Mexico: strike and scandal on anniversary of mine disaster

Thousands of Mexican miners held a one-day strike Feb. 19, marking the one-year anniversary of the underground blast that killed 65 at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in northern Coahuila state. Relatives of the victims celebrated a Mass and rallied outside the mine’s gates to press their demands for better working conditions and recovery of the victims’ remains. To date, only two bodies have been found.

About 100 relatives and friends of victims staged an all-night vigil, lighting candles and releasing 65 white balloons at 2:15 AM, the time of the explosion. “We’re asking for more resources from mining companies and the federal government because safety conditions at the mines have not improved,” said Bishop Alonso Garza, of the border town of Piedras Negras.

The one-day work stoppage affected steel plants and silver mines across Mexico. Many of the striking miners were supporters of ousted union leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, who called the tragedy “industrial homicide.” The federal government ordered Gomez’s arrest last March for allegedly misappropriating $55 million, prompting a nationwide strike in his support. The government then certified a Gomez rival as union leader.

Over the past year, little has been done to improve conditions at Mexico’s mines. There are still few inspectors, and Coahuila state officials charge that corruption prevents enforcement of international standards. In January, a coal miner was crushed to death and four others were injured after the collapse of a mine shaft in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

An official cause has still not been determined for the Pasta de Conchos explosion that collapsed much of the mine, although investigators identified problems with the ventilation system and some miners say that gas detectors were routinely tampered with. A special state prosecutor is recommending charges of negligent homicide against 11 mine officials and federal inspectors.

On Feb. 18, Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira said he was pressured by former President Vicente Fox to cover up for federal inspectors and to accuse “innocent people” in the case. Moreira made the charges in response to a federal congressional report that was leaked to the press, claiming state authorities failed to enforce safety measures. The supposed author of the report, federal Deputy Armando Lopez (Democratic Revolution Party-PRD), claims that his signature on the document was forged. Lopez, technical secretary of the Special Commission charged with investigating the disaster, has named Deputy Óscar Mohamar of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) as responsible for the forgery. The Special Commission’s president, Yericó Abramo Masso of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is backing up Lopez’s charge. The leaders of all three majory parties in the lower house Chamber of Deputies have called for an investigation of Fox in the matter.

The Pasta de Conchos mine is owned by Grupo Mexico, a railroad and mining giant with operations in Mexico, Peru and the United States. Managers insists the mine met all safety standards and deny that safety precautions were ignored. The company says they have to reach the spot where the blast originated before drawing any conclusions as to the cause. Grupo Mexico has promised to work as long as it takes to recover the remains, and does not plan to reopen the mine once recovery efforts conclude. (AP, Feb. 23; El Universal, Milenio, Feb. 20)

See our last post on labor struggles in Mexico.