Two years after fire killed 49 Mexico preschoolers, parents don’t see justice done
Two years after the awful blaze, indignation hangs over Hermosillo like a sooty cloud.
The fire at a preschool in the northwestern city killed 49 youngsters and injured dozens more. Colossal safety lapses, including locked exits and no sprinklers, provided enough blame to spread across an alphabet soup of government agencies and the private contractors who ran the school for the Mexican Social Security Institute.
Still, no one has been sentenced for the tragedy at the ABC preschool, though two mid-level officials from the federal agency are behind bars facing trial. Numerous other suspects facing minor charges were freed on bail. No top bureaucrats have been charged.
On Sunday, bereaved parents will mark the second anniversary of the deadly fire with a march in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state, and new calls for justice. They will carry pictures of absent babies and will release white balloons. They will then go home with their hearts still heavy.
Yet the parents — backed by social activists — have already accomplished something quite remarkable in Mexico simply by not fading away.
Instead, they have pursued a campaign to shame government officials they believe responsible, with a series of marches and mock trials. They have traveled to the Mexican capital to lobby for stricter day-care safety laws and pushed for construction of a memorial at the site of the June 5, 2009 fire. They have also threatened to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Some officials have complained that the tactics are heavy-handed.
“The most I can do out of love for my son … is to keep going,” said Jose Francisco Garcia, whose 3-year-old son was killed when flames raced from an adjacent warehouse into the crowded preschool. “It’s in his memory.”
In a nation replete with violence and tragedies, victims here generally disappear from view, their survivors bereft of redress from a deeply flawed justice system. The ongoing drug trafficking wars have provided unceasing episodes of horrific violence, only to revert to a dull background noise. Impunity usually rules.
“They want justice, but on the other hand, we are very tolerant,” said Daniel Gershenson, a Mexico City consumer advocate who is working with parents to draw attention to their case. “When it comes to corruption and impunity, our tolerance is very high.”
In this case, however, people are holding mock trials.
Last Sunday, civic groups and parents gathered on Mexico City’s main plaza to stage a “citizens’ trial” of government agencies, including the attorney general’s office and the social security institute, which oversees nearly 1,500 preschools nationwide.
Legal scholars played prosecutor and defense attorney, and “witnesses” testified as real-life parents looked on. In the end, the 10-person jury issued a unanimous guilty verdict. The sentence for some senior government officials, including Juan Molinar Horcasitas, former head of the social security agency, was more than 12 years of community service in a preschool.
“It symbolizes the fact that Mexicans cannot rely on institutions to obtain justice,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst and civic activist who served as a witness in the staged proceedings. “We are defenseless.”
The Supreme Court last determined that the fire amounted to rights violations, but it held that top federal officials, including Molinar and Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours were blameless. Justices said they lacked evidence of “generalized disorder” in the social security agency.
Federal authorities have said little about their investigation. Last month, agents arrested Arturo Leyva Lizarraga, who at the time of the fire was the social security agency’s representative in Sonora state. He is charged with homicide.
On Friday, Sonoran authorities barred three former state officials from serving in government for at least 10 years for their supposed roles in the safety violations that led to the youngsters’ deaths.
But parents say many more people merit prosecution, including one of the school’s operators, who is a cousin of the Mexican first lady, Margarita Zavala.
Molinar called the fire the “most painful” episode in the history of the agency and said he wants justice too. But he said the mock trial went too far, comparing its tone to the bullying of China’s Cultural Revolution.
While fighting for public justice, Julio Cesar Marquez, whose 2-year-old son, Yeye, died, also endures a private torment of what-ifs.
Most of the time, Yeye would have left school an hour before the fire started, but on that day, Marquez invited his wife to have lunch with him. They left the boy at the preschool longer than usual.
“My son didn’t have to have been in the nursery at the time of the fire,” Marquez said by phone from Hermosillo, his voice cracking. “That is something that will always be with me.”
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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