MEXICO CITY, Mexico - Marco Gil howled in pain when he learned his wife and child were trapped under rubble in the town of Jojutla, Morelos after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck central Mexico.
When he arrived at the scene, he witnessed his brother-in-law and a soldier go deep inside a hill of rocks and concrete blocks were a house once stood in a desperate attempt to pull his loved ones out. The men, like moles, took turns making their way through collapsed walls and ceilings while trying not to inhale too much dust, vapor and leaking gas.
“My wife was hugging, protecting my baby when they found them,” he tells me. Once outside, after retrieving the bodies, Marco saw the soldier break down in tears. His uncle snapped his camera, capturing the young man in green covering his face in anguish as bystanders recorded on their cellphones.
The image has now gone viral after Marco published it on Facebook along with a message addressing the soldier. “Thank you because without knowing it you gave me the chance of saying goodbye to my wife and daughter,” he wrote.
His comments echo a renewed gratitude many Mexicans are expressing towards an institution that up till the earthquake seemed somewhat at odds with the people.
“The glory of the Mexican army has always been linked to natural disasters,” says Juan Ortiz Escamilla, a military historian and researcher at the University of Veracruz. He argues the military operates mostly in the countryside, out of sight of many Mexicans. Their work became much more visible after the earthquake hit the capital. “The media is in Mexico City and when something happens outside they don’t see it as that important," said Ortiz Escamilla.
However, he emphasizes the military shouldn’t be seen as monolithic and homogenous; “There’s good and bad elements.”
“Mexico is going through an institutional crisis, we can’t continue to ignore the corpses that pop-up everywhere on a daily basis, the massacres we are getting used to,” he said. “The Mexican military has a negative image mainly because it has been ordered to execute policing tasks it’s not prepared to carry out,” he noted.
In October of last year, Mexico’s top general Salvador Cienfuegos acknowledged the army was “worn out” from battling drug cartels and organized crime. The military’s reputation and popularity has taken a hit by drug-war related human rights violations and gruesome scandals such as the execution of alleged criminals at the hands of soldiers in the town of Tlatlaya and the alleged participation, according to a few journalistic accounts, of some army elements in the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa.
Cienfuegos himself publicly apologized in April of last year after a video surfaced on social media showing a woman being asphyxiated with a plastic bag by two soldiers and a federal police agent.
The aftermath of the earthquake is not necessarily pushing Mexicans to forget or turn a blind eye to extrajudicial killings and torture. They are simply seeing the country’s men and women in green in a different light, according to Raúl Benitez, a security expert and researcher at UNAM university.
“The army’s public image has been in crisis since 2014,” he said. "The military’s biggest problem is not a few rotten apples, but its entire design and strategy to combat organized crime. When they go into action they tend to violate human rights.”
Tale of two armies
Benitez says it’s a tale of two armies. “There’s two images that are always clashing, that of rampant violations and that of soldiers saving people throughout Mexico and even other countries during natural disasters,” he said.
Mexico’s military has been sent to aid victims in countries like Haiti, Ecuador and even the United States during Hurricane Katrina. Benitez thinks the military’s performance in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Morelos, Puebla and Mexico City is improving perceptions. But he says that when the media frenzy is over, the military will have to be on the look out for the next scandal.
“It’s cyclical,” he says. “This isn’t a turning point.”
Although the soldiers I interviewed modestly claim they are only doing their job, the army is capitalizing on the moment.
Mexico’s Marines, an elite Navy force that at times seems to compete with the army in nabbing drug war trophies, has been parading a rescue dog known across the internet as Frida. Mexicans have come up with memes and images praising the cute labrador, and jokesters have even proposed that Mexico’s favorite mascot replace master muralist Diego Rivera in the country’s 500-peso bill.
It's worth noting the marines were embarassed during one high profile rescue at a collapsed school after officials and some media outlets propagated what turned out to be false reports of rescue teams finding a girl in the rubble, a story which captivated audiences worldwide for two days.
Suddenly there’s TV and radio spots exalting the army and publicizing its role in rescue operations. Officials also organized a televized reunion between Marco Gil, the man who lost his family and Martin Moctezuma Luis Hernandez, the soldier who helped retrieve the bodies of his wife and child. The fact he bears the name of one of the last Aztec emperors hasn’t gone unnoticed.
These weren't mere photo ops, the images and emotions were real, helping unite a country when it needed it. Most Mexicans are digging it and the army is feeling the love.
“When we arrived, got out of our vehicles and scouted the area, people greeted us with a lot of warmth, some applauded, others offered words of encouragement,” says Manuel García Morcillo, a Mexican colonel who conducted rescue operations in the Mexico City neighborhoods of Condesa and Roma.
"This is our friendly face"
It was mostly here where residents, volunteers from all over town, professional rescue workers, organizations such as the Red Cross, police and military were seen working shoulder to shoulder. Human chains were formed to clear the debris and people ran up and down the streets offering water bottles and food.
Morcillo’s team worked with community groups and volunteers for 72 hours searching for bodies in the rubble of a collapsed building in Amsterdam Avenue. Once all bodies were retrieved, it was here where soldiers, rescue workers and bystanders chanted the Mexican national anthem to honor the dead.
The colonel says even the people that were grieving the loss of a loved one took time to thank the soldiers.
Morcillo, who as a young man joined Mexico’s military academy a few days before the disastrous 1985 earthquake, claims morale is high amongst his troops. However, he seems aware of the context. “This is our friendly face, we help without carrying any weapons or instruments of aggression.”
Those who know and have been in the army insist the earthquake can make a lasting difference in people’s views.
“Great fires can burn the bread, but they can also bake it,” said Héctor Sánchez Gutiérrez, a retired general.
“We are coming out of this crisis a lot stronger,” he added.