Christian and Norteno music accompanied the Cinco de Mayo funerals of two miners killed two days earlier in the northern Mexican border state of Sonora. German Bernardo Acevedo Carrera and H. Guadalupe Suarez Sarmiento, both of Agua Prieta, were killed May 3 along with supervisor Fabian Villa Caro, when the Ford F-150 truck in which they were riding was crushed by a huge material hauling vehicle known as a “yucle” at the Buenavista del Cobre mine.
The gruesome deaths of the three men was but the latest tragedy or controversy to visit the copper mine located not far from the United States’ Arizona border. The mine is operated by Grupo Mexico, former owner of the defunct Asarco smelter in El Paso, Texas.
Several months ago, another Buenavista del Cobre mine worker also from the border town of Agua Prieta was killed in a vehicle accident blamed on failing brakes. In 2010, the Mexican Federal Police helped break a three year old strike at the mine waged by the National Mine Workers Union led by Napoleon Gomez Urrutia. Subsequently, Grupo Mexico reopened the mine, recruited new workers and entered into a contract with a union affiliated with the pro-government Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM).
Last week’s tragedy prompted the temporary closure of the mine while the federal Labor Department (STPS) conducted a safety inspection. Ricardo Garcia Sanchez, STPS delegate for Sonora, was quoted in the local press saying the inspection had not encountered any immediate violations.
Preliminary accounts of the fatal workplace accident tended to place the blame on the Ford F-150 being in the blind spot of the operator of the mammoth “yucle,” which easily plastered the unfortunate occupants of the truck. Worker fatigue was identified as a possible contributing factor.
The incident triggered a community protest in the adjoining community of Cananea and demands from workers for the substitution of the current 12-hour work shift for a standard 8-hour day. Although complaints of workplace safety negligence were voiced, Cananea Mayor Fernando Herrera insisted that Grupo Mexico conducts “constant training to prevent any type of accident.”
By week’s end, Grupo Mexico and the CTM union had reached a tentative agreement to reduce the hours of work shifts, pending a ratification vote by 500 eligible workers set for Monday, May 9. The company said it would hire additional workers to aid in the transition if the workers opt for shorter shifts.
The May 3 accident renewed criticism of Grupo Mexico’s labor and environmental records.
“When will the federal government sanction Grupo Mexico for so many deaths, accidents and sicknesses that it has caused the public, because of the lack of corporate safety in all its businesses and mines?” questioned Sergio Beltran Reyes, an official with the National Mine Workers Union.
A catastrophic 2006 explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in the state of Coahuila killed 65 miners, most of whose remains were never recovered. In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the disaster earlier this year, victims’ family members and labor activists marched in Mexico City demanding justice, indemnification and the recovery of the remains of 63 miners who were trapped deep underground.
Besides worker safety, the Buena Vista del Cobre mine is still under fire for an August 2014 waste spill from company property that sent heavy metals and other contaminants tumbling into two rivers, threatening for a time the water supply of the state capital of Hermosillo. Local residents blamed the environmental disaster for health troubles, water contamination and the loss of livestock.
In April, alleging that material reparations and environmental clean-up had fallen short, members of the Frente Rio Sonora citizens’ group announced they had filed a complaint with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
Simultaneously, U.S. researchers collaborating with the Frente Rio presented a report based on 1,000 interviews that found continued economic impacts as well as health problems from the mine spill, including children afflicted with skin disorders, headaches, impaired eyesight and hair loss.
“This situation has been going on for more than one year and the health authorities aren’t doing anything to support them,” charged Cabelda Lomeli, a California nurse working with the Frente Rio Sonora. “There are economic and tourism problems.”
The 2014 toxic waste spill is widely considered one of the worst ecological catastrophes to ever strike Mexico. Last week’s death of Grupo Mexico’s three young workers cast another pall over the region. German Bernardo Acevedo was originally from the south-central state of Puebla but moved to Agua Prieta in recent years. Suarez Samaniego was locally known as an outstanding soccer player for Los Rieleros team.
Supervisor Fabian Villa Caro, a resident of Caborca who studied mine engineering at the University of Sonora, was described by former teacher Victor Calles Montijo as a very intelligent, generous and friendly young man with a brilliant future.
“He was a good person and an excellent student,” Calles said. One of the best we’ve had here.”
Sources: El Imparcial de Sonora, May 6 and 7, 2016. Articles by Eliana Alvarado, Tania Yamileth Hernandez, Diyeth Arochi, and Alma Gonzalez. La Jornada, May 5, 2016. Article by Patricia Munoz Rios. El Diario de Sonora, May 4, 2016. Article by Robin Beltran. La Voz de Cananea, May 3 and 4, 2016. Proceso/Apro, May 3, 2016. Radiosonora.com.mx, April 6, 2016. Excelsior.com.mx, February 19, 2006.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico