Roberto Hernández Alarcón needed a diamond-blade saw. It was nearing midnight on September 24, and he was standing on the rubble of what had been an office building in the middle of Mexico City. It was five days after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake had hit Mexico, showering rubble across the central states. Hernández, the leader of a volunteer rescue team, had seen how a building could crush a person—and he knew there were perhaps 40 people inside this one. To get to them, he would need to pierce concrete.
Topos México, Hernández’s highly respected volunteer group, was one of several formed in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake that razed Mexico City. When the latest earthquake hit, the team rushed to action. But when Hernández yelled for assistance, he was not calling for his government, which he thought was not reacting fast enough. He was calling for hundreds of volunteers to cast his words onto social media, where civilians were doing what the government would not—or could not—do: Give the rescuers a shot.
Social media has often sprung up in times of disaster, amplifying the voices of dissenters and the damned. It has a history of instigation, most famously during the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. But in the past few months of epic catastrophes, it has served for another sort of recruitment. It has created a new set of first responders to step in where traditional aid has failed.
In August, Texans trapped by Hurricane Harvey used the app Zello to radio for the volunteer Cajun Navy’s 700-boat fleet, saving people who could not reach 911. In September, Puerto Ricans posted emergency messages to neighbors in pop-up Facebook groups, locating relatives in areas with fallen phone towers. In October, after a bombing in Mogadishu, the Gurmad 252 volunteers posted the Kalkaal Hospital’s injury list to Twitter. They maintained hotlines to assist anyone searching for the missing, performing a job that had once been done with old-school radios.
Mexican citizens were already primed to look away from official channels for aid, considering the country’s ire against president Enrique Peña Nieto (whose approval rating stands at just 17 percent since his election in 2012). Suspicion of the authorities was high. Even before the army, the navy, the police, and the civil protection unit mobilized, volunteers had started creating informal brigades through WhatsApp, recruiting others to move rubble. Three days after the earthquake, viral reports indicated that the government was going to use heavy machinery to haul debris without first confirming that there were no survivors beneath. Five days after that, an office specializing in electoral crimes began to investigate whether political parties had redirected donations for their own benefit.
From Hernandez’s viewpoint, international aid workers from countries such as Spain, Japan, Israel, and the United States were working at a dangerously slow pace. Hernández placed more trust in civilians, such as the carpenters, electricians, and welders who had responded to volunteers’ messages. The lamps, shovels, and dust masks were distributed from volunteers’ tents. The food that volunteers provided for the hundreds of people on site, including the government’s uniformed forces, was prepared in their own homes.
The building where Hernández posted himself, Álvaro Obregón 286, was particularly dangerous— dozens of lives were at risk. By September 24, there was still no official to provide information to the family members of those trapped inside, and a long list of the missing remained tacked to a wooden pole outside. When Hernández’s cutting machinery started to splutter, he repeatedly doused it in water to bring down the temperature. He, like many others throughout the country, knew that he needed help.
Miriam Becerril Avila was not prepared for the thousands of WhatsApp messages pinging her cell phone the day after the earthquake. The 18 surgeries she’d endured for fibromyalgia made her useless for carting supplies. But Becerril was a fast talker. She had gone to three rescue sites on September 20, added herself to a dozen WhatsApp groups, and become one of thousands of volunteers blasting out emergency requests. The resistance depended on who showed up and which of their friends they called. On Sunday, September 24, she saw the request for a diamond-blade saw.
Technology has made Becerril’s actions possible in a way they were not during previous disasters, such as the deadly flooding in the southern state of Tabasco in 2007. Social media has become ubiquitous, especially in highly urban areas like Mexico City, where smartphones are commonplace. In Mexico, prepaid monthly plans with unlimited WhatsApp, Facebook, FB Messenger, and Twitter are popular. To aid organizers after the earthquake, telecommunications companies temporarily offered data and calls for free. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Facebook had just celebrated its first birthday, and other social media apps were mere figments of the imagination. Now, Facebook has over two billions users and is the owner of WhatsApp, the most downloaded non-gaming app in the world.
Many of the coordinators were students, which made them fast with their phones if inexperienced in running rescue operations. Because she was standing at an aid center at the Centro Universitario México, Becerril asked the center’s director for proof that the diamond blade request was real. He dispatched a motorcyclist to Álvaro Obregón 286 to check. 10 minutes later, he gave Becerril the go-ahead.
Ping. Her message went out to her approximately 800 WhatsApp contacts, who in turn posted her number on social media.
Later that evening, with the help of an owner of a construction company, Becerril had a promise of two diamond-blade saws.
Becerril wasn’t the only one trying to track down facts on expensive blades she had never used. Volunteers, relying on information from Telegram and WhatsApp, started a handful of new Twitter accounts dedicated to confirming information based on reports from sentinels on the ground. They tried to get their hashtags seen amidst the chaos. Sandra Patargo, 30, was in pajamas in bed the morning after the earthquake when she started an Excel spreadsheet that would soon become a sprawling fact-checking project, Verificados19s. Sergio Guzman Rodriguez, 39, became one of dozens of web designers who tried to organize the flood of information from social media so that people had an idea of where to go. He and his wife, Lucero Gimello Plasencia, 34, created a volunteer signup through their website, SismoMex, and listed the phone numbers of the biggest donation centers. Alberto Márquez Reyna, 29, placed all the newborn pages on AyudaMX, to help people find everything from hospitals with free x-rays to photos of misplaced pets.
The volunteers ran on adrenaline, working with dark circles under their eyes. “We list people who have disappeared because they’re still under the rubble, or they’re lost because they have trauma,” said Guzman. “You have this overwhelming sense. You get sad. You get a little bit tired. You don’t know.”
Many of those who had design skills, including Guzman, got to their computers because duty called, and then started calling friends for help. But others, such as Patargo, had built their networks based on years of critiquing an untransparent government. The platform on which Patargo worked included employees of 25 organizations, ranging from coding collectives to magazine writers. It won the assistance of Google. At a more personal level, the people who came to her aid as fact checkers included coworkers at the human rights group Artículo 19, as well as activists who had marched alongside her during the historic university protest #YoSoy132 in 2012, against reforms of the telecommunications laws in 2014, and in favor of the president’s self-impeachment in 2016.
“Those who say that movements are ephemeral should consider that their societal effects are cumulative,” said María Elena Meneses, a professor at the university Tecnológico de Monterrey who researches the internet and digital culture. “Something just has to set them off.”
Mexico is on an economic cusp. It is a place where corrupt engineers still approve buildings that cannot withstand an earthquake, but where citizens have enough purchasing power to get phones in the hands of the discontented. It is also a country with a history of citizens standing up to the authorities. At the height of drug violence, the country’s northern states used hashtags to publicize disappearances. Activists used the internet to turn the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College into an international scandal. During the earthquake, the volunteers’ mobilization mimicked that of political arenas, spiraling into a massive on-the-ground effort.
By the next morning, Hernández had a diamond-blade saw in hand at Álvaro Obregón 286. He was not sure who had donated it, or how many had arrived for the many rescuers gathered around the site. But he knew his team could cut concrete.