Mexico City: Was the Pemex Blast a Bomb or an Accident?

By Daniel Hernandez

The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex—Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people—is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City's brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.

Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.

According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack—another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.

Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas. The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to “defend” Pemex from “privatization” with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.

Yet under state control, Pemex underproduces, underperforms, and is being ransacked by organized crime. In this scenario, global oil companies are eager to bid for the chance to help Pemex in its deep-sea drilling operations, or to make it more efficient, or at least safer (by one count, 127 people have died at Pemex sites in Mexico since 2011). Current President Enrique Peña Nieto supports this plan, too, and this Sunday, the PRI's whole party membership voted in favor of privatizing Pemex. That opens the floodgates; they command a majority in Congress. And so it’s likely that one day soon, Mexico’s oil industry will be “open for business”—for the first time in seven decades.

If Pemex goes "public," so to speak, who in the long run will reap the rewards? The last time Mexico opened up a state-owned utility to foreign investment, Carlos Slim nabbed Telefonos de Mexico (also known as Telmex) and became the richest man on Earth. Was the explosion at the Pemex complex part of a plan to hasten some privatization at the oil giant by creating a deadly PR disaster? A gas explosion at the headquarters of a gas company does look pretty terrible. Or was it an attack by one of Mexico’s guerilla groups, or some unnamed leftist force opposed to what is seen as Pemex’s imminent privatization? The explosion destroyed a human-resources department. Could it have been intentionally set off in order to rid the company of some incriminating paperwork before the utility opens up to newcomers?

Here's what we do know happened. At 3:55 PM that afternoon, as some workers were returning from lunch and others were ending a shift, an enormous boom and shake emanated from around the basement of a 13-story tower at the Pemex complex called B2, adjacent to the main skyscraper.

Witnesses would later describe it as an "earthquake," as an "expanding wave," and say that it produced "smoke but no fire." Investigators would later say the explosion was "horizontal," that it seemed to "lift" the bottom of the building when it hit.

I visited the site the day after the explosion and got a view of about 20 feet from the floor-level spot of the blast zone, covered in rubble and dust. A bunch of reporters and news cameras watched rescue workers clear the wreckage. One Cruz Roja rescuer I interviewed said that he thought the blast zone looked like earthquake disasters he had worked, and looked at me blankly when I asked if it looked like a bomb had hit, saying little more than, “The investigators are investigating.”

There were no flames, witnesses said, and no fire, but walls ripped open, floors collapsed, and windows blew out on at least four floors of building B2. Most crucially, the blast destroyed the building's basement, which is where the Pemex human-resources department was located. Many of the dead were its employees.

It wasn't until a full four days after the blast that an official explanation of what might have happened was made public. Authorities believed that an "accumulation of gas," possibly methane, was ignited unintentionally by a crew of maintenance men working in a tight crevice below the basement. The methane theory was laid out by the government with the use of an architectural model of the Pemex complex, which looked nice on a table but showed us nothing of what is located beneath the buildings. Funnily enough, authorities have still not said with total clarity what the ground beneath the Pemex complex exactly looked like before the explosion.

The investigation was still ongoing, officials assured reporters. But the basic story line—that four workers for a subcontracting firm that had no history of serious accidents unintentionally lit an apparently odorless and unknown source of methane while performing work on the foundations of B2—well, all of it seemed insufficient considering that four days had passed since the explosion killed all those innocent people. That's an epic amount of time when compared to how quickly the dirty details are figured out after any big disaster in the United States.

In four days, all Mexico could come up with was a working theory based on a catastrophic fart.

“My personal reading is that all the hypotheses related to the gases is very weak indeed,” David Shields, an experienced energy-sector analyst in Mexico, told me over the phone last week. “There was no methane supply in that building, so where does the methane come from? Where does the gas come from? What I am unhappy about is that they very lightly dismissed the possibility of an intentional explosion, a bomb.”

A few days after the government released its official explanation, employees returned to their jobs in the explosion-damaged Pemex complex. I visited at 4 PM that day, right about when the blast hit six days earlier, and stood around the makeshift altar that people had left for the victims near an entrance of guarded gates to the complex.

The place still felt tense, and I was slightly creeped out by my physical proximity to that satanic Pemex skyscraper. Additionally, now there were ghosts involved, and a lot of sad and frightened people, too.

I made attempts at talking to adults I assumed were Pemex workers. Among a gaggle of secretaries, I met a woman who later told me her name was Maria Gallardo. At first, Maria, a chill older lady who wore bangly bracelets but seemed like she'd be good in a fight, looked at me with a mixture of anger and fear as she talked about the entire incident.

"Nobody believes a word" of the government’s theory, Maria told me.

So what did she think happened?

"Who knows," she said.

One thing we do know is that organized crime has a big, dirty hand in the Pemex pot. Since the drug war escalated in Mexico in 2006, cartels, specifically the Zetas, have been tapping oil and gas lines, stealing billions of dollars of Mexican liquid gold, and apparently selling it illicitly to Texas oil companies. The results are often deadly, and the US government is well aware of what’s going on. (See reports herehere, and here.)

At Pemex, while some workers seemed willing to believe that the explosion was an accident, most I talked to advanced complicated conspiracies about what had occurred: If the opening up of Pemex to privatization is seen as imminent, went one of these theories, might some powerful figure or political or criminal force want to destroy any paper trail related to embezzlement or outright theft of Pemex funds? Once again, who the hell knows.

And that’s the problem—many seem content not to know what happened. “Whatever they wanted to do, they did it,” a secretary named Adriana told me, teary eyed, as she placed flowers on the altar for Laura Gonzalez Sanchez, a friend who died in the blast. “They won't try to hurt us again.”

I kept it to myself, but Adriana’s assurance seemed hopelessly unlikely. Which is a terrible thought, if you live in Mexico and do anything normal like show up to work or go visit your dad at the office.

Daniel Hernandez is author of Down & Delirious in Mexico City (Scribner 2011).

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