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Year after Mexico school fire justice is elusive

On June 5 fire ripped through a preschool in Hermosillo, killing 49 children. The tragedy revealed grievous safety lapses and official neglect, but a year later, no one sits behind bars.

June 03, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — A year later, Juanita Luna wonders whether she will ever see justice.

On June 5, fire ripped through a preschool in northern Mexico, killing Luna's 3-year-old son, Jonatan, and 48 other youngsters trapped without working emergency exits. Dozens more suffered injuries.

The tragedy in the northern city of Hermosillo revealed grievous safety lapses and official neglect, stirring pledges from Mexican authorities that those responsible for the accidental blaze would be punished.

But now no one sits behind bars. More than a dozen people have been charged in the case, but they remain free on bail and the timing of court proceedings remains unclear.

As parents prepare to mark the anniversary Saturday with remembrances and protests, they are growing weary of demanding answers or some sign of a reckoning to come.

"There are many guilty parties," Luna, a 36-year-old administrative assistant in Hermosillo, said bitterly. "It's a disgrace. A disgrace for Mexico."

Mexican Supreme Court justices conducted an investigation and, in March, named 19 government officials at all levels who they said bore responsibility.

The list included Eduardo Bours, the former governor of Sonora state, and Juan Molinar Horcasitas, who used to run the Mexican Social Security Institute, or IMSS. That agency oversaw the school, known as ABC, as part of a network of preschools nationwide.

Bours, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, left office after his term ended last year. Molinar, who had been promoted to Cabinet minister by President Felipe Calderon shortly before the fire, has kept his job despite loud calls that he be ousted because of the fatal incident.

The case has generated a flurry of criminal and civil complaints against a number of people, including the school's private owners, IMSS workers and employees of the state tax office, which leased a warehouse next door to where the fire began.

Early in the investigation, officials said the warehouse fire that ignited the school was sparked by a short circuit in a cooling unit. That conclusion was later echoed by California investigators hired to examine the case on behalf of the Supreme Court.

The justices' preliminary finding was that boxes of stored documents caught fire, and that flames then ripped through a faulty fire barrier and burst along the ceiling into the school.

As families await further developments, a sinister theory has emerged that the fire was set.

Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont first raised the possibility of foul play last month when he said signs of chemical accelerants were found in the warehouse. Gomez Mont said the evidence pointed to "intentional acts," but he did not elaborate.

Gabriel Alvarado, a lawyer in Hermosillo who represents some of the victims' families, says an Arizona fire specialist working for his clients found the traces. He said the findings were sent to federal prosecutors.

The federal attorney general's office declined to comment.

"There are sufficient elements to consider that the fire was started," Alvarado said. He would not provide a copy of the report or identify the investigator.

Others deemed the arson idea far-fetched.

"I think it's a ghost, or it's an unqualified expert," said Steve Van Rickley, a consultant who hired a Davis, Calif.-based firm to carry out the Supreme Court's investigation. Their findings were the basis of the court's interim ruling that the fire was accidental.

"Anybody who's coming up with an alternative cause and origin, I'd be curious who they are," Van Rickley said.

The longer the ABC case remains unresolved, the more it has come to serve for many Mexicans as a symbol of the failings of their government at all levels.

"It shows we haven't managed to build a responsible country, where things work the way they are supposed to, where you can find those responsible when it's necessary," analyst Armando Roman Zozaya wrote in Wednesday's Excelsior newspaper.

Dozens of parents met Wednesday with Calderon, who promised government help and declared Saturday a day of mourning.

The blaze injured more than 75 youngsters and laid bare numerous safety lapses at the preschool, which was run by private owners under contract to IMSS.

One of the co-owners is related to Margarita Zavala, Calderon's wife. The husbands of two others held ranking state posts under Bours.

Public anger over the incident in Sonora state helped Calderon's conservative National Action Party unseat the PRI there.

Whatever sparked the fire, the preschool appeared to be a disaster waiting to happen. Emergency doors were blocked, sealed or improperly installed, even though the preschool had recently passed a municipal inspection. A synthetic tarp suspended overhead rained burning material onto the panicked youngsters.

Amid the mayhem, a desperate rescuer rammed the outside wall with his pickup to make an opening to rescue people inside.

Mayra Valle recalled seeing the smoke, sprinting to the school, and hoping that what she was seeing wasn't so. By the time she got there, her 3-year-old son, Isaac, was dead.

A year later, her hope flickers still.

"I don't want to lose the last thing I have left, which is faith that my son will have justice," said Valle, 38. "Even with all that the government does to us Mexicans, we still believe. I don't want to be wrong."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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