Mexico's Bhopal

Cordoba, Veracruz -- Inside a cinderblock house that reeks of chemicals, Enriqueta Gonzalez sits on her couch and recites a litany of health problems. After the Anaversa Pesticide Plant up the hill exploded six years ago, the forty-year-old school teacher suffered convulsions and tremors so severe that she could not hold a glass -- classic symptoms of organo-phosphate poisoning. Two years later, her seventeen-year-old daughter gave birth to a child with spina bifida -- the child, also hydrocephalic, lolls in a crib in the bedroom. The daughter has since had her pre-cancerous uterus removed. In 1995, Gonzalez's mother died of multiple tumors. "I'm sick all the time, but when I go to the hospital, the doctors tell me Anaversa is a lie," Gonzalez says. "Sometimes, I think I'm going crazy ... "Enriqueta Gonzalez is a survivor of Mexico's Bhopal. Unlike the much-publicized 1984 disaster in India, and the 1976 dioxin release at Seveso, Italy, the Anaversa tragedy remains shrouded in obscurity. Mexican Health Secretariat documents deny any connection between the illnesses suffered by the plant's neighbors and the explosion. And the agency's administrators maintain that no one has ever died as a result of the May 1991 environmental disaster. Yet an association formed by families affected by the fire lists 157 deaths among its members' eighteen neighborhoods surrounding the plant. At least thirty deaths of residents not on the association's registry are also reported. No indemnity has ever been paid, and sanctions imposed upon the private parties and government agencies deemed responsible have been ignored.One clue to the cover-up: the officials who licensed and benefited from Anaversa's operation, ranging from former Agricultural Secretary Carlos Hank Gonzalez to present Veracruz governor Patricio Chirinos, were all major players in the administration of Carlos Salinas, the disgraced former president now living in exile in Ireland. Another explanation of the news black-out: the environmental disaster occurred during the most intense period of negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement, when NAFTA opponents were trying to convince members of the U.S. Congress that Mexico's slipshod environmental enforcement was a reason to vote against the trade agreement.Anaversa set up its pesticide factory here in 1969, eleven blocks from the center of Cordoba, an industrial city of 300,000. Relations with the neighbors, who complained of foul odors and sore throats, were never good. Nonetheless, the plant was licensed and re-licensed by state and federal officials (although only as a warehouse and not as a toxic chemicals factory). Although Anaversa mixed its "Dragon" brand agricultural chemicals on a block it shared with two grade schools, a kindergarten, a day care center, a Catholic church, and a thriving street market, the Environmental Secretariat (at the time known by the acronym SEDUE and directed by Patricio Chirinos), approved continued operation of the high-risk installation. A December 1990 report by SEDUE's Environmental Contamination Division listed safety violations but concluded there was no danger to the surrounding community.In the weeks before the tragedy, teachers from the adjoining schools complained to local authorities that chemical vapors were making their students ill. A small on-site fire was reportedly extinguished by Anaversa employees. Local officials paid little attention to the pleas.Then the plant blew sky-high.The company claims an electrical short circuit triggered the blaze at around 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of May 3 -- the feast of the Holy Cross, when many residents were attending mass at Guadalupe Church. The fire grew quickly out of control and thirty-eight thousand liters of pesticides and herbicides began to burn. What went up in smoke included 18,000 liters of methyl parathion, 8,000 liters of Paraquat, and 3,000 liters of 2,4-D, the active compound in Agent Orange (the Vietnam war herbicide). According to a company inventory, more than 1,000 liters each of five "dirty dozen" pesticides -- subjects of a world-wide campaign against the chemicals -- also burned. (Mexico manufactures and imports at least thirty pesticides that the U.S. EPA has banned for use in the United States.)Mothers bundled up babies at the Social Security day-care center across the street from Anaversa and fled in terror. Parishioners poured from the church. The combustion fused chemicals and generated dioxin, according to toxicological consultant Dr. Lilia Albert of the Autonomous University of Mexico. Plant site samples tested by the U.S. Waste Management Corporation contained "alarming" amounts of dioxin.A dense black cloud spread out over Cordoba. Firemen rushed to the plant with little information about what might be inside. With a 30,000-liter tank of solvent about to explode, Major Abraham Aiza turned on the hoses and beat back the flames. But the run-off, laced with lethal poisons, sluiced downhill through residential colonias, befouling streams and turning well water bright green. The chemicals also penetrated Cordoba's potable water system, so that every time a faucet was opened chemical odors spread through homes.In contrast to Bhopal, where 3,000 died in a single night, no one was immediately killed in the Anaversa fire. One thousand three hundred residents were evacuated, and 221 were treated by the Red Cross for chemical poisoning. Evacuees returned to their homes the next day and further spread the contamination as they tried to clean up. And charred debris from the Anaversa plant was thrown into the public dump. The government responded -- lifting the company's license and posting "Closed" signs on the site (although the burned-out shell remained open to the public for years, and squatters even moved in for a while).Illness and death soon touched every block around the railroad station neighborhoods. Thirteen neighbors who lived or worked on the block facing the blast site have died of diseases that suggest lethal contamination. The first to die, in early 1992, was one-year-old Nancy Colorado, of leukemia. Eight-year-old Israel Calles, who lived 800 meters from the plant gate, was another early victim -- although health officials denied any connection between the boy's eye cancer and the Anaversa fire. Cases of chloracne and chemical