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Pemex, Mexico’s Once-Sacred Cash Cow, May be Reined In With PM-Guadalajara Blasts, Bjt

April 27, 1992

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ For half a century, the government oil monopoly Pemex was a potent symbol of Mexico’s sovereignty, but mismanagement, inefficiency and now the horror of the Guadalajara blasts have tarnished its image.

″Pemex should go 3/8″ residents shouted when the state governor toured the Guadalajara neighborhood ravaged last week by an explosion of gasoline that the federal attorney general said had leaked into the sewer system.

On Friday, when a dead child was removed from the rubble, the child’s father screamed: ″It’s the fault of Pemex 3/8″

Although President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has privatized hundreds of government-owned industries, Pemex has been all but unassailable, so closely is it linked with patriotism in the minds of most Mexicans.

When President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated foreign-owned oil businesses in 1938, Pemex symbolized Mexico’s rebellion against outside control.

Since then, Pemex has been Mexico’s economic driving-wheel. It is the single largest contributor to the economy, earning $140.9 billion in exports for 1991.

It also is fast becoming a lucrative source of foreign investment, placing more than $700 million in bonds in 1991 and $571 million in the first four months of 1992.

But Pemex is also notably inefficient. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company earns 30 percent more with half the workers and one-fourth the assets.

Pemex, at the insistence of the president, fired 20,000 workers in recent months and retired more than 22,000 others in the last year. But it still employs 153,000.

Pemex earnings are not plowed back into capital improvements, according to Christopher Whalen, a Washington-based financial analyst.

And Pemex appears unable to cope with domestic oil demand, which is rising by 10 to 15 percent a year. Internal Pemex projections say Mexico will become a net oil importer before 2000, Whalen wrote in December for the World Policy Institute.

Poor maintenance, another chronic weakness, was blamed for the November 1984 explosion at a distribution center northwest of Mexico City in which at least 500 people died.

In March 1991, six people died when a Pemex chlorine gas plant exploded near Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. Workers said the gas line had needed replacing.

Now, in Guadalajara, Pemex officials are again being charged with negligence. This time, the cost was at least 191 lives.

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