By KELIN DILLON
On Aug. 3, 15 Mexican miners were trapped in a Coahuila coal mine after accidentally breaching a nearby water-filled well while working on the site; though five managed to escape, 10 still remain within the mine without any contact with the outside world and their chance of survival diminishing with every passing day. Now, the Mexican authorities are looking for who’s responsible for the tragic accident – and according to Mexican political analyst and journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio, all roads lead to head of the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) Manuel Bartlett, whose influence on the design of Coahuila’s coal mining region may be directly responsible for the situation at hand.
Bartlett first began to encroach on the region in 2020, when he announced that the coal transactional intermediary known as the Coahuila Mining Development Promoter (Prodemi) would no longer handle coal orders and providers would instead directly deal with the CFE itself, essentially removing the state of Coahuila’s influence in its own coal mining industry.
After removing the purportedly corrupt Prodemi, the CFE head then lowered the value of coal and gave priority to small providers over large producers; however, Bartlett’s structure only caused increased corruption in the region, prompting small providers to sell their coal directly to big providers, who then in turn up-marked the price of the coal before selling it to the CFE.
“In Bartlett’s design, just over 70 producers were chosen, but in an exception to his original decision, he also chose two greats to work with,” explained Riva Palacio in his column in daily Mexican newspaper El Financiero. “The main ones were Tania Flores, mayor of Múzquiz, and her brother Antonio – known as Tony – who are today the main beneficiaries of the CFE contracts. Tania Flores took office this year in that coal-mining municipality, where she arrived with the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) flag.”
Riva Palacio went on to detail the pair’s continued favoritism by Bartlett and the CFE through Tony’s 255 million-peso contract for Minera Don Chilo and Tania’s 200 million-peso contract for her Minera Flores de la Carbonifera, both handed out under the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Tania faced backlash for receiving the contract – which is equivalent to $10 million – from the Morena government while she was in the middle of campaigning for local government as a Morena candidate, and later quietly erased her name from the company’s articles of incorporation in the face of criticism.
Other large producers hand-picked for contracts by Bartlett include Fernando Mendoza Bernal, one of the largest coal producers in Coahuila, who has been involved in repeated scandals over mining management and is closely associated with Morena politicians anticipated to run for and win Coahuila’s gubernatorial office, and Régulo Zapata Jaime, who was awarded a 250 million-peso contract in 2019 and has been closely associated with the mine affected in Aug. 3’s collapse.
“Bartlett’s design, which effectively gave him control in the coal region, has been a source of conflict with the governor of Coahuila, Miguel Riquelme, who accused him of causing carelessness in the maintenance of the mines by lowering prices,” said Riva Palacio. “To which the director of the CFE responded that he only wanted to protect the interests of the big producers.”
According to Riva Palacio, Barlett’s efforts have played a major part in destabilizing the influence of the Morena opposition party the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the region, which has historically dominated Coahuila’s elections. Bartlett likely feels comfortable disrupting and upending the state’s coal influence due to his 40-year-plus relationship with Mexico’s controversial Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, who is expected to shield Bartlett from any legal repercussions or accountability for his actions in the region.
“Controlling the coal region is strategic. Next year there are elections for governor and Coahuila is where the PRI’s most well-oiled electoral machinery operates. Bartlett’s role has been fundamental in removing support and resources from the PRI, transferring them to Morena. This strategic operation is a good shield against an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office that, before justice, works politically,” concluded Riva Palacio.