Dispatches from CDMX: A Tool Run to Tlalpan

Citizen-journalists who try to deliver desperately needed equipment to hard-hit areas of Mexico City encounter bureaucratic obstacles.

We had the spent the morning moving tables from Coyoacán to a centro de acopio in San Rafael and were just finishing a late breakfast that our friend, B., had made at her home in del Valle. As the food settled, we looked at the concrete skeleton and brick-fill building above the patio and debated the structural stability of that kind of construction and why it was so prevalent in such a unstable terrain.  Before we could delve into the intricacies of nationalized concrete, we received a new update that wheels were needed to help transport tools from the collapsed public housing in Tlalpan to elsewhere. Like Álvaro Obregón 286 the site was transitioning from search-and-rescue to removal-and-recovery.

The late afternoon thunderstorms were already darkening the area when four of us arrived in our friend’s SUV. P. and I jumped out to find out where we needed to line up, but the Navy had the area cordoned off to everyone except workers and press, at least at first. After taking my vitals, writing them on my arm, and dressing me in protective clothing, I went in to try and see if I could find the tool pick-up. I found it, but I also saw how the former Edificio C1 had pancaked. It was concrete and rebar with household items, clothing, and toys scattered all around it. A crane was getting ready to lift pieces away, and I asked one of the officers if there was anyone inside. He said no, but I couldn’t understand how certain anyone could be certain if they were dead. As I walked back toward the barricade, military and medical personnel walked out exhausted and fighting back tears.

(Stephen Torres)

After a lot of struggling, P. finally got to talk to our contact. We had managed to find a way to get the others into the car queue by guiding them around the heavily guarded outer barricades. I walked out to fill them in what was going on while P. sorted out what we were picking up. Angry volunteers — who were lining up pick-up items, but who had no contact info — swarmed around the military, demanding to know why there was a hold-up.

This was drastically different from the night before. My friend C. had tipped me off that another acopio de herramienta needed folks to fill orders for tools on Chapultepec. Completely civilian run, car after car came in and left, weighed down with pickaxes, wheelbarrows, and hard hats, departing for all points: Puebla, Chiapas, Oaxaca, CDMX.  

(Stephen Torres)

Despite the long hours, the mood that night was happy. Everyone cracked jokes. We ran to put everything on pallets as the rain poured in buckets and started to rise around us. Close to midnight, we ate a little, hugged each other goodbye, and promised to see eachother soon if not the very next day.

Here, at the Multifamiliar Tlalpan, the military was in charge. It had been an active search-and-rescue site in addition to being an acopio, but it was markedly different: Organizers and volunteers, tired and weary, walked on eggshells around the soldiers. Instead of shipments being expedited out the gate one after another, volunteer convoys sat at the barricade for hours.

(Stephen Torres)

After about 40 minutes of waiting for P. to return, my friend S. and I decided to try and get back in and find her, using our press credentials only to be informed that media weren’t allowed. We milled around near the gate when the guy who had told us this called us over to say he would double-check. I saw him run a few hundred yards inside, turn around, and then come back to tell us it was OK. S. was checked out like I had been, and we were told that photos were all right but to keep clear of the destroyed building.

(Stephen Torres)

Eventually, we made our way over to the tool depot and found P. talking to two of the organizers with frustration in her eyes. They were happy we had come, but worried that being foreigners, the military would not let us go. After about 20 phone calls and two hours, surrounded by condemned buildings, we were finally given clearance — as long as one of the guys, J., would sign off for his delivery and ours. After a total of three-and-a-half hours, and being told that we couldn’t take the tools to our original destination, we were told we were going to bring our load of shovels, hardhats, rope, and nails, to the town of San Gregorio in the mountains above Xochimilco, a hard-hit area in the city’s south.  

(Stephen Torres)

We filled up the car and were in the middle of loading J.’s up when one of the officers shot us a wary look and said S. and I couldn’t help because were press. We immediately put them down and walked to the medic tent to return our hardhats and wait for the others. As we watched them finish loading Jaime’s car, we walked toward the barricade and took one last photo of the site in silhouette. Unlike the media circus at Alvaro Obregon, this excavation site, with its low-income-and-now-homeless residents, was getting little attention except for a few stray reporters who had come and gone.

(Stephen Torres)

One of the soldiers noticed S.’s phone and immediately started screaming. Despite being told repeatedly that photos were all right, they weren’t by him. We walked away, waited at the gate, and eventually the car came towards us. The dejection on our friends’ faces informed us what we already knew to be true: After four hours of waiting, pleading, and finally, success, the same soldier decided we could no longer deliver tools to this decimated town in the foothills. The picture taken on S.’s Android had angered him enough to order P. and B. to immediately unload the SUV. J. pleaded with tears in his eyes. The paperwork was done; we had the authorization.  One soldier overrode that. He screamed louder. He whispered to P. to leave the tools and drive out immediately lest the situation worsen.  

We rode back on the darkened Calzada de Tlalpan in silence. Angry tears welling up, we headed north toward home. We at least had a few clothes and some food for the acopio near our house.

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