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Nine Officials Charged in Serew-Line Explosions Case

By Peter Eisner


Mexico's attorney general Sunday charged nine officials with negligence in the sewer-line explosions that killed 215 people and said that the state-run oil monopoly was responsible for allowing gasoline to leak into the lines.

Among those charged by Attorney General Ignacio Morales Lechuga were the mayor of Guadalajara, Enrique Dau Flores, who, along with his subordinates failed to order an evacuation of the working-class Reforma district, and four employees of the government oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos, known by its Spanish acronym, Pemex.

The gasoline leaked from the Pemex pipeline, which was rusted by a water pipe installed above it, Morales Lechuga said at a news conference.

Morales Lechuga said that the deaths and injuries could have been avoided if city officials and Pemex had evacuated the scene of the calamity. Under Mexican law, negligence that leads to death could result in murder charges, but the attorney general did not spell out what legal action was being taken.

He specifically cited inaction by Dau Flores, and by Aristeo Mejia, the Jalisco state head of urban development.

After Morales Lechuga's news conference, Pemex issued a statement saying that it would provide $32.7 million to rebuild the devastated area. The company did not take issue with the attorney general, saying only that the "final result" of the probe into Pemex's role in the disaster was still pending.

Residents of the Reforma district reported repeatedly three days before the explosion that they smelled gasoline fumes. Officials told them that there was no danger, and conducted a final inspection just hours before a series of 15 blasts gouged a 20-foot-deep trench along sewer mains in a 20-block area.

"There are penal and civil responsibilities to private citizens and to public servants who, because of ineffectiveness, negligence or omission, contributed to the results now known," Morales Lechuga said.

The announcement that the government was parceling out blame among officials was considered an answer to rampant cynicism from critics, including opposition politicians and local news media, that the Institutional Revolutionary Party of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari would attempt to evade responsibility for the tragedy. The government party, known as PRI, which has run this country of 90 million since the 1920s, holds a virtual monopoly on political power at the federal, state and local levels.

A federal official said that the Salinas government, by identifying culprits in the tragedy, was attempting both to water down criticism directed at Mexico City and to insulate Salinas himself from attacks. "That's exactly what they're going to do," said the source, speaking on condition he not be named. "Identify those responsible, say they were negligent, and separate them from the rest of the government."

Residents of the devastated Reforma district formed a citizens group over the weekend, demanding that they be given a say in efforts to rebuild their homes.

There were indications that the situation had not returned to normal for residents in areas adjacent to the explosion site. Red Cross officials said that about 25,000 people had been moved to evacuation centers or relatives' homes for fear of additional explosions.