In June 2009 a fire at a government-sponsored day-care centre in Hermosillo in northern Mexico killed 49 infants.
Almost seven years on, no one has been held accountable ; not the supervisors, not the regulatory authorities and certainly not the owners of the business, one of whom was distantly related to Margarita Zavala, the wife of the then president of Mexico who is now active in Mexican politics.
Successive administrations have made a string of promises – and left them unfulfilled.
Meanwhile the parents, some of whom were not even told their children were already dead when they arrived at the scene, have not given up their demand for answers to how the fire started and why the building had inadequate smoke and fire alarms and why two of the three exits were locked.
In the run up to events planned to mark the seventh anniversary of the fire, one of the bereaved fathers, Julio Cesar, travelled to London this week with Daniel Gershenson, a dedicated and highly respected activist at NGO Al Consumidor, who believes that sooner or later someone must be held responsible for the catalogue of errors that impeded the rescue of more children – and possibly the more sinister motives that some observers believe was the real cause of the blaze.
To lose a loved one, especially such a young child is traumatic and the sadness is evident in Julio Cesar’s eyes as he recounted how he used to take his youngest son, Yeye, to nursery every day before heading to his own job.
He told the audience at an event hosted the by Institute of the Americas at University College London how the parents had been belittled by the authorities in Hermosillo, the capital of the state of Sonora.
Emboldened by successive rulings that exonerated more and more of those who should have had a role in the oversight of the day-care centre ( be it regarding building regulations or in the department that issued permits to open a childcare business – the permit for the ABC nursery was invalid at the time of the fire) even the state prosecutor in charge of the government investigation “made the parents feel like criminals”. Later, that same prosecutor would become Mexico’s ambassador to Great Britain and then to the United States.
The real criminals, insist the two men, are still walking free. They decline to say with absolute certainty if they believe one hypothesis which suggests that the document storage warehouse (which shared a wall with the nursery) housed a toxic bundle of records that linked the previous governor, Eduardo Bours, to a huge debt amassed by the state of Sonora during his tenure.
These documents were dangerously flammable in more ways than one and their destruction would assure that there would be no evidence linking Bours to the scandal.
“We are talking about people who should end up answering for their crimes in The Hague,” says Gershenson who says many families persisted in putting their faith in the notorious Mexican court system even after the number of disappointing rulings and succession of exonerations started.
“It is likely that we will have to wait five, ten or more years for this case to come before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights”, he told the audience at UCL
In the meantime, he told @JusticeMexicoUK that there has been barely any official response to the incident in terms of improving and tightening up regulations around childcare in Mexico.
One study found that more than 1,000 guarderias – or daycare centres – showed dangerous faults during checks by authorities, “but nothing is done.”
With reports this week suggesting that Mexico may be looking to team up with the US to present a bid to host a future world cup, it gives very little hope that a country with such a fluid attitude to the safeguarding of its most vulnerable citizens – children of working families who do not earn enough for private or home based childcare – would be anywhere near able to reassure the international authorities that it could satisfy the most stringent safety requirements.
At the end of his busy trip criss crossing Europe to raise awareness of the failure to settle the issue after so long – or to fully address the mooted cover up regarding the reasons behind the fire – Julio Cesar will return to his two surviving children. Yeye and the 48 others will never return home.