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Search and Rescue and Moles and Dogs
Huevos de entrar adonde los demás no quieren
With Turkey and Syria continuing to deal with the massive destruction and loss of life in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of February 6, 2023, rescue and aid workers from around the world are on the ground in the affected earthquake zones. One group that has joined in the search and rescue efforts is Mexico's famed civilian search and rescue team, Los Topos de Tlatelolco. I think it appropriate now to recognize Los Topos' remarkable work responding to large-scale disasters around the world.
Los Topos de Tlatelolco (The Moles of Tlatelolco) first emerged as a group of young volunteers who helped dig into the debris and pull out victims of the September 19, 1985 earthquake that devastated large parts of Mexico City. With an ineffectual government response to the disaster (then President of Mexico, Miguel de la Madrid, initially refused foreign aid in the aftermath of the earthquake), a group of brave citizens from the impoverished neighborhood of Tlatelolco - where an entire block of multi-story low-cost housing projects was completely destroyed in the earthquake, killing all occupants - quickly made a name for themselves with daredevil excavations into the rubble, digging deep into collapsed buildings to find and rescue survivors. After that earthquake, the group formed into a permanent volunteer organization dedicated to search and rescue wherever disaster strikes.
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The following year, San Salvador was struck by an earthquake, and Los Topos responded with their first foreign mission. Since then, the group has participated in over 70 search and rescue missions across the globe, including: the 9/11 terrorist attack in the U.S.; the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia; the Haiti earthquake of 2010; and hurricane Irma in 2017. To date, Los Topos have participated in operations in 22 countries, now including Turkey.
With their signature red shirts and helmets, Los Topos have become a world-renowned rescue organization. Yet they remain volunteers who work without pay. They are funded by donations, and they are assisted with training provided by the Mexican government. Because they are not attached to the government or the military, they often fly to their destinations on commercial airlines1. Thus they have learned to travel light - relying on hand tools and small equipment to carry out their rescue operations.
Los Topos also have a team of rescue dogs, for whom they get training assistance from the Mexican Red Cross and the Mexico City ambulance corps. But Los Topos are not the only representatives (human or canine) from Mexico who respond to disasters around the world: the Mexican Navy (Secretaría de Marina, or SEMAR) and Red Cross are typically deployed as well. SEMAR has a rescue brigade composed of naval personnel and a team of around 16 rescue dogs. SEMAR (including the 16 dogs), the Red Cross and Los Topos all deployed to Turkey and are actively assisting in the efforts there. One of the SEMAR dogs died while engaged in those rescue efforts.
If the SEMAR dogs - indeed, all rescue dogs in Mexico - have a spiritual leader, it is inarguably Frida - a yellow lab who spent 9 years of her life in the SEMAR search and rescue team. Frida took part in approximately 53 missions across the globe, and is credited with saving 12 lives and recovering 43 bodies during her career. Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador - Frida was there, with her safety goggles and rubber boots, sniffing through the rubble for telltale signals invisible to human rescuers.
When she grew too old to participate in rescue efforts, Frida retired from active operations but remained on duty to help train a new generation of dogs. Frida passed away recently, on the 15th of October, 2022.
Frida's remarkable career elevated her to a sort of cult status, both in Mexico and around the world. There are 2 statues of Frida in Mexico: one in Puebla, where she assisted in earthquake rescue efforts; and a large bronze statue at the Naval compound in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. Frida's likeness can also be found on countless t-shirts, comic books, and on a giant mural in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.
Back to Los Topos
Of their many deployments, the most challenging for Los Topos was the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. The Topos members paid for their own transportation from Mexico to Indonesia. Once on the ground in Indonesia, the group needed to transport themselves and their equipment by ferry to their final destination - but they ran out of money. A Baptist minister heard them discussing their monetary challenges, and gave them the 400 U.S. dollars they needed to pay for their transport. They scrounged food, slept in tents, and pulled bodies from the mud. On their own dime.
The men and women of Los Topos de Tlatelolco personify the caring, determination, and can-do attitude that is so often associated with the Mexican spirit. In the words of founding member Hector 'El Chino' Mende: Los Topos de Tlatelolco have the "balls to go in where no one else will".
And on February 10, 2023 - 4 days after the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey struck - Los Topos went in where no one else would, and rescued an 8-year old girl, pulling her up and out of the nearly impenetrable rubble.
Want to help? You can donate to Los Topos on their website.
When Turkey learned that Los Topos were available, they quickly appropriated an aircraft to fly them from Mexico to Turkey.