The ANAVERSA Disaster:
 Mexico's Bhopal
 by John Ross

Source: Global Pesticide Campaign, December 1997

On May 3, 1991, a pesticide formulation plant exploded and burned in a densely populated area of Cordoba. in the state of Veracruz. John Ross recently, visited the area and met with residents of the surrounding communities, who continue to suffer from the effects of the disaster.

On a rainy night six years after the worst pesticide disaster in Mexican history, the cinder block house bordering the railroad tracks above the Blanco River still reeks of chemicals. Overflow from a nearby creek invades the jerrybuilt homes that dot the hillside, leaving behind a residue thought to contain deadly dioxin. The wells from which the colony draws its drinking water are said to be similarly contaminated.

Enriqueta Gonzalez sits on the couch with her hands pressed across her swollen stomach and recites a litany of health problems. After the blowup at the ANAVERSA pesticide formulation plant up the hill, the 40 year-old school teacher suffered convulsions and tremors so severe that she could not hold a glass-classic signals of organophosphate poisoning. Two years later, her 17 seventeen year-old daughter gave birth to a child with spinal bifada - the child, also hydrocephalic, lolls in a crib in the bedroom. The daughter has since had her pre-cancerous uterus removed.

In 1995, the teacher'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," she says quietly. "Sometimes, I think I'm going crazy..." Enriqueta Gonzalez is a survivor of Mexico's Bhopal. Unlike that much publicized 1984 disaster in India, and the 1976 massive dioxin release at Seveso, Italy, the tragedy of ANAVERSA has remained shrouded. Mexican health secretariat documents deny any correlation between the illnesses which victims suffer and the explosion and the agency's administrators argue that no one has ever died as a result of the May 1991 incident here. By contrast, the association of those affected by the fire lists 157 deaths of its members in 18 surrounding colonies. At least 30 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 blatantly 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 now-vilified ex-president Carlos Salinas. Another explanation of the blackout: the drama of the blast and its tragic sequelae unfolded during the most intense period of negotiations towards a North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico's slipshod environmental record was a critical opposition issue in the NAFTA debate.

 ANAVERSA set up its pesticide formulation plant here in 1969, at a site near the railroad station, 11 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 very cordial. Nonetheless, the plant as licensed and re-licensed by state and federal officials (although only as a warehouse and not a formulation plant for lethal chemicals). Although ANAVERSA mixed its "Dragon" brand on a block it shared with two grade schools, a kindergarten, a day care enter, a Catholic church and a thriving
 street market, the Environmental Secretariat (then initialed SEDUE and under Governor Chirinos's direction), approved continued siting of the high risk installation. A December 1990 report by SEDUE's Environmental Contamination Division listed safety violations but saw no danger to the surrounding community.

 In the weeks before the tragedy, teachers from the adjoining schools registered their fears with local authorities - heavy chemical vapors were sickening their students. 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 around 1:30 on the afternoon of  May 3, Holy Cross on the Catholic calendar-many residents were attending Mass at Guadalupe Church when the fire began. The blaze was soon out of control. Thirty-eight thousand liters of deadly pesticides were engulfed in the conflagration -- including 18,000 liters of methyl parathion, 8,000 liters of paraquat, and 3,000 liters of 2,4-D, one of the active ingredients in the Vietnam war defoliant, Agent Orange. According to a company inventory, over 1,500 liters of pentachlorophenol, malathion, benzene hexachloride and lindane also went up in smoke.

 Mothers bundled up their babies at the Social Security (IMSS) day care center across the street and fled in terror. Parishioners poured from the church. The combustion and intense heat of the blaze fused the chemicals and generated dioxin, wrote Autonomous University of Mexico toxicological consultant Dr. Lilia Albert in a private report published soon after the incident. Plant site samples tested by the U. S. Waste Management Corporation contained "alarming" amounts of dioxin. A dense black cloud spread out over Cordoba. Firefighters rushed to the scene 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 runoff, now laced with lethal poisons, could not be contained and ran off downhill through the impoverished colonies around the railroad tracks, befouling streams and wells that turned a telltale bright green. The venoms penetrated Cordoba's potable water system too so that every time a faucet was open, chemical odors spread through the homes.

 In contrast to Bhopal, where 3,000 died in a single night, no one as killed in the ANAVERSA fire. Over 1,300 residents were evacuated and 221 treated by the Red Cross for poisoning. Evacuees returned to their homes the next day and spread the contamination when they tried to clean up. Charred debris from the factory as thrown into the public dump. Enriqueta Gonzalez noticed vapors arising from the creek that runs by her house but continued to wash the family's clothes in the poisoned waters.

 "To close up the hole after the baby has drowned" is an old Mexican axiom that describes government action in the wake of the ANAVERSA tragedy. The company's license was lifted, and "Closed" signs were posted on the site - although the burned-out shell remained open to the public for years (squatters even moved in for a period). Pigeons perching on the plant walls were seen to suddenly keel over dead. In the Guillen colony, directly downwind, dogs and birds were born without limbs, an ominous sign of the scourge to come.

 Illness and death soon touched every block around the railroad station. 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 was one year old Nancy Colorado, of leukemia, in early 1992. Eight year-old Israel Calles, who livcd 800 meters from the plant gate, was another early victim - health officials denied any connection between the boy's eye cancer.- and the ANAVERSA fire. Cases of chloracne and chemical pneumonitis, associated with dioxin exposure or breathing toxic fumes, were disregarded by IMSS hospital officials.

One man, "El Azul," whose chemical burns turn blue in the sunlight, is a neighborhood celebrity. Residents of La. Estacion learned how to pronounce exotic medical terms like "carcinoma" and "necro-pathological." At least 20 pregnant women had been trapped in the vicinity, of the fire, and babies were born without arms and with multiple toes and fingers or with spinal bifada, like the maestra's granddaughter.'

