Los Topos de Tlatelololco, which began as a volunteer group more than 30 years ago, is now one of the most recognized rescue groups in the world. This Monday, Los Topos arrived to lend a hand to local Florida firefighters searching for survivors after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
With decades of experience combing through debris and chunks of concrete following disasters and catastrophes in various parts of the world, Los Topos have gotten to work in the wreckage of the South Florida residential complex. Authorities have confirmed at least 12 people dead, and 149 are still missing.
As explained by the Washington Post, the presence of Los Topos underscores the international element of the collapsed condominium, where many residents were from other countries, as well as the rescue efforts. On Sunday, Florida’s emergency management director hosted a 10-member team from the Israel Defense Forces to assist in search and rescue efforts.
“We just want to help,” Hector Mendez, one of the senior members of Los Topos who arrived along with ten other volunteers, said in an interview Tuesday.
Mendez said his experience in several natural disasters around the world shaped his life and solidified his willingness to help others whenever and wherever tragedy strikes.
Mendez, a 74-year-old accountant, said the Los Topos brigade has been involved in rescue efforts in more than 70 operations on five continents, including the 2010 mine collapse in Chile, the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Post continued.
“When you have seen death and have had the opportunity to rescue someone … that instinct inside of you to preserve the human race just awakens,” he said.
“It changes your life,” Mendez said.
Having the ‘balls to go in where no one else will’
The Topos de Tlatelolco Brigade has become famous not only for its volunteer spirit and specialty in searching for victims under the rubble of collapsed buildings but for having “the balls to go in where no one else will,” Méndez said in a 2010 interview.
The organization currently has an average of about 40 members, in addition to the search-and-rescue dogs they train. Along with Mexico’s Civil Protection Agency, the group issues certificates and sponsors technical degrees in areas related to the field. When a volunteer enlists, they receive training in areas such as rescue strategies, handling collapsed structures, and risk management. The main group is in Mexico City, but there are branches in other parts of the country, such as Poza Rica, Veracruz, Cancun, and Chihuahua. Recently, an overseas branch has been opened in Buenos Aires, Argentina.