Chile Rescue Stirs Up Bitter Memories of Mexican Mining Disaster

The rescue of 33 miners who spent 68 days underground following a cave-in a Chilean copper mine has struck a nerve in Mexico, where the widows of 63 miners killed in the Pasta de Conchos disaster are still fighting for justice and the right to give their husbands a decent burial. The rescue of 33 miners who spent 68 days underground following a cave-in a Chilean copper mine has struck a nerve in Mexico, where the widows of 63 miners killed in the Pasta de Conchos disaster are still fighting for justice and the right to give their husbands a decent burial.

On February 19, 2006, an explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coalmine, located in the state of Coahuila, buried sixty-five miners. Only two bodies were ever recovered. Grupo México, the Mexican company that owns the mine, left the other sixty-three bodies in the ground.

As the the Chilean miners were raised to the surface on October 13, widows and other family members gathered at the Pasta de Conchos mine to ask themselves what would have happened if the Mexican government had responded as the Chilean government did. “In Chile they declared that they were alive,” said the families in a statement. “They didn’t condemn them to death, they weren’t discouraged by the 700 meters that separated them, nor by the fact that a rescue beyond a depth of 300 meters had never been attempted before.” The Pasta de Conchos miners’ location is estimated to be only 150 meters below the surface.

The mining union that represented some of the miners killed in the Pasta de Conchos argues that, in contrast with the Chilean response, “Grupo México, with the [Mexican government’s] full complicity, decided to close the mine only five days after the incident, when there was still hope that the trapped miners were alive. It condemned them to death and, above all, covered up the real causes of the tragedy.”

Raúl Vera López, the bishop of Saltillo, Coahuila, said that he suspects that Grupo México doesn’t want to recover the remaining 63 bodies for fear of proving that at least some of the miners survived the explosion and died awaiting rescue. “If they find the bodies all together, with clothing, bones, helmets,” argues Bishop Vera, “it means that they were waiting to be rescued.”

Grupo México justified calling off the rescue after only five days by arguing that it was impossible that any miner survived the explosion, which Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira said had reached temperatures of 600˚C. The company also presented a report that claimed that the air inside the mine could not sustain life. The report was based on air samples taken from air ducts. However, samples were taken from a part of the mine where only 15-26 workers were believed to be working when the explosion occurred.

Carlos Rodriguez of the Center for Labor Reflection and Action (CEREAL) questions Grupo México’s decision to call off the search so soon. “Why wasn’t seismic monitoring used [during the rescue attempt] to locate where people were concentrated?” he asks. “Digital plans weren’t given to the rescuers so that they would know where the miners were working. If [the company] really knew where the workers were, why didn’t it drill? If they would have drilled they could have gotten the methane gas out of there, and they would have found signs of life. Chile searched [for survivors] for 19 days. Grupo México searched for 48 hours, and it declared them all dead after five days.”

Rodriguez believes that despite the companies’ claims, some miners could have survived the blast. “The two bodies that were recovered were not burnt,” he argues. If all of the miners died from the heat of the explosion, “why is it that the only two bodies that have been recovered weren’t burnt?”

Elvira Martínez, the widow of one of the trapped miners, believes that Grupo México has consistently opposed rescue and recovery efforts because it wants to leave incriminating evidence in the ground. “They’re afraid of what could be found. They don’t want the evidence to come out: the safety conditions and, above all, how our family members died in there.”

Rodriguez believes Grupo México’s blatant disregard for safety regulations caused the explosion. “They used machinery that was prohibited because it is dangerous. The gas levels were very high. Methane gas, between 11 and 12 percent is explosive. The first measurements that were done following the explosion were at 54%. The ventilation system was extremely deficient.”

The Mexican Geological Service contracted mining specialist Raúl Meza Zúñiga to investigate the possible causes of the fatal explosion. Meza argues that the mine was being overexploited, with workers extracting over 250 tons of coal per hour. Meza believes that the dangerously high extraction rate released the methane gas that is naturally found in coal deposits, raising the level of methane gas in the mine to an explosive level. The use of soldering and welding equipment in a mine where gas levels were not properly tested could have caused the explosion.

A government-commissioned report on safety conditions in the Pasta de Conchos mine found that the supports that reinforced the mineshaft were not designed to withstand horizontal pressure, such as the pressure produced by an explosion. The explosion caused multiple cave-ins in the mine. The report concluded, “The failures that are described throughout the Pasta de Conchos report are, in almost all cases, systemic failures: of safety, of maintenance, administrative controls, of emergency preparedness, and of emergency response.”

