March 10, 2006

A Political Fallout Rains from the Coahuila Mine Disaster

The explosion that killed 65 miners in the border state of Coahuila last month is sending fallout far and wide. Bursting open a new political can of worms, the coal mine disaster is setting loose labor-management conflicts, heightening government-union conflicts, firing up intra-union rivalries, and exposing possible corruption in all the institutions entrusted with safeguarding the lives of miners and the well-being of their families.

On March 1, about 270,000 members of Mexico’s National Mineworkers Union launched work stoppages in several states in protest of an attempt by the federal Labor Ministry to remove Napoleon Gomez Urrutia as secretary-general of the miners’ union. The national action was primarily aimed at facilities operated by Grupo Mexico, the owner of the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila where the 65 coal miners died. Safety grievances and the lack of equipment at other company mines were also raised as justifications for the mass worker protests. Erupting during an already turbulent federal election year, a prolonged labor dispute in the mining industry is bound to have unforeseen political repercussions.

In the northern state of Sonora bordering Arizona, copper and other miners quit work at facilities in Cananea, Nacazori and Agua Prieta. Francisco Javier Salazar, a union member in Cananea, accused Grupo Mexico and the Fox Administration of trying to divert attention away from government and corporate responsibility for occupational health and safety hazards in the mining industry by placing the blame on Gomez for miners’ problems. On February 28, the Labor Ministry headed by Francisco Javier Salazar Sanez approved a long-time Gomez opponent, Elias Morales Hernandez, as the “provisional,” legal head of the union.

Finally acting years after a legal challenge was first pursued by Morales against Gomez for the union’s top leadership post, the timing of the Labor Ministry’s decision fell under immediate suspicion. Morales was once considered the “right-hand man” of Gomez’s father, Napoleon Gomez Sada, who ran the union for decades prior to his death. Morales and the younger Gomez then fought over succession of the union leadership, with Gomez’s supporters maintaining their man was legally elected union president in a 2002 assembly.

Pro-Gomez union members label Morales a tool of Grupo Mexico, a tag Morales denies. Although he is not in control of the union’s headquarters in Mexico City, Morales declared the union’s national committee under Gomez was dissolved. Morales was backed up the head of Mexico’s Labor Congress, railroad union leader Victor Morales, who himself is under fire from retired railroad workers for allegedly stiffing them for their pensions.

Elias Morales said this week he will press the Federal Attorney General’s Office to ursue legal charges against Gomez for illegally occupying the union’s headquarters. The claimant to the mine workers’ union top post is also demanding that federal legal authorities investigate an alleged misappropriation by Gomez of a multi-million dollar trust fund set up for miners after the privatization of mines in the 1980s.

The dramatic challenge to Gomez and subsequent miners’ strike followed days of mounting accusations of official malfeasance in the deaths of the Coahuila miners. A December 2005 report from the Labor Ministry noted that better monitoring of gas levels in the Pasta de Conchos mine was needed. Two weeks before the disaster the mine passed a safety inspection, but several miners were later quoted in the press as saying there were dangerous levels of methane gas in the mine just before the deadly February 19 explosion.

Urging an investigation of the Labor Ministry, Coahuila Governor Humberto Moreira charged that two federal inspectors responsible for the Pasta de Conchos mine were bought off with “girls, liquor and money” before the disaster happened.

In recent days, angry family members confronted both union leader Gomez and government representatives, accusing the officials of forcing the doomed miners to work in deadly conditions. Already balancing numerous scandals on its agenda, the Mexican Congress is now stepping in to hear government testimonies and conduct its own investigations of the Coahuila disaster. And like many other scandals in Mexico, the Pasta de Conchos disaster is now an international issue. 

Mexico’s National Union of Highway and Bridge workers filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) this week that charged the Fox Administration with not taking the adequate steps that could have avoided the catastrophe. Martin Curiel, the secretary-general of the union, said the purpose of the ILO complaint is to urgently correct “omissions” of international labor agreements signed by the Mexican government. The complaint was supported by Raul Vera, the Roman Catholic bishop of Saltillo, Coahuila, and several human rights and labor groups.

Meantime, family members express sorrow, outrage and a sense of betrayal. Reports that it may take weeks or months, if ever, before the miners’ bodies are recovered, only enhanced the anguish. Besides educational scholarships and other forms of support, Grupo Mexico is offering miners’ survivors between $75,000 and $100,000 dollars in compensation for their dead relatives. The dead miners left behind 162 children.

Javier Rojas, a Catholic priest advising families, is cautioning survivors against signing any agreement before all legal remedies all carefully examined. Reportedly, 54 of the 65 affected families have rejected any compensation until responsibilities for the tragic deaths of their loved ones are clarified. Interviewed on television, Leticia Carrillo, the wife of a killed miner, said she was confused by the company’s offers and called on President Fox to come to the scene. Another family survivor who erected an altar outside the mine simply said, “My tears aren’t going to end.”

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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