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International news briefs: September 18-22

Second earthquake in two weeks devastates Mexico

On Tuesday, September 19, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit South Central Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in the state of Puebla, located approximately 120 km from Mexico City. As of Friday, September 22, death tolls stood at 282, 137 of whom died in the capital. This number is expected to rise as efforts to clear rubble continue and more bodies are found. Victims of the earthquake also face the threat of aftershocks, which could be acutely harmful given the structural instability caused by the initial strike.

The quake also devastated infrastructure, leaving whole communities homeless. The Puebla area is facing the most damage with 1,700 homes declared inhospitable and in need of demolishing in the coming months. Desperate families affected by the housing emergency are making pleas on social media for humanitarian aid. The government is struggling to deal with the widespread destruction.

Destruction within Mexico City is widespread, and at least 44 buildings were levelled by the quake. The damage in the capital is partly due to the high population density, but the impact of the earthquake was magnified by its geography. Mexico City is built on an ancient lakebed made of clay, which amplify seismic waves. As a result, tremors reverberate through the area with a devastating effect. The Mexican army and navy entered the city in the aftermath of the quake to participate in the relief effort. People still need to be rescued from collapsed buildings, and unstable structures need to be demolished.

According to some, the army has caused added turmoil in the city by prematurely demolishing certain buildings, without adequately attempting to rescue people who may have been trapped.

The most recent quake occurred less than two weeks after the 8.1 magnitude quake, which was the most powerful earthquake in the country in over a century to reach the Southern coast of Mexico. While the timing of these events are very close, most experts claim that the timing is coincidence. Both quakes were caused by shifts in the Cocos plate, located just off the coast of the continent. The Cocos plate is gradually pushing underneath the North American plate, causing a massive pressure increase which is sporadically released in these destructive tremors. Shifts in these tectonic plates are a constant reality for Mexico, and while the cause of these two recent quakes are the same, their timing is coincidental.

With material from The Guardian, NPR, ABC, and Al Jazeera.

Tensions rise ahead of Catalan independence referendum

Catalonia’s government is scheduled to hold an independence referendum on October 1 which will determine whether Catalonia can leave Spain.

Spain has attempted to block the referendum by ordering suspension, arresting 14 senior officials from three government buildings, and raiding print shops to confiscate referendum ballots. Legal measures were taken to prevent advertisements from being released to media sources, and prevent delivery companies from distributing pamphlets. Madrid has declared the referendum unconstitutional, and warned that anyone who participates in the voting will be indicted.

In response to the crackdown, thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Barcelona, followed by a solidarity rally in Madrid. The Spanish government and prime minister Mariano Rajoy have been criticized for being anti-democratic. Rajoy argues that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 makes the country is indivisible, and therefore, has no provision for a self-determination vote. This did not stop Catalonia from taking legislative steps to develop its own law on self-governance.

Recent tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have consolidated an image of unified pro-independence sentiment. However, unlike desire for the referendum, the separatist cause is fragmented among voters. In a public survey commissioned by the Catalan government in 2015, 41 per cent of Catalans were in favour of independence. During the 2014 referendum, the low turnout of 2.2 million out of 5.4 million voters showed that the ‘No’ voters boycotted the poll.

Support for an independent Catalonia began after 1939, when the dictatorship of Francisco Franco restricted the Catalan language. Separatist sentiment abated temporarily after Franco’s death, with the return of democracy, only to rise again in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Separatists believe that Spain’s central government allocates less to Catalonia than the province contributes financially to the rest of the country; while Catalonia makes up 16 per cent of Spain’s population, it accounts for 19 per cent of the national GDP.

Catalonia is proceeding with the referendum as planned, and will legally declare independence from Spain within 48 hours if the vote is won. It is unclear whether the Spanish government will eventually resort to article 155 of the constitution, an unprecedented move which would allow Spain to directly intervene with Catalonia by deploying national police.

With material from The Guardian, NPR, and The Financial Times.