In southern Mexico, 'quake isn't over' one year on

Gabriela COUTIÑO, with Víctor RUIZ in Oaxaca and Yemeli ORTEGA in Mexico City
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The quake killed 99 people, damaged more than 100,000 buildings and left the infrastructure crumpled in the poor southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca

One year after an 8.2-magnitude earthquake devastated southern Mexico, the poor, indigenous communities near the epicenter feel forgotten as they struggle to rebuild.

The quake, which hit just before midnight on September 7, 2017, was the most powerful to strike Mexico in a century.

It killed 99 people, damaged more than 100,000 buildings and left the infrastructure crumpled in the poor southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca -- so much that even today, thousands of pupils are still going to class under trees or in improvised temporary schools.

But the quake soon became a footnote when another hit central Mexico on September 19, striking the economic heart of the country and devastating Mexico City.

The second quake -- geologically unrelated to the first, according to seismologists -- had a smaller magnitude of 7.1, but killed 369 people and caused billions of dollars in damages.

The victims of the September 7 earthquake soon faded to the national background. Many say that is where they remain one year later.

In Juchitan, Oaxaca, one of the towns hit hardest, the ruins of uninhabitable houses still line the streets, residents can still be seen sleeping on the ground and many businesses have still not reopened.

"It seems like a month since the earthquake. You can see how abandoned we are, on every single corner," said the local writer Jorge Magarino.

At least 20 elementary and secondary schools in this mainly Zapotec indigenous town still have not reopened. Their students take classes "under trees, tarps or in other places where they shouldn't have to," said teacher Juan Renteria.

His colleague Carlos Castillo, principal at a local primary school, has been taking part in protests to demand the authorities rebuild his destroyed classrooms.

"They just abandoned the project to rebuild it. The workers stopped showing up, the machinery disappeared and we don't know when they're going to start again," said Castillo.

His 500 students are meanwhile using a temporary facility with no running water.

- Bank cards without banks -

The authorities do not even have a clear picture of how extensive the damage is, according to Sara Mendez, head of a non-profit organization called Codigo DH.

She says locals often tell her: "The earthquake isn't over. It's still happening."

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who leaves office in December, proudly said Monday in his final state of the nation address that the government had disbursed $380 million for quake relief in Oaxaca and $257 million for Chiapas.

But "there is no real control over what happens to that money," said Mendez. When it did reach victims, it was often in "chaotic" circumstances, she said.

The federal government gave victims bank cards to access the relief money. But there were no ATMs in the disaster zone, and the banking system "completely shut down," she said.

The Oaxaca state government "lost" a $10-million relief fund, according to Mendez, while Chiapas never even received its share.

Meanwhile, Juchitan Mayor Gloria Sanchez says the town, once a thriving market hub of 100,000 people, has "collapsed."

"Our infrastructure is a wreck.... There's sewage spurting out everywhere," she told AFP.

- 'Still in mourning' -

Residents face soaring prices for construction materials and abuses by building companies.

Rosa Pineda, 55, has been living in her yard for a year.

She gave her life savings to a builder to replace her collapsed home.

"The workers showed up for a week to haul away the rubble. Then they never came back. Now I can't get a straight answer from anyone at the company," she said.

Adding to her headaches, the earthquake cost her her job: the restaurant where she worked also collapsed. She has been surviving selling flowers on the street.

She is not alone.

The city's famous market remains closed -- replaced by temporary stands set up in a park -- and an uncounted number of stores, offices and other businesses remain shut with damages.

Many of the region's famous festivals were also canceled this year.

Southern Mexico, Mendez said, "is still in mourning."