Who is to blame?

True story accompanying image

The day began like any other. In June 2009, parents in Hermosillo, northern Mexico, dropped their children off at nursery. The toddlers spent the morning playing and after lunch, had their siesta. Suddenly, while they slept, the colourful tarpaulin that acted as a ceiling crashed down and the room instantly filled with thick smoke and flames.

Parents rushed frantically to the nursery, but couldn't get their children out. The main entrance was barely wide enough for an adult holding a child to squeeze through. The emergency exit was padlocked and the high windows couldn’t be reached. Staff tried desperately to pass children through the narrow door. One father rammed his truck repeatedly into the wall to make an escape hole. But for many, it was too late.

Parents waited hours for news of their children. Twenty-nine were pulled out dead and more than 40 were hospitalised, along with six adults. In total, 47 children – a third of those present – died.

In the following weeks, despair turned to anger. Reports emerged that the state-funded nursery, housed in a converted warehouse, was privately run by the wives of two top local officials and an influential businessman. It had passed federal safety tests only 10 days previously – despite allegedly not meeting necessary criteria. The fire had apparently spread from a neighbouring warehouse, rented by the state finance department. It quickly filled the area between the nursery’s high roof and the tarpaulin ceiling. But with fire alarms installed only below the tarpaulin, nothing alerted staff until it collapsed.

Hermosillo's residents marched through the city demanding justice, but trust in the authorities had been seriously eroded. Six local officials involved in the safety inspections were dismissed, and the officials married to the nursery’s owners resigned, but their wives did not face charges. Several employees of the state finance department were arrested in connection with the fire, but their trials were expected to take years. Roberto Zavala’s two year-old son died in the fire. "Nobody has accepted their share of the blame," he told the New York Times, "I am to blame for trusting, I am to blame for paying my taxes, I am to blame for voting, I am responsible for the death of my son. They make fun of us. I am to blame for allowing them."

With widespread distrust in the system, Transparency International Mexico started a new community monitoring initiative in kindergartens. Enabling more than 10,000 parents to observe safety measures in nurseries, they covered all 1,480 kindergartens across a region of 200 million square kilometres. Parents whose children were taken care of in nurseries were selected randomly to participate in the visit to their child’s kindergarten.

Findings were published outside the building and online for other parents and community members to monitor. Overall, parents donated more than 20,000 hours of their time. After only one year of activity, safety levels have already improved: threatened with state closure, sub-standard nurseries have improved their performance noticeably. Continuing to keep watch over Mexico’s childcare, this permanent initiative has quickly grown into a powerful accountability system. Its purpose, however, remains unchanged: the events of Hermosillo must never be repeated.

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