Mexico's labour ministry has shut down more than 20 coal pits due to an investigation into illegal child labour, after snap inspections at 200 operations between December 2012 and February this year showed evidence of illegal employment of minors.
According to local news agency Notimex (in Spanish), the Ministry of Labour is preparing a draft bill that seeks to fully eradicated the high-risk practice, particularly in the state of Coahuila, which holds 80% of the country’s coal deposits.
The Coahuila mines are noteworthy for being particularly unsafe. Tunnel collapses and methane gas explosions are common in the area’s north, which shares a border with Texas.
According to Mexican human rights groups, since the infiltration of the Zetas drug cartel in the industry, Mexico’s most violent and feared gang, miners are no longer allowed to utilize what limited safety protocols they previously had access to, making the environment all the more hazardous.
The Zetas, founded by renegade members of the Mexican Special Forces, are believed by experts to be the first cartel to make a foray into the country’s mining sector.
The gang reportedly mines the coal through their own poorly paid workers, many of them children, or they buy it from small-time miners who do not have alternative, but cooperate. The coal is then resold to a state-owned company, which is also suspected of being linked to the Zetas, at a profit 30 times greater than the initial investment.
Based on Los Angeles Times estimates, the cartel’s profits from coal mining in Coahuila hover around $25 million a year.
Image courtesy of Harmony Foundation