Words are powerless to describe the unspeakable horror that engulfed the working class “Y” colony in the northern Mexican desert city of Hermosillo June 5th when a grubby industrial warehouse that had been rented out as a day care center burst into flames trapping over 100 toddlers inside.
With the emergency exits blocked, no fire extinguishers on the premises, and defective smoke and fire alarms, neighbors frantically fought to rescue their children. One brave young man repeatedly slammed his pick-up into the front wall to open an escape hatch – he was later cited for inflicting property damage. 57 youngsters were carried out of the ABC Day Care Center alive. 41 were not, most of them burned beyond recognition in their cribs and cots. 26 of the children rescued remain hospitalized in grave condition – five more have since died. In one heartbreaking incident, a surviving child’s face was so badly disfigured that her parents did not recognize her and she was given to another family whose own child had burned up in the conflagration.
Preliminary investigation into the tragedy point to gross negligence by the authorities, the collusion of federal and Sonora state government officials, and influence trafficking on the part of the three listed owners, one of whom is a cousin of Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexican president Felipe Calderon.
The privatization of government day care centers under Calderon and his right-wing predecessor Vicente Fox graphically underscores how neo-liberalism dilutes safety standards and sacrifices children’s lives to boost profit margins.
The killer blaze is supposed to have begun in a section of the warehouse where state government documents were stored when an air conditioning unit malfunctioned, sending out sparks that ignited stacks of documents – but one air conditioning repairman consulted for this report insists that such a chain of events is improbable at best.
The suggestion that the fire was deliberately set to get rid of incriminating evidence of the malfeasance of outgoing Sonora governor Eduardo Bours was dismissed by authorities as unfounded rumor. Bours himself called the allegations “an urban myth.”
Whatever its true origin, the fire quickly spread into the day care facility that shared the warehouse but was not immediately detected because of the disabled alarm system and a false polyurethane ceiling that had been extended over the center, reportedly to protect the children from asbestos used in the construction of the structure. When the polyurethane ignited just before 3 PM nap time, flaming shards of plastic fell upon the toddlers and toxic fumes filled the room – the warehouse windows were ten meters above the floor and could not be broken out.
The ABC Day Care Center had been certified to be in compliance with building and safety codes by the Hermosillo Fire Department May 26th, just ten days before the tragedy. It now appears that no inspection occurred on the premises and the certification is a carbon copy of a clean bill of health absolving the owners of any violations issued annually since 2005.
The apparent complicity between local officials and the owners of the ABC Day Care Center, all of whom are connected to Bours’ regime has incited bitter indignation. 10,000 citizens took to the streets of Hermosillo in 100 degree plus heat a week after the disaster. What began as a silent march soon erupted in thunderous denunciations of the outgoing governor (elections are scheduled for July 5th) and the Calderon administration. Demonstrators later set up an impromptu graveyard in front of Hermosillo city hall.
The indignation has gone national: at a book presentation in Mexico City, the country’s most lauded author Elena Poniatowska interrupted her literary remarks to vent her rage at the negligence and veniality of Mexican authorities. Similarly, Carlos Monsivais, the renowned chronicler of Mexican civil society and poet laureate Jose Emilio Pacheco spoke out in anger at other events in the capital.
The ABC Day Care Center is one of more than 1500 such facilities covering 223,000 children that have been privatized by the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) since 2000 – the IMSS continues to run 142 day care centers on its own. Under the privatization schema, the yearly cost per child was reduced from 3800 pesos to 2100 with a subsequent deterioration in services – food quality, medical attention, and educational programs as well as safety standards all declined, according to Dr. Gustavo Leal, an investigator at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) in Mexico City and columnist for the national daily La Jornada who specializes in the IMSS.
In Sonora, 79 out of 87 government day care centers have been sold off, many to for-profit business interests with ample political clout – at least 13 owners have family ties with Governor Bours revealed an independent probe by the investigative unit of the national daily El Universal. State and federal authorities have yet to disclose a full list of those who hold the concessions.
Bottom line investment in infrastructure may well explain the inappropriateness of the site selected for the ABC Day Care Center – a factory warehouse (the space had previously been occupied by a clothing maquiladora) on the corner of Railroad and Mechanics Avenue in an industrial section of the Sonoran capital. The nursery fronted a gasoline station and was flanked by a tire factory yet inspectors repeatedly certified the building for use as a day care center.
The three owners of the ABC listed on IMSS documents are part of a compact clique of “picudos” or wealthy Sonorans with business and family ties to both Bours and Calderon. Sandra Tellez Nieves is the wife of Bours’ life stock and poultry sub-secretary (Sonora is a cattle ranching state and Bours himself owns the largest poultry producer in Mexico.) Marcia Gomez del Campo is the spouse of Antonio Salido, Bours’ Secretary of Infrastructure and the cousin of the once-ruling PRI candidate for Hermosillo mayor in the July 5th elections. To close the circle, Marcia’s father, Roberto Gomez del Campo is the uncle by marriage of Governor Bours’ wife.
The third partner in the ABC operation, Gildardo Urquides Serrano, is the owner of three privatized day care centers in Hermosillo and Nogales and the finance secretary for the PRI candidate to succeed Bours, Alfonso Elias Serrano. Urquides’ father, prominent Hermosillo businessman Jose Luis Matiela, a Bours crony, is listed as the owner of the doomed warehouse and rented the building to the Sonora finance secretariat to stash state documents which in turn sublet space to the three owners of the ABC day care. Monthly rent for the warehouse, 30,000 pesos in 2008 (approximately $2800 USD a month) was raised a thousand fold to 300,000 pesos in 2009 without explanation.
