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Guadalajara Syndrome BY BARBARA BELEJACK Mexico City When I told a friend in the Colonia Roma that I was going to Guadalajara after the explosions last month, this was the advice I received: “Take the official death toll, multiply by 10, and there’s your story.” The Colonia Roma was once an elegant section of Mexico City, the boyhood home of several recent presidents. It still has it’s share of faded Porfirian mansions, standing since the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which was toppled by the Revolution 70 years ago. But much of Colonia Roma’s contemporary architecture was destroyed by the 1985 earthquakes. The Roma was one of the areas hit worst by the quakes; consequently memory, like fault lines, runs long and deep. As I write this, the official toll in last month’s explosions in Guadalajara stands at 205, with 155 “missing.” The criminal investigation has reached lower-level officials of the government and Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly. Guillermo Cosi. Vidaurri, the Governor of the state of Jalisco, has resigned, asking for a one-year “leave of absence.” Inevitably he will join the 50 or so governors the ruling party the PRI has replaced at will for one reason or another in its more than 60 years in power. Following the blasts, Mexico has experienced a wave of “Guadalajara syndromes” in Nuevo Laredo, Saltillo, Puebla, Mexico City, etc. There are evacuations, scares, panics, psychoses, leaks real and imagined. Suddenly everywhere you go, it smells like gas. The President has ordered a massive investigation of the nation’s infrastructure and Pemex has hired Bechtel Corporation to do the job on Pemex-owned properties. Suddenly Pemex, the paraestatal the parastate, or state-owned enterprise that could do no wrong, can do no right. Suddenly Mexico has reached one .of those moments of transformation that political pundits talk about. It’s the earthquake all over again. It’s the 1988 elections. Suddenly, Mexico will never be the same again. If Guadalajara is a story of environmental disaster, unbelievable negligence, ruthless manipulation of facts and figures, it’s also a story.of memory that evokes the Mexico City quakes, the 1984 gas explosion at San Juanico outside the capital, and Guadalajara’s own dress rehearsal: a 1983 “incident.” From his office at the Centro Medico de Occidente in Guadalajara, a hospital chemist outlined the blocks that had been destroyed in 1983. “It was the same thing,” he recalled, “sewer lids tossed into the Barbara Belejack is the Observer’s Mexico City correspondent. air, cars flew one or two stories high.” The hospital’s research labs were singled out for supposedly dumping toxic wastes into the drainage system. Another hypothesis, according to an account at the time in the daily El Universal, was that “young drug addicts” had somehow managed to tamper with Pemex’s drainage system. Most residents of Guadalajara, like the chemist, suspected that Pemex was behind the 1983 blast as well, No charges were ever brought, and until the April explosions, there was never any recognition on the part of government officials that anyone had actually died in 1983. \(Recently, Guadalajara radio stations began reporting that at least 20 people had died For 20 years Guillermo Cosio Vidaurri wanted to be governor of Jalisco. Like most Mexican politicians he hitched his star to another politician a notch or two above him on the Aguirre camp. \(Aguirre was most recently in the news as the PRI’s 1991 gubernatorial candidate in elections in the state of Guanajuato. The PRI said he won, but Aguirre “decided to step down in the interest of harmony.” In 1985 Aguirre was mayor of Mexico City. Enrique Dau Flores, his business partner and would-be protege, was responsible for Mexico City’s reconstruction following the quakes. Although he assumed the Jalisco governorship with the support of Guadalajara’s business elite, 450th birthday celebration was marred last February by 5,000 members of the conservative minority Partido de Accion Nacional who staged a silent protest over state election results. Cosio’s administration was also racked with charges of corruption and nepotism in public works and land deals. And when the 17-year-old daughter of one of Guadalajara’s wealthy families was shot to death by a police officer in what is believed to be an extortion attempt, a group of 3,000 middleand upperclass women took to the streets, calling themselves Mothers United Against Violence. “They don’t listen to the poor of Guadalajara, but they will listen to us,” one marcher told the English-language weekly, the Colony questioned the sincerity of the group and their cause: “I do not believe in all honesty that this was spontaneous,” he said of the protesters. “They were organized perfectly. The amount spent on publicity was very high.” As Mexico City columnist Miguel Angel a “convenient punching bag.” In the hours following the April 22 blast, he was insensitive and incoherent, mumbling when asked why the Reforma sector was not evacuated, something about the recalcitrant child who climbs a tree even though he is told it is dangerous. He provided the President with an out in the wake of an environmental disaster of tremendous proportions, and deflected scrutiny from higherups in Pemex and SEDUE the ministry of urban affairs and environment. \(Pemex chief Francisco Rojas and his brother Carlos also enjoy a certain advantage; both belong to the Salinas camp, allies of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The former secretary of SEDUE, Patricio Chirinos, who is now the PRI candidate for governor of the state of Veracruz, was considered a do-nothing secretary who won political points as the President’s office boy. The current occupant of SEDUE, recently revamped as a super-secretariat of social development, is Luis Donaldo Colosio. Colosio is the former PRI party chairman, a 1994 presidential contender whose debut in his new post was less than spectacular. Hours after the blast Colosio said that “probably hexane from That explanation, of course, was proferred by Pemex, almost immediately after the blast. Anyone who has ever dealt with a government office of Comunicacion Social, as press officers are here called, should have been skeptical. Whatever the inquiry, we know to expect days of painstaking investigation by a licenciado who can never be located. “Para servirle,” the polite way of answering phones, meaning “here to serve you,” is not to be taken literally. During one of the more memorable moments in its comprehensive coverage of the explosion, Mexico City’s Radio Network broadcast the comments of an on-scene Guadalajara radio reporter who said that Pemex was closing nearby ducts; a Pemex spokeswoman on another telephone line in Mexico City insisted there were no ducts in the area. And so it went. As columnist Granados Chapa sees it, the Guadalajara blast represents a major threat of social unrest, which will hang over the administration for the rest of its six-year term. It doesn’t matter what the government does or promises to do with respect to safety and infrastructure. The government will be haunted by a credibility gap. Just moments before the first blast, a Guadalajara official assured residents that everything was fine. Afterward, an amazing chain of government officials bought the hexane/cooking oil factory theory with total disregard for basic chemistry or common sense. In Cambridge, Mass., journalist Raymundo Rivapalacio, who is studying the Mexican press while on a Nieman fellowship, sees the blast and the incessant political coverage that followed it as proof of the failure of Mexican soci 12 MAY 22, 1992