Friday, June 5, 2020

Impunity continues a decade after arson that killed 49 children in Sonora daycare

"MX" for Borderland Beat
49 children were killed in the fire; they are often referred to as the "49 Angels"
Eleven years ago today, on 5 June 2009, the ABC Daycare (Spanish: Guardería ABC) in Hermosillo, Sonora, was caught on fire. 49 toddlers and infants were trapped inside and died asphyxiated from the smoke inhalation.

The fire started after a government archives building next to the daycare facility caught on fire. "The fire spread to the daycare very quickly", Hermosillo Mayor Ernesto Gandara told reporters. For years, the children's parents have highlighted gross negligence from the daycare's management as the main reason for this tragedy. 

But new evidence points to a more gruesome discovery: the government building next to the daycare was set on fire intentionally to destroy sensitive documents about the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The children's parents have been demanding justice for over a decade, but as of June 2020, no one is serving prison time for this incident.

Details
The fire started shortly before 3:00 p.m. All of the children were in their nap time. Some of the care staff had finished their shift at 2:45 p.m. while others were out for lunch. There was an emergency call for employees who were out on their break to assist in the evacuation, but none of them were able to make it on time.


According to investigators, there was one adult employee for every 8 to 10 children, which made the evacuation very difficult. "The daycare employees never performed an evacuation drill during the children's nap time. They were not trained to react in a situation of this magnitude," officials said.
Depiction of one of the daycare rooms
Approximately 150 children were inside the daycare when the incident occurred. One parent rammed his vehicle on the daycare's walls to help alleviate the smoke inside and help others escape. The death toll could have been much higher had it not been for people outside the building who helped in the evacuation.

Firefighters reached the scene nine minutes after the first emergency call. It took them about 30 minutes to put down the fire.


The daycare had passed an inspection a week before the fire, but it lacked proper emergency exits (only one was working, and all of them opened from the outside), the smoke detectors were improperly installed, and the windows were too high to get children out in case of an emergency.


One person rammed his vehicle on the daycare's walls to help children escape
Authorities said that the worst factor was that a tarpaulin had been placed as a false ceiling immediately below the actual roof, which trapped the smoke from leaving the building. The fire detectors were placed immediately below the tarpaulin.

Cause of the fire
According to investigations conducted by the Mexican government, the arson was started after an air conditioner from the adjacent government building caught on fire. Since the doors of the building were locked, the fire spread through its roofs and made its way to the daycare facility. However, several of the children's parents said that the government investigation was inconclusive, and they hired independent fire experts to look at the evidence.

One of them was David Mitchell Smith, an Arizona-based fire and explosion consultant who founded the Associated Fire Consultants, Inc. He has investigated fires for insurance companies, publicly traded corporations, and government agencies in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Smith determined that the fire at the government warehouse was intentional.
People remember the children by placing decorations outside the daycare facility
"Someone definitely started the fire, closed the warehouse's doors, and then left", Smith said in a report. He determined that the fire was caused by a corrosive liquid that was purposely spilled or that may have been stored on the premises. Smith said that it was impossible for the air conditioner to start the fire because it was made out of metal and was far away from the spot where the ignition started.

He also said that the "breakers" (the electric box) was not turned on during the fire, which meant that electricity was not running through the building when the arson started.

Convictions and newest developments
Throughout a decade, the daycare owners and various public officials were prosecuted. A total of 22 people faced trial and 19 of them received prison terms. But no high-ranking government official was ever held responsible for what happened.

Most of the 19 who were convicted worked in the daycare. All of them were given various sentences, but no one was sentenced to more than 30 years. All of them were prosecuted for homicidio culposo (similar to the U.S. manslaughter charge).
Parents remember their children in Mexico City protest
Since this charge does not include the prerequisite of (1) premeditation and/or (2) intent to kill, they were able to take their cases to various appeals courts and were granted early releases. As of June 2020, no one who was convicted for the arson is currently in prison.

Private investigators hired by the children's parents determined through witnesses with supposed insider information that the fire was masterminded by Carlos Lam Félix, a sub-secretary under former Sonora Governor Eduardo Bours.

Witnesses told investigators that Lam hired his bodyguard Carlos Andrés López Meza ("El Teniente") and two other people to set the government archives building on fire because it had sensitive information about the PRI under Governor Eduardo Bours. The documents were believed to be sensitive enough to affect "future government elections", which reportedly included information about misuse of government resources and illicit enrichment.

El Teniente, however, was murdered two months after the arson. He was shot three times on his head and six times on his chest. His murder is currently unsolved.

Sources: Milenio, BBC News, AP News, Reporte Indigo, El Universal, Mexico News Daily

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