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Guadalajara marks 20 years since darkest day

April 21, 2012

Wednesday, April 22, 1992: a day Guadalajara will never forget

April 22, 1992, 10.03 a.m. Manhole covers begin flying from the streets of Guadalajara’s Reforma district. White smoke streams out from the sewers.

Within minutes, explosions rock the city. Cars and buses are catapulted skywards. Houses collapse. During the next few hours, eight miles of streets are reduced to rubble. More than 200 people lose their lives.

The fallout from the gasoline explosions would affect Jalisco for years to come. Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of that tragic day and the pain is still present in the hearts of those who lost their homes, health or loved ones in the blasts.

For Lilia Ruiz Chavez, 59, who heads the campaign and support group, Asociacion 22 de Abril en Guadalajara, the struggle for justice continues on a daily basis.

Ruiz was riding on a number 333 bus on Calle Gante when it was catapulted into the air by the blast. She lost consciousness and although she survived, one of her legs was amputated. The following year she and five other victims founded the 22 de Abril group. Membership soon rose to 84.

Seemingly indefatigable, Ruiz has campaigned for 19 years for adequate compensation for all of those affected, selflessly devoting over 50 percent of her time to the cause. While it may be hard work, she knows its worth: “If it wasn’t for us – and it gives me great pride to say this – and our constant struggle over the past 20 years, no one would have received anything.”

One of the most striking aspects of the disaster is the ease with which it could and should have been averted. Three days before the explosions, residents of Gante reported the strong smell of gasoline to the city authorities.

Civil Protection and water utility workers were dispatched to the area on April 21. They discovered dangerously high levels of gasoline fumes in the sewers, but the mayor decided it was not necessary to evacuate the area.

The first blasts were recorded the following day at 10.05 a.m., one at the corner of Calzada Independencia and Aldama, and another on Gante and 20 de Noviembre. The first emergency call, recorded at 10.06 a.m., was forwarded to an automatic answering machine.

“The pavement rose up and I was thrown in the air,” recalls Micaela Morales Gutierrez, now 65, who was visiting her mother who lived on Gante. Morales was also with her two-year-old daughter, who tried in vain to pull her from the rubble before more help arrived.

She was left in “very strong pain” and spent 12 days in a local medical center recovering from five spinal fractures. Asked how she feels on the anniversary of the incident, Morales replies, “determined to keep fighting.”

Another victim, Carlos Heredia, now 67, was on his way to work in a car radiator workshop when he was thrown up among rocks and earth, landing wedged beneath a car.

He has not been able to work in the 20 years since. If this had happened in another country, Heredia is sure the victims would have received at least a secure pension.

His only fortune was being handed a prescription when he was treated by a doctor at the IMSS Hospital 46. Without that slip of paper, he would never have been able to prove his injuries were caused by the blasts or claim compensation from the government.

“Loads of other people had absolutely no proof” and have never received a penny, says Heredia. The 22 de Abril Association still hopes to extract compensation for these victims who have been unfairly ignored by the government.

Guadalajara’s hospitals were overwhelmed as at least 500 people were injured by the explosions. The official death toll stood at 210, although many believe it was far higher. Heredia says one doctor who appeared at a support group meeting told him over 1,000 died.

“It is impossible to know the real number of victims, since many of the bodies were unrecognizable,” says Mario Rivas Souza, former director of the Forensic Medical Service (Semefo). “There were many bodies that no one reclaimed, I believe many of their families did not even know they died because they simply disappeared, together with the bodies that were destroyed because nobody could identify them.”

Another 15,000 were left homeless, while the damages were estimated at anywhere between 300 million and one billion dollars.

On April 27, Guadalajara Mayor Enrique Dau Flores and the state Secretary for Urban and Rural Development, Aristeo Mejia Duran, were detained on charges of failing to evacuate the area before the explosions occurred. Four employees of the state oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), were also arrested, along with executives of the intermunicipal water and sewage company, SIAPA.

Three days later, Jalisco Governor Guillermo Cosio Vidaurri announced a leave of absence and left Guadalajara. Having made insensitive comments directly after the tragedy, he had become a reviled figure and would never return to his post.

The Mexican government refused to admit that Pemex was responsible for the explosions, despite investigators’ conclusions that thousands of gallons of gasoline had leaked from a corroded Pemex duct that ran directly above the sewer line.

Although no one from Pemex was ever held to account, few of the victims have any doubt over who was to blame. One theory is that corrupt Pemex officials deliberately dumped gasoline in the sewers to hide book-keeping anomalies.

On May 8, 1992, around 5,000 angry protestors marched across the city, demanding that those responsible for the tragedy be tried and punished immediately. Government and Pemex officials were their primary targets, for failing to evacuate the area before the blasts, botching the rescue effort and playing down the official death count.

Among those protesting the government’s antipathy toward their plight were 40 men, women and children rendered homeless by the explosions and living in makeshift tents outside the Palacio del Gobierno. On June 1, at 3 a.m., at least 15 were injured when they were attacked by an unidentified but uniformed gang of military-style thugs.

“These past 20 years I’ve lived in a state of constant alert, but not fear, because we cannot suffer more than we did on April 22. We have nothing left to fear,” says Ruiz, who has been persecuted for being a constant thorn in the side of authorities who want to forget the disaster and its victims. “They sent people to attack me, they locked me up in prison for three days … I don’t know why they haven’t killed me.”

Following a lengthy investigation, the official report on the disaster was finally released in December 1993. Not only did the 43,000-page document fail to incriminate any of the nine officials standing trial, it also affirmed no more charges would be brought against anyone in connection with the blasts.