What role Calderon family ties played in securing the day care contracts for the three is being closely scrutinized. Marcia Gomez del Campo is the cousin of Calderon’s wife Margarita Zavala. The First Lady describes Marcia as a distant relative whom she cannot remember ever meeting. But according to a spread in the May 31st society section of the Hermosillo daily El Imparcial, Zavala, Calderon, and Gomez del Campo were all guests at the 80th birthday party of Zavala’s grandmother Mercedes Gomez del Campo, held at a posh Mexico City Catholic college two weeks before the ABC was consumed by flames. Photographs accompanying the article show Marcia and Margarita posing with family members.
As First Lady, Margarita Zavala is the honorific president of the Integral Family Direction or DIF, which provides social services for needy families and abused children. According to Dr. Leal, the DIF plays a pivotal role in recommending owners for newly privatized day care facilities.
The IMSS was created by depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas to provide workers with health care, run the nation’s public hospitals, and manage ancillary social services. Many of its functions have been dismantled by the last five neo-liberal presidents to the detriment of those for whom they were originally intended. For example, the privatization of workers’ pension funds, formerly a function of the IMSS, has led to a reduction of a third to a half of workers’ retirement accounts, and government failure to adequately fund the hospital system has forced workers to seek private health care.
In a gambit to further downgrade the IMSS, which has always been controlled by the PRI, Felipe Calderon, a member of the right-wing PAN party, has created a two-tier day care system under the aegius of the Social Development Secretariat (SEDESO). 8000 decentralized day care centers have been chartered in private homes in poor neighborhoods to care for more than 200,000 children while their parents – often single mothers – are at work.
Under the Calderon scheme, SEDESO advances day care providers 35,000 pesos to recondition their homes as nurseries – parents are obliged to pay 700 pesos each month per child for the service, a fee covered under the government’s “Opportunities” poverty program.
Additional funds for both the IMSS and SEDESO day care centers are made available to the providers based on attendance. A 2008 government audit revealed the names of hundreds of children on provider lists whose existence could not be verified, suggesting widespread fraud down at the grassroots.
Curiously, Calderon inaugurated the SEDESO neighborhood day care center network in Chalco, a desperately poor squatter city in the misery belt surrounding Mexico City where in 1989, the much-reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari initiated his Solidarity anti-poverty program. 20 years later, Chalco remains just as poverty- stricken as it was before Salinas instigated Solidarity in a maneuver to buy the votes of the poor. For the PRI and the PAN, the poor are essential electoral cannon fodder and both parties are battling for their allegiance in the upcoming July 5th midterms.
Until she declared her candidacy as the PAN nominee for a Mexico City seat in the lower house of congress, Lia Limon ran the SEDESO day care program. Limon was briefly married to Luis Carlos Ugalde – Felipe Calderon is listed as best man at their Cuernavaca wedding. Ugalde was subsequently appointed chairman of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) which stage-managed Calderon’s fraud-tarred “victory” over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the 2006 presidential elections.
Also running for a seat in Congress this July 5th is Mariana Gomez del Campo, former Mexico City director of the PAN, and a cousin of both Margarita Zavala and Marcia Gomez del Campo. Electoral politics here often take on the taint of a family enterprise.
Despite the vehement rejection of neo-liberalism by Latin American voters in at least a dozen countries and the installation of social democrat presidents who defend the responsibility of the state in providing social services for their citizens, Mexico continues down the primrose path to neoliberal disaster. The next social institution up for privatization here is the beleaguered prison system, an inferno of violence and corruption that has been hopelessly overcrowded by the incarceration of poor people caught up in Calderon’s never-ending War on Drugs.
The construction of 12 new private prisons will be financed by Interacciones Bank, the property of Carlos Hank Rhon, scion of the late Carlos Hank Gonzalez, the boss of all bosses during much of the PRI’s seven-decade chokehold on power – as Secretary of Agriculture under Salinas, Hank Gonzalez was the go-to guy for the privatization of the agrarian sector during the run-up to NAFTA.
Once the prisons are built, they reportedly will be operated by the Florida-based GEO Corporation (formerly Wackenhut), the big player in the U.S. private prison industry in which Bush vice-president Dick Cheney’s Vanguard Group is said to be heavily invested – arrest orders for Cheney were issued in 2008 by a south Texas Grand Jury because of his alleged involvement in a GEO-run detention facility where Mexicans being held for deportation were brutalized.
Just as the privatization of prisons has earned GEO and Cheney a tidy fortune, the privatization of Mexican day care centers has meant big-time profits for the owners of the now defunct ABC who took in 400,000 pesos a month before their business burnt down, about a half million Yanqui dollars annually.
But the “benefits” of neo-liberalism are not limited to the private sector. Even the parents who gave their children to Gomez del Campo and her partners to be warehoused under such life-threatening conditions at the ABC “day care” have “benefited” by the neo-liberal machinations. Last week, the Calderon government offered them free funerals for their dead children.
JOHN ROSS has returned to Mexico after having won round one against liver cancer. His “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published by Nation Books in the fall. A second volume, “Iraqigirl – the Diary of An Iraqi Teenager” (Haymarket), which Ross assembled and edited, will be in bookstores next spring. He can be reached at: email@example.com