Mexico: at least 37 dead in Pemex explosion

As of Feb. 2 rescue workers had found the bodies of 34 people killed in an explosion the afternoon of Jan. 31 at the Mexico City headquarters of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the giant state-owned oil monopoly, according to government officials. At least 101 other people were injured in the massive blast, which damaged part of the B2 administrative building, next to the company’s main building, a 52-story tower that dominates the city’s skyline. Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto declared three days of national mourning, which coincided with a long holiday weekend; the Constitution Day holiday falls on the first Monday of February.

Mexican officials insisted that there would be a thorough investigation of the explosion’s causes, but two days after the disaster the government had still offered no explanation. Initial reports pointed to an electrical problem as the cause. At about the time of the blast, the company wrote on its Twitter account, @Pemex, that “[a]s a cautionary measure” it was “evacuating the Pemex tower in the DF [Federal District] because of a failure in the electric energy supply.” However, there seemed to be no evidence of an electrical fire. An electrical problem could cause an explosion if there was a gas leak, but Mario Galicia, an engineer in the petroleum industry, told the Mexican daily La Jornada that he knew of no gas ducts or substations in the area. Galicia suggested that there were signs of “something premeditated.” The National Energy Studies Committee (CNEE) and the National Union of Petroleum Technicians and Professionals (UNTyPP) called for speed and transparency in the investigation, since delays would lead to “more suspicion and speculation.” (, Mexico, Jan. 31; La Jornada, Feb. 3, Feb. 3, Feb. 3)

The explosion comes in the midst of a debate over plans to open up Pemex to expanded contracting with foreign corporations through President Peña’s “Pact for Mexico” program, which was signed on to by the major right, center and center-left parties. Opponents say this will lead to privatizing the company, which was created when President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río nationalized the country’s oilfields in 1938. Manuel Bartlett of Puebla state, the leader of the small leftist Labor Party (PT) bench in the Mexican Senate, warned the Peña administration against trying to use the explosion in a campaign against Pemex, “in which they repeat that it’s inefficient, that it doesn’t work, and that we need for people to come in from outside to save it.” (LJ, Jan. 3)

The Jan. 31 explosion is the latest in a long line of disasters for the company: a fire at a gas pipeline distribution center near Reynosa, Tamaulipas, last September in which 26 people died; a July 2011 fire in a refinery in Miguel Hidalgo de Tula, Hidalgo, that killed three people; a December 2010 explosion at a pipeline in San Martín Texmelucan, Puebla, that killed 29 people; and an explosion of gasoline fumes in a sewer system that devastated an entire neighborhood in Guadalajara, Jalisco, on Apr. 22, 1992, with at least 210 deaths. Pemex has never adequately accounted for these events. (CNN, Mexico, Jan. 31) There have also been two attacks on Pemex gas pipelines by leftist rebels, both carried out in July 2007 by the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR); no injuries were reported.

Update, Feb. 4: The explosion was caused by an accumulation of gas in the Pemex administrative building’s basement, federal attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam told a press conference on Feb. 4. He said the blast occurred while four workers were doing maintenance in the area. As of Feb. 4 the number of dead had risen to 37. (CNN Expansión, Feb. 4)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 3.