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Government-run reconstruction of vecindad in Doctores area. Pho to by Ra n dy Co ffey Mexico City WHEN I FIRST met Eustacio Torres in November of 1985 he was a squatter on a vacant lot in the downtown neighborhood known as Doctores. The earthquake had destroyed his home, and a falling building had crushed the taxi that was his livelihood. As we ate supper UNICEF rice, American cheese, and tortillas on a table made from a wooden coffin, Torres talked about his confrontation with a government backhoe a few weeks earlier. “It was a Sunday morning when they were going to pass out donated clothing,” he began. “Since the lines at the center formed at six, they thought we wouldn’t be here, but some of us stayed on the .lot to work. Suddenly I heard a noise, I looked up and saw a big arm about to knock over our front wall. We ran and stood in front of it. The driver said he was from Urban Reconstruction and that we had no right to be here. We sent our children running to alert the neighbors and got 200 people in front of that wall. What else could we do?” In the aftermath of the September 1985 earthquake many residents here have asserted their distrust of government-run projects and have sought to find a way to take part in the reconstruction of their own neighborhoods. Torres’s tactic of blocking the government machinery seemed to spring naturally from his experience as head of a tenant union he has led similar collective efforts to stop evictions. But now other organizers are attempting to take citizen power a step further. Spurred by the snail’s pace the government took in the first months after the disaster, more than 50 organizations have joined together in an independent reconstruction effort run by the victims themselves. Under the name, the Unique Coordinator of the Damaged Ones the CUD the coalition seeks to channel international aid into their own rebuilding projects as well as to address broader Randy Coffey is a freelance writer in Austin, who has traveled extensively in Mexico. social problems. Their independence from the official party, the PRI, is political heresy in Mexico. But the CUD is decidedly political and is already accomodating itself into a broader urban opposition movement. A CUD-led protest march on the earthquake’s first anniversary massed 10,000 people in the city’s main plaza, overshadowing the official demonstration half its size. On a return visit to Doctores last month, I observed the progress of the coalition’s work. The CUD affiliate in the area, called the Neighbors’ Union, took ‘eight months to complete its first reconstruction. Architects from the national university carefully designed foundations, used thicker bricks, and added extra reinforcement bars to the concrete to deliberately one-up the shoddy government projects. By using international aid for the construction, the cost to residents has been cut to about a third that of the government plan. The vecindades \(apartments in which the neighbors share a common inner courtas co-ops so that financial problems will be shared burdens. In the union’s office, crammed with drawing tables, representative Guillermo Flores Velasco lists its activities: a day-care center, a free clinic, a school, and a legal office that provides their most far-reaching service, “advising vecindades on how to defend themselves from the contracts of Housing Renovation [the government agency]. We have also already prevented some evictions by landlords,” he adds. Despite sporadic collaboration with the government, the overall relationship is marked by discord. “They boycott us, call us unqualified, and say that we use the problem for political ends, which is exactly what they do.” But with international aid, union leverage is growing. There are plans to continue reconstruction long after the government crews have left the neighborhoods. The government housing reconstruction is now at its peak; on almost every block the roar of cement mixers competes with the din of downtown traffic. About a fourth of the neighborhood’s 1,000 vecindades are being rebuilt from the ground up, the majority of them by the government’s Housing Renovation. Still, the downtown Doctores district looks like a war zone. Some families live in heavily damaged apartments. A handful of government shelters long, fenced-in structures of corrugated aluminum didn’t arrive until five months after the quake. But -shelter isn’t the only problem. Crime is soaring. Unemployment, already massive due to the Mexican economic crisis, has gotten worse. The Centro Medico, a multihospital complex in the neighborhood, is operating at half its capacity. Combined with the closing of quake-damaged government offices, this has drastically cut business for the tiny shops and street vendors that are the mainstay of the barrio economy. When asked about business, shop owners turn grave, as if you mentioned a The “Damaged Ones” Rebuild By Randy Coffey 16 JANUARY 23, 1987