At first, the government intermittently paid out 600 pesos per month – plus occasional grants and medical costs – as compensation for those who could prove they were victims of the blasts. After much lobbying and protesting on the part of Ruiz and her associates, this amount was eventually raised to the equivalent of three minimum wages.

Most beneficiaries now receive 5,400 pesos per month, but others are given one third of this, even if – as in some cases – their injuries are worse.

“It’s very unfair,” says Ruiz, who wants the government to pay out a flat rate to all of the victims. She is particularly scathing of the state authorities. While the federal government has paid out 11 million pesos in compensation (five million of which has seemingly disappeared, according to Ruiz) and the municipal government has given ten million, in 20 years the state government has given only a miserly million pesos to the victims.

After long delays and even more pressuring from the victims, Pemex also reluctantly agreed to pay out 40 million pesos in compensation, although it maintained this was a “donation” and not an acceptance of responsibility for the disaster.

Ruiz has written a book about her two-decade campaign for justice, which she hopes to publish in June.

“Like fighting a monster with many heads,” is how she describes the struggle against unsympathetic government and Pemex officials. “It’s like David against Goliath,” she adds. “They want to squash us but we will not permit it.”

April 22: Far reaching consequences

The April 22, 1992 sewer explosions had far-reaching consequences not only for the victims in Guadalajara, but for society as a whole.

Having brought down Jalisco Governor Guillermo Cosio, it also marked the end of the long reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the state. The PRI has lost every subsequent election, although it may finally be on the verge of a return to power.

The disaster also precipitated the rise of investigative journalism in Jalisco. While establishment newspapers such as El Informador and El Occidental initially ignored the story, the fledgling daily Siglo 21 was the only publication to report local residents’ complaints of strong gasoline smells prior to the blasts.

Local photojournalist Jose Hernandez Claire was working as photo editor for Siglo 21 at the time of the gas explosions. He encountered nothing but “death and destruction” upon arrival on the scene. “It looked like a war zone, something we had never seen here in Guadalajara,” he says.

Faced with a dilemma between helping the wounded and taking photos, Hernandez decided it was important that someone “record this event which changed the history of Guadalajara.”

Having made its name through its coverage of the unfolding events, Siglo 21 evolved into local newspaper Publico (which was later bought by Milenio).

On the tenth anniversary of the disaster, Publico editor Diego Petersen Farah ran an investigative piece alleging that Pemex technicians were aware their pipeline was leaking massive amounts of gasoline early April 21, some 30 hours before the first explosion.

Petersen said the leak was caused when Pemex workers in Guadalajara inexplicably shut the valves on the pipeline receiving the gasoline from Salamanca, Guanajuato. Workers at the Salamanca plant continued pumping the gasoline for 20 minutes more, resulting in a massive buildup of pressure in a rusted section of the pipeline.

The pipeline duly ruptured, spilling hundreds of thousands of liters of gasoline into the sewer below. Farah said that Pemex was aware of the problem but did not inform anyone.

At 7 p.m. on the eve of the blasts, Guadalajara officials ordered the sewer line to be flushed with massive amounts of water. Authorities thought they had solved the problem.

They were wrong.

Pipeline safety still a major concern

The question of pipeline safety is still a pertinent one, as recent events in Jalisco have proven. Last week, an explosion in La Villita in the municipality of Tala caused a 50-meter-high fireball, with the subsequent flames burning for eight hours.

It was the result of thieves pumping fuel from a hole in the pipeline. The blast led authorities to a secret fuel cellar, where the thieves had 49 drums with a capacity of 200 liters each. No one was hurt in the explosion.

This was the third such incident in the past month. The first occurred on March 13, when a Pemex truck was found in flames in Tlajomulco on the highway to Morelia. Again, thieves had been extracting fuel from the vehicle when it caught fire, but there were no casualties.

Then, on March 31, another fire was reported when a pipeline in El Zapote, Tlajomulco, was looted. The fuel pressure caused an explosion that also destroyed a  nearby truck.

APRIL 22, 1992 IN NUMBERS

Official death count: 210

Injured: 1,300

Vehicles destroyed or damaged beyond repair: 525

Kilometers of streets affected: 13

Blocks affected: 98

Properties damaged: 3,000

Estimated financial cost: Between 300 million and one billion dollars

Commemorative acts planned for Sunday, April 22

10 a.m. Procession from Calle Aldama and Calzada Independencia, following the path of the ten explosions, where ten bronze placards have been placed.

10.30 a.m. Mass at the Templo de San Sebastian de Analco, on Calle Guadalupe Victoria and 28 de Enero, in Barrio Analco.

11.30 a.m. Poster prizegiving ceremony, beside the “Estela Contra el Olvido” monument in Parque San Sebastian de Analco.

12.30 p.m. Unveiling of a plaque at the “Estela Contra el Olvido” monument; message to local citizens; floral offerings; guard of honor and a minute of silence.

1.30 p.m. Unveiling of commemorative mural at Calle Bartolome de las Casas and Nicolas Bravo.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Angelica González permalink
    April 22, 2012 20:20

    The explosion in Guadalajara was a major tragedy which affected many lives including my uncle and his family who were on vacation visiting family from my mom’s side. He lost his two youngest daughters who were 3 & 4 years of age. Luckily the 5 year old survived who is now in her twenties. My family lost two precious little girls that day who we will never see again.

  2. April 23, 2012 04:40

    I’m sorry for your family’s tragic loss Angelica. We can only hope nothing like this ever happens again.

  3. cat permalink
    May 22, 2014 07:11

    How can i get a hold of the victims names?

  4. LaBella permalink
    September 17, 2017 17:33

    So sorry, I was a teacher there at the time!

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