One man leans in, his ear strained in the direction of the rubble, and raises a clenched fist. Laborers and onlookers rush into the street, which is silent save for the buzz of generators and chatter of the birds. These are the Moles of Tlatelolco, an elite, independent rescue team with 32 years of experience providing earthquake-relief, and this is how they listen for the cries of victims trapped in the wreckage.
The Moles formed in 1985 when a magnitude-8.0 earthquake left 10,000 people dead in Mexico City. Soon after its formation, the group conducted operations in El Salvador and eventually provided aid to distressed people in Colombia, Turkey, Taiwan, Venezuela, Iran, Indonesia, Italy, Haiti, Chile, and Guatemala.
The team began as a handful of civilians, untrained and unequipped, who sprang into action 32 years ago, digging victims from rubble. Onlookers began to call them topos or moles, and the group received formal recognition from the United Nations a few years later. They are still independent and unpaid but now have proper equipment and regular training in search and rescue.
Most recently, they have suited-up to assist their own hometown. Mexico’s latest quake struck on September 19 with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale, and the nation has swung into action, forced to relive painful memories.
The Moles started work on the night of September 19 to respond to the effects of the disaster. One volunteer, Miguel Ángel Gómez, recounted the events of the night: “It was a difficult night. We rescued one person and recovered three bodies. We have to continue; lots of people need our help.” Gomez is a systems engineer who spends his evenings risking his life to save others, a sacrifice made by all of the volunteers of the Moles.
While the group was originally established to assist the overwhelmed Mexican government, they now receive funding from governments around the world to aid in the aftermath of earthquakes and other disasters.
The only requirement to join this organization is good character. “We have a pianist, lawyers, doctors and paramedics, psychologists, vets, engineers, and architects,” said Rafael Lopez, a founding member of the Moles. The only payment these volunteers receive is the psychological toll, which most only feel after the harrowing work. One member, Ivan Barriento Salas, said, “You try to pull them out slowly. The psychological shock hits you later.” However, no job is mandatory: “Each call is a risk, we are free to decide if we enter or not,” said Gomez.
The Moles generally gather to say a prayer after pulling a body from the rubble and often face the difficult task of returning bodies to their families. The group has been met with similarly delicate challenges in recent days, working to save a student at a school in Mexico City who had been trapped beneath rubble for 32 hours.
“Accept death,” said one member in a recent documentary entitled Beneath the Rubble. “Renounce life. There’s no mother, no father, no night or day, no pay, no hot or cold, no fear, and no food. There’s only service to others. Such is life as a [mole].”