 Still, officials under the direction of Jesus Kumate, Salinas's health secretary, impeded medical treatment of those 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 Rodriguez Olivares', a leader of the Association in Defense of the "Afectados". "We agreed because our people needed medical attention."

Father Elias Martinez officiates at the Guadalupe Church two doors down from the ANAVERSA site. In the three years he has been on the job, Martinez has conducted more than 40 Masses for persons who are thought to have died from the aftermath of the conflagration. Interviewed after one such ceremony, the young padre considered that "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 Rodriguez, a local storekeeper became obsessed with the terrible injustice that had fallen upon his neighbors. "One year we had 22 deaths-it seemed like there was a wake in every house on the block. It wasn't natural. " Rodriguez sought out the local deputy of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Rosalinda Huerta. "How could the people in the colonies know what was inside ANAVERSA? Now the government was lying to them and denying them medical attention," adds Huerta, still outraged.

Association members packed up their sick children and traveled to Mexico City where they camped out on the doorstep of Salinas's newly-created National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). "People have a constitutional right to health and to information so the CNDH was a natural place to go," Huerta recalls. Despite Salinas's formulation of the Commission as window dressing to counterbalance, international allegations of widespread human rights violations that had begun to trouble NAFTA negotiations, CNDH ombudsman Jorge Carpizo issued a scathing report, criticizing the licensing of ANAVERSA as gross negligence, and recommending that both the Secretaries of
 Health and the Environment clean up their act. Nonetheless, six years later, neither the census of the affected colonies or the epidemiological study called for in Carpizo's report, has ever been conducted and. indeed, the health secretariat continues to keep ANAVRSA victims from being counted as such.

Now Huerta has appealed 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. Much as ANAVERSA was the first case linking the environment to human rights to he heard by the National Human Rights Commission, the CIDH presentation will be the first time that inter-American body tackles the connections between human rights violations and environmental destruction. For the victims of ANAVERSA, the hearing by an international forum is a last chance for recognition of the havoc wrecked upon their lives.

The disaster that has befallen the victims has hardly changed the way the pesticide industry does business in Mexico. ANAVERSA itself cashed in a near-million dollar insurance settlement, and removed salvaged chemicals off-site, reportedly to a plant at Izucar de Matamoros in Puebla state where neighbors fear the worst. The facility, which features the "Dragon" line, was inaugurated by Governor Manuel Bartlett, another Salinas-era luminary. Fire chief Aziz suspects that ANAVERSA-Dragon still has underground operations in the Cordoba region and estimates that 7-10 such clandestine formulation plants are located here.

The fire fighters, much critiqued for their role in spreading the contamination, suffered painful casualties in the blaze-five were severely poisoned because the volunteer department has no masks or oxygen equipment, and three have since died. "We still don't have any masks," says Aziz - despite a CNDH recommendation that the fire fighters be so equipped.

ANAVERSA's legal spokesperson - and of record - Luis Javier Quijano, who is thought to be a "prestanombre," or standing for politically powerful backers, claimed in a televised interview that the ANAVERSA operation was entirely on the up and up. Quijano's chose not to respond to this reporter's questions for this article. Over Quijano's objections, ANAVERSA was fined 20,000 days of minimum wages (minimum wage in 1992 was less than $4 a day) - 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 long-ruling (68 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), refused to dole out the mysteriously-dwindling funds to victims. The incoming mayor, a member of the right-center National Action (PAN) party, sunk what was left in an "ecological" park - although not as originally planned, on the still highly-contaminated ANAVERSA site.

The intransigence of Mexican authorities in refusing to recognize the dimensions of this national Bhopal, demonstrates the power the pesticide industry wields in Mexico. The industry is an integral partner in global agribusiness designs to impose export-driven production upon hungry third world nations. Historically, 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, a process spurred by the privatization of farmlands and the startup 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 Rodriguez and Huerta are convinced that Hank was the real ANAVERSA owner..

"Dragon" made important profits while Hank headed Agriculture" corroborates Dr. Fernando Mora, a dioxin expert at City 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 a disaster. Ironically, the bulk of ANAVERSA deaths occurred in 1993, the year NAFTA edged through the U.S. Congress. Carlos Hank was the most prominent Salinas associate attached to the ANAVERSA scandal but not the only one. Governor Chirinos is now in the final year of his term. CNDH ombudsman Carpizo became Salinas's Secretary of the Interior and the director of the Federal Electoral Institute during the critical 1994 presidential elections and is now ambassador to France. Santiago Onate, who was  Salinas's environmental point man during the NAFTA run-up, when ANAVERSA victims were dropping like flies, became, first, Salinas's chief of staff, then president of the PRI, and now ambassador to London.

With such adversaries, the ANAVERSA victims are at the bottom of the political food chain. "We knocked on every door for six years and they all slammed shut in our face. Most of the people who started the association have died," Lalo Rodriguez says wearily, "you lose heart but you can't give up. Someone always knocks on your door or window and says they are sick or this one has died. You get angry all over again. We have an obligation to our dead. Sometimes I think that if we ever stop fighting, we too will die..."

Much of the information for this article was gathered by the author from Lalo Rodriguez Olivares of the Association in Defense of the "Afectados," Rosalinda Huertes, local deputy of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and residents and health workers in communities surrounding the ANAVERSA plant. See also "the Disaster at ANAVERSA," by Dr. Jorge Arturo de Leon Rodriguez, Global Pesticide Campaigner, December 1994.
 John Ross is a Latin American journalist whose most recent book, The Anmexation of Mexico - From the Aztecs to the IMF, is available from Common Courage Press (1997).

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