In 1985, when Fernando Sánchez was 18 years old, he dug through rubble in search of life at the site of a collapsed factory in the center of Mexico City. An unknown number of garment workers, mostly women, lost their lives in that factory following the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, and Sánchez was among the rescue crew that tried to save them.
Thirty-two years and approximately six hours later, a 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico’s core again, and Sánchez found himself at the site of another collapsed garment factory, a few blocks away from the building that fell in 1985. This time, he arrived as a desperate family member, searching for his 70-year-old mother, Maria Teresa Lira Infante, and his sister, Maria Elena Sánchez Lira, aged 55, who labored in a dress-beading workshop inside.
“From a distance, [I] saw that a building had collapsed and prayed to all the forces in the universe that it wasn’t theirs,” Sánchez told The Intercept. “As I got closer, I saw that it was their building and just hoped that they had gotten out in time.”
The day went on, and Sánchez still had no news of his mother and sister. Close to midnight, another of his sisters showed him blurry cellphone photos of bodies in a local morgue. Police had refused to let his sister inside, but offered to take photos of the bodies that had come in. She didn’t recognize any of them, but Sánchez did. He lived with his mother, and that morning, he had helped fasten her watch on her wrist before she took the subway to work – and he saw the watch in the photos from the morgue. When he went to claim the body, he wiped the dust that covered his mother’s face, closed her eyes, and hugged her for the last time.
“My heart was shredded to pieces,” said Sánchez. “I never imagined that she would die like this.”
The devastation caused by the 1985 quake prompted Mexico to reform its building codes and pass laws aimed at preventing slipshod construction. Despite those measures, many of the buildings that collapsed this September were in violation of the law – including the factory where Sánchez’s mother and sister worked.
Documents obtained by The Intercept, combined with evidence turned up by Mexican news outlets, show that the building that housed the garment factory where the women worked was operating in violation of zoning regulations and against the recommendations of structural engineers. And it is not an outlier: As government and citizen investigators continue to assess the damage from the latest earthquake, it is becoming increasingly clear that bad construction practices contributed to collapses and deaths.
Mexico’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare has confirmed that the Chimalpopoca building contained five different companies, including SEO Young, the textile company where the Sánchez women worked. SEO Young also runs workshops in a building about a block away, at 185 Isabel La Católica. Fernando Sánchez told The Intercept that his mother and sister had previously been at the location on Isabel La Católica but switched to Chimalpopoca because the company told them the building was not structurally sound.
“That building is standing, and they switched to one that collapsed,” Sánchez said, shaking his head.
In fact, SEO Young’s factories appear to have been in Chimalpopoca illegally, against the findings of government engineers and the land-use permits for the building. The owners of the building, who might be held responsible for the workers’ deaths, have yet to be identified.
In 2004, the Mexican Department of Agrarian Affairs had rented an office in Chimalpopoca and requested a building study, according to an investigation published last month by the Mexican media outlet Chilango. The Mexican National Centre for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED, which conducted the engineering study, concluded that the building was likely to sustain damages in the event of an earthquake. CENAPRED documented cracks in the edifice and found that the construction was inherently flawed and could not bear the building’s weight.
The study should have rendered the building inoperable, considering that it was located in the Obrera neighborhood, which the city government has classified as a “Zone 3” loose soil area, meaning that the ground movement caused by an earthquake will be amplified. As documented in cellphone videos, the building collapsed instantly, while an elementary school next door and other large buildings on the same block suffered no damages.
Documents that The Intercept was able to obtain from the Secretariat of Housing and Urban Development show that both the buildings where SEO Young operated — at Chimalpopoca and at 185 Isabel la Católica — had land-use permits for commercial use only on the ground floor. The rest of the floors were permitted for residential use. (The Mexican news outlet Aristegui Noticias has published documents similar to those The Intercept obtained, also showing that businesses were allowed only on the first floor of Chimalpopoca.) Yet, in both buildings, commercial entities operated on diverse floors – a fact confirmed by the Secretary of Work and easily visible in Google Street View images of Chimalpopoca, which show signs advertising businesses on many floors. The Intercept also observed large quantities of rolls of fabrics being removed from both buildings following the earthquake.
“The impact of changing the land use in a building that wasn’t designed to be used in that way becomes much clearer during an earthquake, which reveals what structural deficiencies existed,” said Cesar Saldaña, a structural engineer in Mexico City. He explained that if the building was built for commercial use, it would have to be designed to withstand 540 tons of additional weight, in order to conform to building regulations that were modified after the 1985 earthquake.
“I look at these slabs and I see that the construction is still the same [as 1985.] The authorities keep allowing these kinds of violations in building construction and they don’t inspect them,” said Gloria Juan Diego, a garment worker organizer who was active in the 1985 movement for justice and attended a memorial held at Chimalpopoca.
Chimalpopoca also supported a large cellphone tower, which remained intact after the building collapsed, standing tall above the rubble.
“Who authorized them to place that antenna and the electric substation there?” asked Sánchez. “I am convinced that they caused the building to collapse.” Various Mexican media outlets have reported that the antenna weighed over 40 tons, based on an estimation given by one of the rescue workers who removed it with a crane.
Other buildings that fell in the earthquake may have been affected by the weight of billboards on their roofs. Even though such large billboards on building roofs are officially prohibited, they can be seen throughout the city. A few miles from Chimalpopoca, a building on Torreon Street collapsed, killing eight people within, but the metal structure of a billboard remained largely intact. Within four days of the collapse, the building site was completely razed, wiping most evidence that could have been used to indict the building owners.
In the weeks following the earthquake, the Mexican Attorney General’s office has issued six arrest warrants for builders. It has also detained the director of construction of a newly constructed building that collapsed in the earthquake, killing two people, after an investigation proved that the building’s plans did not match the actual construction. The government has also started to investigate 185 buildings that sustained damages during the earthquake. Nine of those buildings’ owners or directors of construction are being investigated for homicide for deaths that occurred in the quake.
SEO Young did not respond to multiple calls to their offices, and it is not clear if they knew that their factory operated in violation of the building’s permitted usage.
The building’s ownership has not been confirmed, although documents obtained by Aristegui Noticias show that the building was purchased in 2016 by the real estate company Inmobico, represented by a well-known businessman Alberto Cojab Sacal. Inmobico representatives were not available for comment.
Many of the earthquake’s victims and volunteer first responders aren’t holding out hope for accountability from the government or corporate interests. In the days following the disaster, they were left to sift through rubble and gather information on their own, and with the help of their neighbors.
Shortly after the collapse at Chimalpopoca, a feminist citizen’s brigade organized to fill in the information gap, collecting clothing tags, invoices, and other documents that were strewn about the rubble. There were no government forensic experts visibly present doing the same work of collecting evidence.
“We know that for the state and the government our bodies are only worth the profits that they generate,” read a communiqué released by the group on September 20. Because “no formal payroll existed [at this company], it’s unknown how many people could be underneath the remains of this structure.”
On the afternoon of Friday, September 22, three days after the earthquake, the Mexican government officially ended their rescue work at Chimalpopoca, and sent hundreds of riot police to barricade the site.
The volunteers didn’t believe the government’s statement that there would be no one still left alive. The credibility of this government has suffered greatly in recent years, especially over the case of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in southern Mexico. (The government said that they were kidnapped and burned in a garbage dump, a hypothesis that was debunked a year later by an international committee of experts.) Additionally, volunteers recalled stories of a hospital where newborn babies were rescued one week after the 1985 earthquake, which gave them hope that workers could still be alive.
Rumors started to spread about the existence of a basement. “I’m not leaving this spot until they show us the building plans and tell us how many people worked here and how many they found,” a volunteer named Adriana told The Intercept (she would not share her last name out of concern for her safety amid the chaotic situation with the police). She had been on site since the first day, inspired by the fact that her own mother had been rescued from a collapsed building in the 1985 earthquake.
Eventually some volunteers made it through the barricades and continued searching, but they called it off the next day, after two rescue dogs showed no signs of recognizing life within the ruin. On Sunday, a memorial was held on the site with fabrics rescued from the factory, scribbled with feminist messages and strewn throughout the rubble in memoriam.
According to the Mexican government, 15 people died in the collapse at Chimalpopoca. Along with Sánchez’s mother and sister, other employees for SEO Young also died, including a mother and her daughter-in-law and a young woman who had just returned from pregnancy leave. Sánchez says that SEO Young offered $18,000 in total for all the families of the deceased.
“I don’t want to put a price on the life of my mother, but that is not a dignified amount — it is actually offensive,” said Sánchez. He refused to accept the money and says he will demand just compensation through legal means. Immediately, he faces the cost of two funerals, about $1,700. The government has promised to reimburse various fees related to the earthquake, but the process had been slow.
Sánchez used to enjoy cooking and hanging out with his mom. Now living alone, he spends all his time visiting one government office after another, completing bureaucratic processes and hoping that a government investigation will find those culpable for his mother and sister’s death.
“I now have to reinvent my life from nothing without them,” said Sánchez. “I just want justice, there is someone responsible for the collapse of that building.”
Lizbeth Hernández contributed reporting to this article.