985 was a testament to the City’s bravery and creativity; it has provided new generations with the motivation to develop agency through creativity and to exact political and administrative reform in government.

32 years later, Mexico City’s resilience would be tested once again as a 7.1 Richter Scale earthquake shook the states of Mexico, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero. One of the main lessons we learned from 2017 and 1985 was that catastrophe can lead us to better understand the role that citizens can play in matters of self-governance; it is a lesson that has shaped many communities and civil organizations in modern Mexico City. When a catastrophe occurs, it generates an untold gap among the two parts, where reactions are much more immediate in civil society. One of the main issues that emerged in the 2017 earthquake was the excess of information that needed to be filtered and centralized in order to efficiently attend to victims. Groups of volunteers used digital communication tools that attempted to centralize information and, in doing so, speed-up the emergency response process. More than twenty platforms dedicated to connecting citizens with coders and data scientists emerged to minimize the gap of information; Verificado19S, 19S Más de MX, Fuerza México App, Información Organizada, Juntos Sismo CDMX, Manos a la Obra Sismo, were among these.

Catastrophes of this magnitude lead structural inefficiencies to emerge, around 600 buildings required structural revision while 3 hospitals and 209 schools were damage. The demise of so many buildings led the City’s 16 municipal bodies to establish inquiries into the conformity of building codes.7 Free consultancies by experts like Creative Design, Revisa mi Grieta, Salva tu Casa helped to educate citizens about the security of their living and work spaces. Aside from technical and legal assistance, many communities tried to raise awareness regarding the post-disaster trauma of the earthquake. In the events of 2017 and 1985, the City became a place of dialogue where we could acknowledge a dire need to further strengthen our social bonds. In rising from the ruble caused by these two incidents, Mexico City has become a paragon in the development of large-scale communities that care for the lives and wellbeing of those around them.

Señalética para orientación
Señalética para orientación
Event name 1985 and 2017 Mexico City Earthquakes
Period 1985, 2017
Contributor N/A
Location Roma, Guerrero, Tepito, Doctores and the Historic Center of Mexico City
  1. George Wilson, “The nature of Action and Agency”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, substantive revision Wed Apr 4, 2012,
  2. Centro de instrumentación y registro sísmico A.C. “El sismo del 19 de septiembre de 1985” CIRES,
  3. Televisa S.A. de C.V, “Terremoto en México 1985 cobertura, primera parte”, Zabludovsky, Jacobo, Grandes coberturas Mexico 2012, enero 4 2013,
  4. Brigitte Leoni, “Mexico: Lessons learned from 1985 earthquake”, UNISDR
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Las cifras del sismo del 19/S”, Grupo Milenio, s/f,