MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Thousands of Miners Strike a Year After Mexican Coal Mine Explosion That Killed 65 Workers

Published by MAC on 2007-02-20

Thousands of Miners Strike a Year After Mexican Coal Mine Explosion That Killed 65 Workers

Associated Press

20th February 2007

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico (AP) - Thousands of miners held a one-day strike, marking the anniversary of an underground blast that killed 65 people and raised troubling questions about mining safety in Mexico.

Relatives of the victims celebrated a Mass and rallied outside the Pasta de Conchos coal mine's gates Monday to renew their demands for better working conditions and for the recovery of the victims' remains a year after the Feb. 19, 2006, explosion. So far, only two bodies have been found.

"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 city of Piedras Negras, across the U.S. border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

Earlier, about 100 relatives and friends of victims staged an all-night vigil, lighting candles and releasing 65 white balloons at 2:15 a.m. — the time of the explosion — as crews continued working around the clock to recover the remains of the 63 who are still trapped.

Monday's work stoppage in commemoration of the tragedy affected steel plants and silver mines across Mexico. Many of the striking miners were supporters of ousted union leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, who dubbed the tragedy "industrial homicide."

Gomez himself has been a divisive figure in the disaster: He is being investigated for allegations of fraud, and his slow response after the explosion enraged workers' families.

The federal government ordered Gomez's arrest in March for allegedly misappropriating $55 million, prompting a nationwide strike in support of the union leader. The government then certified a Gomez rival as union leader.

Over the course of a year, little has been done to improve conditions in Mexico's mines. There are still too few inspectors, and Coahuila state officials allege that corruption among inspectors has kept international standards from being enforced.

In January, a coal miner was crushed to death and four others were injured after the collapse of a mine shaft in Nueva Rosita, a town neighboring San Juan de Sabinas.

An official cause has not been determined for the Pasta de Conchos explosion that collapsed much of the mine. But investigators found problems with the mine's ventilation system and some miners say that gas detectors designed to automatically shut down the mines in dangerous situations were routinely tampered with by the miners themselves.

A special state prosecutor is recommending charges of negligent homicide against 11 mine officials and federal government inspectors.

On Sunday, Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira said he was pressured by former President Vicente Fox to cover up for federal inspectors and to accuse "innocent people" for the tragedy.

Moreira made the comments in response to a federal congressional report that was leaked to the media and that claimed state authorities failed to enforce safety measures. The alleged author of the report, congressman Armando Lopez, said it was false and that his signature on the document was forged.

A spokesman for Fox was not available to comment.

Grupo Mexico SA de CV, a railroad and mining giant with operations in Mexico, Peru and the United States, insists the mine met all safety standards and denies that safety precautions were ignored. As for the cause, the company says they have to reach the spot where the blast originated before drawing any conclusions.

The company, which has promised to work as long as it takes to recover the remains, does not plan to reopen the mine once recovery efforts conclude.

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