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Mexico Mine Blast Fuels Hostilities

Allegations that the government helped oust a union leader after the Feb. 19 incident have further strained its ties with other labor groups.

March 16, 2006|Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — The explosion that killed 65 coal miners last month is still reverberating here, setting off new protests and accusations in the long-running tug of war between labor unions and the government of President Vicente Fox.

Once allied with the government under Mexico's old single-party system, unions increasingly have been at odds with Fox, elected in 2000, over the pace of the country's lurch toward democracy and a modern economy.

Thousands of union workers marched to downtown government offices last week over allegations that the Fox administration had helped depose the leader of the miners union shortly after the Feb. 19 disaster. Union officials contend that Fox is trying to install a more pliable leader as part of a plan to vest business owners with more power at the expense of workers' rights.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, accuse the ousted union leader of corruption. They've persuaded a judge to freeze union bank accounts allegedly stuffed with millions of dollars in tainted money.

In the bare-knuckles arena of Mexican politics, both sides could be right: Illegal enrichment of union heads is no secret; neither is Fox's desire for labor reform.

"I absolutely deny that this is an intervention of the government into a union," Fox said. "It's exactly the opposite. It's the union workers who say they've been robbed."

The accused union leader, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, complains that he is the victim of a witch hunt, saying: "This is a political persecution."

While workers dig foot by foot to excavate the bodies of the men buried in the Pasta de Conchos mine, federal authorities are trying to locate Gomez Urrutia to ask him the whereabouts of $55 million.

Gomez Urrutia said in a televised phone interview that he was staying out of sight because he feared arrest. Meanwhile, a police detail waits at his sprawling home on one of Mexico City's most expensive streets. The El Universal newspaper reported that he had a larger estate outside the capital.

Prosecutors allege that Gomez Urrutia pocketed cash from a government settlement with the union earmarked for miners who lost jobs during the privatization of two mines. The government, said presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar, has evidence of "corruption of the worst sort."

Miners union officials counter that a document with forged signatures went to Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar so the government could recognize a new union head.

"We're going to support our leader with everything we've got," union representative Jose Angel Rocha said. "We're not going to let the federal government, or the labor secretary, impose leaders on us."

Gomez Urrutia, 61, took over the leadership of the Miners and Metalworkers Union in 2001 from his father, Napoleon Gomez Sada, who ran it for four decades.

The father-son succession was challenged in a bitter fight in which opponents argued that Gomez Urrutia was an Oxford-educated economist, not a miner. After winning, he promised to modernize the union and to end its strict allegiance to the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"The miners union was recognized for years as one of the most obscenely corrupt," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "It was renowned for venality and featherbedding."

Gomez Urrutia returned to the national spotlight in the days after last month's mine blast in the northern state of Coahuila, accusing mine owners Grupo Mexico of "industrial homicide."

It was a tricky move for Gomez Urrutia: His union signed off on safety inspections at the Pasta de Conchos mine only two weeks before the explosion.

"The union is acting very macho now, but what was it doing to protect workers' safety before this happened?" said Raul Vera, a Roman Catholic bishop who has said Mass for the grieving families.

Day after day of nationally televised images of miners' families camped out at the mine awaiting news after the explosion also left little sympathy for claims by Grupo Mexico that it ran the mine safely.

"Unfortunately, the tragedy in Pasta de Conchos has helped unravel the criminal working conditions under which miners are exploited," said Rosalbina Garavito, an ex-congresswoman.

The union, the Mexican Congress and Fox have all promised to determine the cause of the accident and who is to blame.

Officials believe a methane gas explosion raised temperatures to more than 1,100 degrees, instantly killing 65 men and injuring 13 others in the mine, about 85 miles south of the Texas border. Rescue workers have yet to find bodies.

Two days before the explosion, a small wing of the miners union filed papers with the government to boot Gomez Urrutia from his job on the grounds that he misappropriated the $55-million union settlement. Union heads need government recognition to negotiate contracts.

Union leaders said they had paid more than half the settlement money to miners and would continue until it was gone.

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