Only minutes after an earthquake shook Mexico on September 19th, the Mexican Armed Forces deployed over 14,000 troops in support of search and rescue efforts. The 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the center of the country, with serious consequences for Mexico City.
“Navy commanders don't need authorization from their joint staff or from the federal government to provide [emergency] aid to municipal or state governments,” Mexican Navy Captain Carlos Guerra Ortega, who works at the Civil Protection and Contingencies division of the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR, per its Spanish acronym), told Diálogo.“These commands established in the 17 coastal states take part in the councils of every municipality and state of the Mexican republic.”
The Mexican National Seismological Service determined that the epicenter was 12 kilometers southeast of Axochiapan, Morelos, 120 km. from Mexico City, and at a depth of 57 km. The quake, which shook the nation's capital with an exceptional amount of force, caused thousands of terrified people to come out into the streets.
Communication lines fell along with 38 buildings. Hundreds of people were trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The states of Morelos and Puebla experienced a similar scenario.
The federal government responded immediately by convening the National Emergency Committee. This activated “Plan MX,” which coordinates and organizes the work of the Army's “Plan DN-III-E,” the Navy’s “Plan Marina”, the Federal Police Civilian Population Support Plan, and other response plans to address a major event like this under a single authority, the National Civil Protection System.
Plan MX is flexible and allows institutions like SEMAR to activate their own corresponding plans. Thus, the institutions can provide the required support while the emergency is still happening.
To address the situation, the Army, Navy, and Air Force immediately deployed their troops, resources, and equipment to the most critical zones. Support from domestic and international civilian Collapsed Structure Search and Rescue teams (CSSR) enhanced the capacities of the teams already on the ground and allowed for greater efficiency in their work.
Through the Army and Air Force, the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA, per its Spanish acronym) mobilized 4,169 service members to Mexico City, 1,663 to Morelos, and 1,185 to Guerrero and the state of Mexico. All of them deployed ready to undertake humanitarian assistance, medical care, search and rescue, and debris removal tasks.
SEMAR immediately deployed 4,125 naval troops to the capital. Help came in the form of rescue vehicles, communications teams, canine teams, and a group of CSSR specialists.
“We assessed the damages using mobile-wing and land units to find out what place was most affected,” Capt. Guerra said. “Ninety minutes after the quake, a CSSR group was already deployed and serving the affected population in the nation's capital.”
As part of the response plan, the Federal Police (PF, per its Spanish acronym) sent 3,000 officers to participate in search-and-rescue operations. To prevent any incidents from occurring, the security officers established a perimeter in the most affected areas. The PF also assisted with transferring the seriously injured in Morelos and Puebla to its air units.
“Thanks to the response plans, the constant preparation activity using comprehensive risk management and institutional coordination, there were no additional problems,” Capt. Guerra stressed. “We acted as soon as possible to support the civilian population.”
Capability, determination, and trust
“The maturity and organization of the civil society was a clear reflection of what SEMAR can learn internally,” Capt. Guerra added. “From the first few minutes after the quake, the population united to give the necessary help wherever there was an emergency.”
“The capacity of both the Navy and the Army to help the authorities manage the social mobilization in support of the victims should be highlighted,” Yadira Gálvez, a security and armed forces analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Diálogo. “Especially the assigned search-and-rescue tasks.”
The majority of the population recognizes the participation of the Armed Forces in benefitting the people. According to Gálvez, Mexico not only deploys forces practically every year in support of people affected by natural disasters, but it also has a great track record and extensive experience with natural disasters. When this contingency situation occurred, the Mexican Armed Forces were already participating in a mission to support the population affected by hurricanes in the states of Baja California Sur, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Guerrero. At the same time, they were doing work in the aftermath of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that occurred in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Guerrero on September 7th.
“Civilian military relations are becoming stronger, and we are making progress in the level of trust and certainty that society has in the Armed Forces,” Javier Oliva, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in military issues, told Diálogo. “The Armed Forces have the necessary capacity and determination to support the population in difficult moments.”
Mexico makes progress on disaster prevention
Mexico has changed its approach. It has gone from having a reactive system to a preventive system. “Having comprehensive risk management increases the people's resilience,” Capt.Guerra said. “Mexico understands that there will always be risks, and nothing can be done about them [earthquakes, hurricanes, heavy rains, fires], but to stop these risks from becoming disasters, we work on reducing vulnerability.”
“Once more, we are demonstrating Mexico's strength and institutional capacities, although we also have to improve our protocols,” Gálvez said. “Betting on prevention has allowed us to reduce the loss of human life,” Capt. Guerra concluded. Earthquake support efforts are ongoing.