By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Ever since 10 coal miners in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila were trapped 60 meters underground in a flooded mine on Aug. 3, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has been looking for a scapegoat to blame the tragedy on.
From originally trying to pass the responsibility on to the miners themselves for not following proper safety protocols to later pointing the finger at former Mexican President Vicente Fox (who left office back in 2006), AMLO has wiggled and squirmed, dodged and deflected, in an effort to distract attention for falling where it rightly belongs.
But at the end of the day, the blame for the miners’ death — and yes, at this point, sadly, there is no viable possibility that they are alive — lies squarely on the shoulders of AMLO himself.
Two years ago, in his efforts to reactivate Mexico’s then-relatively dormant coalmining industry, AMLO pushed through policies to revive abandoned mines, particularly small mines that were owned and operated by independent companies, all with the aim of providing unclean, carbon-based fuels for his convoluted national energy project.
As reporters Fabiola Sánchez and Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press (AP) pointed out in an article released on Sunday, Aug. 28, “in doing so, the administration resuscitated a form of coal mining so dangerous that lawmakers in both houses of Mexico’s Congress had tried to ban it a decade ago.”
The practice, known as box mining or rat-hole mining, is illegal in most developed countries and is generally not practiced by larger mining firms even where it is allowed, mainly because it is so dangerous, not to mention extremely harmful to the environment.
“Experts say that mines so narrow and primitive that only one miner at a time can be lowered into a narrow shaft — and only one bucket of coal extracted — are inherently unsafe,” the AP article pointed out.
“At some pits, known as ‘pocitos,’ or ‘little wells,’ air is pumped in and water pumped out through plastic hoses. Some don’t even have that. There are usually no safety exits or auxiliary shafts.”
And so it was at the Salinas mine.
The AP article noted that “not only was (AMLO’s) policy questioned by environmentalists, many also said it endangered miners.”
But AMLO doesn’t care about who gets hurt in his obsessive quest for coal “to shore up the state-owned power utility, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), headed by old-guard politician Manuel Bartlett.”
“Bartlett’s brilliant idea of buying more coal from the smallest producers, and less from big producers, gave rise to a black market that wound up in the exploitation of mines that lack the safeguards needed to protect the lives of the workers,” Coahuila Governor Miguel Riquelme, a member of member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), observed after the Sabinas mine collapsed.
“The government utility had defended its decision to buy about two-thirds of coal for power generation from small mines,” wrote the AP’s Sánchez and Stevenson.
And in order to accomplish that mission, the AMLO government turned a blind eye to reckless practices, letting safety regulations and inspections slide.
But then they answered their own question, citing mine safety activist Cristina Auerbach, who noted that in Mexico, and especially in Coahuila, “coal is a political issue … not an economic one.”
Over the last couple decades, the AP reporters said, “small-scale coal mining appeared to be dying out in Coahuila until López Obrador directed the Federal Electricity Commission to ramp up purchases.”
The reason for the prioritization of small mines, they wrote, was because “López Obrador wanted to eliminate subterfuge and corruption in coal purchases, but apparently failed at that,” since the incidence of mining accidents have only increased over the last two years, and in most cases, the responsible parties have never been charged or sentenced.
With slack enforcement of safety regulations, illegal practices abound in the industry, and government inspectors are few and far between.
Inevitably, those who pay the price for this government negligence are, of course, the miners, sometimes with their very lives, as in the case of the Salinas mine.
And if AMLO really wants to know who is responsible for the Coahuila mine tragedy, he need only look as far as the nearest mirror.