pneumonitis, both associated with 2,4-D poisoning, were disregarded by the Social Security (IMSS) hospital officials. One man, "El Azul," whose chemical burns turn blue in the sunlight, became a neighborhood celebrity. Residents of La Estacion learned how to pronounce exotic medical terms like "carcinoma" and "necro-pathological." At least twenty pregnant women were trapped in the vicinity of the fire, and babies were born without arms, with multiple toes and fingers, or with spina bifida. But government officials, under the direction of Salinas health secretary Jesœs Kumate, blocked medical treatment of anyone who claimed Anaversa had been responsible for their condition. "The IMSS agreed to see our patients only if they did not mention Anaversa," recalls Lalo Rodr’guez Olivares, a leader of the Association in Defense of the Afectados. "We agreed, because our people needed medical attention."In the three years he has been at Guadalupe Church, Father El’as Mart’nez has conducted over forty masses for persons whose deaths were believed to have been caused by the aftermath of the conflagration. Interviewed after one such ceremony, the young priest said, "Anaversa is still all around us here -- I sweep its dust off my roof every day. The people from the neighborhood come in the afternoon and talk about how depressed they are. They feel as if they are condemned to die ... "After his mother died of cancer, Lalo Rodr’guez, a local storekeeper, became obsessed with the terrible injustice that had fallen upon his neighbors. "One year, we had twenty-two deaths. It seemed like there was a wake in every house on the block. It wasn't natural." Rodr’guez sought out the local deputy of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Rosalinda Huerta. "How could the people in the colonias know what was inside Anaversa?" asked an outraged Huerta. "Now the government is lying to them," she said, "and denying them medical attention."Association members packed up their sick children and traveled to Mexico City, where they camped out on the doorstep of Salinas' newly-created National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). "People have a constitutional right to health and to information," Huerta recalled, "so the CNDH was a natural place to go." Although Salinas had founded the Human Rights Commission as a public relations tactic in response to allegations of widespread human rights violations that dogged the NAFTA negotiations, CNDH ombudsman Jorge Carpizo issued a scathing report. He described the licensing of Anaversa as gross negligence, and recommended that both the Secretaries of Health and the Environment clean up their act.Nonetheless, six years later, neither the census of the colonias affected, nor the epidemiological study called for in Carpizo's report, have been done. In fact, the Health Secretariat continues to keep Anaversa victims from being classified as victims of the Anaversa fire.Huerta took the case to international tribunals for justice, and the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) has agreed to review the Anaversa victims' charges in early 1998. Just as Anaversa was the first case linking the environment to human rights to be heard by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, Huerta's will be the first such complaint to be heard by the inter-American organization.Anaversa itself cashed in a near-million-dollar insurance settlement, and moved its salvaged chemicals, reportedly to a plant at Izœcar de Matamoros, Puebla, where neighbors fear the worst. The facility, which will produce the Dragon brand chemicals, was inaugurated by Governor Manuel Bartlett, another Salinas-era luminary. Fire chief Aziz said he worries that Anaversa-Dragon still has underground operations in the Cordoba region, and estimates that fifty such clandestine factories are located there.Anaversa's legal spokesperson and owner of record, Luis Javier Quijano -- who is thought to be a prestanombre, or stand-in for politically powerful owners -- claimed in a televised interview that the Anaversa operation was entirely on the up and up. Quijano did not respond to this reporter's questions.Over Quijano's objections, Anaversa was fined 20,000 days of minimum wages (minimum wage in 1992 was less than $4 a day), and the fine was cut in half on appeal. Together with 100,000 pesos donated by then-governor Dante Delgado (now imprisoned, accused of skimming public funds), the money was placed in a trust fund for the victims. But because doctors refused medical corroboration, the municipal president, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), refused to use the mysteriously-dwindling funds to help victims. The new mayor, a member of the right-center National Action (PAN) party, sunk what was left into an "ecological park."The intransigence of national authorities, in refusing to recognize the dimensions of this Mexican Bhopal, demonstrates the power the pesticide industry wields here in Mexico, where agricultural pesticides and herbicides are a $25-billion-a-year business. (About one hundred transnational corporations control production and sales. Exact sales figures and volume of use in Mexico are closely-held trade secrets.)Pesticides first came to Mexico during World War II, as part of the Rockefeller Foundation's so-called Green Revolution. Along with chemical fertilizers and "miracle" seeds that soon overwhelmed indigenous seed stocks, the Green Revolution allowed Mexican produce to enter U.S. markets. This process was recently accelerated by the privatization of collective farmlands and the start-up of NAFTA, both forged under Salinas's Agricultural secretary Carlos Hank (leader emeritus of the PRI's "dinosaur" wing and one of the most feared politicians in the land). Although hard evidence is elusive, Rodr’guez and Huerta are convinced that Hank was the real Anaversa owner."Dragon made important profits while Hank headed Agriculture," says Professor Fernando Mora, a dioxin expert at Mexico City's Metropolitan University. Mora feels that the Anaversa scandal was swept under the rug because it endangered NAFTA at a time when U.S. environmentalists were arguing that the treaty would encourage just such disaster. Ironically, most of the Anaversa deaths occurred in 1993, the year NAFTA edged through the U.S. Congress.


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