Government Complicity

The Pasta de Conchos mine had many known safety problems for years before the 2006 explosion. Rodriguez accuses the government of not enforcing Mexican mine safety regulations that could have prevented the explosion. “We have safety inspection reports for Pasta de Conchos that go back as far as the year 2000. [The explosion] in 2006 was in danger of happening since 2000,” he argues. “The mines weren’t properly inspected. And if they were inspected, the proper precautionary measures were not required. And if they were required, the company didn’t enact them, because it was cheaper for them to pay the fine than to implement measures to guarantee the workers’ safety.”

The International Labor Organization, which is currently reviewing the Pasta de Conchos disaster, concluded that “the Government of Mexico did not do all that was reasonable expected of it to avoid or to minimize the effects of the Accident which had such devastating effects with the loss of life of as many as 65 miners.”

Bishop Vera argues, “The federal government is essentially covering up a murder that was committed by Grupo Mexico because they’ve systematically refused to recover the bodies.”

Certain government officials’ financial conflict of interest could have played a role in the Mexican government’s indifference in the face of glaring safety issues at the mine and the subsequent explosion. “The reason why there wasn’t a rescue at Pasta de Conchos,” argues Rodriguez, “is the relationship between economic power and political power.”

Grupo México became Mexico’s largest mining company—and its owner, the third richest man in Mexico—thanks in large part to a World Bank-mandated restructuring of Mexico’s mining sector. This restructuring opened up Mexico’s mining sector to privatization, and allowed former president Carlos Salinas to sell off the nation’s state-owned companies to his friends at bargain basement prices. Grupo México snatched up state-owned companies for a fraction of their real values.

In addition to its economic power, Grupo México has significant political power, thanks to the politicians who have worked for the company. At the time of the Pasta de Conchos disaster, two members of Grupo México’s Board of Directors also sat on the Board of Directors of the Vamos México Foundation, which is run by then-president Vicente Fox’s wife.

Several former Cabinet members have served on Grupo México’s Board. Since 2001, Juan Rebolledo Gout has served as the Grupo México’s International Vice-President. Gout served in the Salinas and Zedillo administrations, as spokesman for the President and Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs, respectively. Luis Téllez Kuenzler served as President Zedillo’s Chief of Staff and Secretary of Energy. He was Grupo México’s Chairman of the Board during the Pasta de Conchos disaster, and he served as current President Calderón’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation. Carlos Ruiz Sacristan was Secretary of Communications and Transportation from 1995-2000; he joined the Board of Directors of Southern Copper Corp. (owned by Grupo México) in 2004. Armando Ortega Gómez has served on Southern Copper’s Board since 2002. He was Grupo México’s General Counsel during the Pasta de Conchos disaster. Just prior to joining Grupo México, Ortega served as the Mexican government’s Deputy Vice Minister of Economy.

“It is this Board of Directors who could have said, ‘We will rescue the miners, no matter what it costs,’” argues Rodriguez. “The people who made the decision to not rescue the miners are the economic powerhouses of this country.”

It is not surprising then, that Manuel Fuentes, a lawyer representing the victims’ families, reports that Minera México, the Grupo México subsidiary that ran the Pasta de Conchos mine, “has not paid a single cent of its fines. Not a single Minera México employee has set foot in jail, and currently there is not a single judicial procedure open” against the company.

On the contrary, Grupo México has only strengthened its position since the disaster. The Mexican government awarded the company a mining concession in Zacatecas only two days after the Pasta de Conchos explosion.

Despite a government order to permanently close Pasta de Conchos following the explosion, former governor of Coahuila Rogelio Montenayor Seguy managed to re-open the site’s coal washing facility by setting up a straw company that he claims purchased the plant from Grupo México. In 2007, the same year that the government ordered Pasta de Conchos closed, it awarded Grupo México thirty new concessions, including some in Coahuila. In 2008, Grupo México received another 33 mining concessions.

Faced with such cynicism, the Pasta de Conchos families have brought their case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). They argue that they have exhausted all of their legal options, but justice hasn’t been served. The IACHR process will take time, but it is their last hope to hold the Mexican government and Grupo México responsible for a crime the Mexican miners union has termed “an industrial homicide.”