Nearly three weeks after an explosion that killed 37 people and injured 100 more in the headquarters of Mexico’s national oil company, Pemex, the public is far from learning exactly what was behind the tragedy. The government’s opaque approach conjures up ghosts of other unexplained events and concerns about what may lie ahead.

Senior Mexican officials have blamed leaked gas — maybe methane, maybe not — and poo-poohed talk of a criminal or terrorist attack on the complex January 30. Even so, they did not allow foreign investigators near ground zero prompting some to speculate about the nature and source of the explosion.

They’ve also provided various scenarios but no solid evidence for their conclusions. Meanwhile, both the blast and the investigation have disappeared from headlines and airwaves, overshadowed by gang rapes of tourists, falling meteorites, and a papal resignation.

“It would seem to be that the federal government is betting on (the public) forgetting,” Silvano Aureoles, head of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party’s caucus in the lower chamber of congress, said in a press release. “Many accidents have occurred in Pemex … and they’ve only let time run and applied the strategy of waiting for people to forget the matter.”

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Of course, relying on short memory spans isn’t a strategy specific to the oil giant, which provides as much as a third of the government’s revenue. In the wake of natural and man-made disasters, corruption scandals and criminal atrocities, dissembling and dodging are the default responses.

Just a few examples: months on, neither Mexican nor US officials have disclosed why federal police officers attacked a clearly marked US embassy car carrying CIA operatives and a Mexican naval officer outside Mexico City. Nor have state officials bothered explaining why gangsters last month executed 17 members of a locally popular music band outside Monterrey and dumped their bodies down a well. No one has bothered to detail why other gunmen in 2010 executed the gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas state, whose brother is the sitting governor.

More recently, citing a busy schedule, President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office 11 weeks ago, declined to meet with the delegation of Human Rights Watch, which was in the Mexican capital this week to present a detailed investigation of 249 forced disappearances in the past six years, many at the hands of federal security forces.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio and his aides did meet with the rights group, promising cooperation in addressing the charges. But HRW’s previous report on Mexico, which detailed 233 killings, torture and disappearances by the army, resulted in absolutely no action on the part of the previous administration of Felipe Calderon.

“They said they were going to look at these cases,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “How long will it take? I prefer not to apply math. Our function, our labor as civil society, is to promote the debate.”

Things happen, elicit moments of surprise and/or outrage and then fade. The Mexican public loses faith in ever knowing causes, ever trusting what information it’s finally granted. As with Pemex’s latest explosion, the factual fog spawns rumors, conspiracy theories and shoulder shrugs.

George Baker, a respected Houston-based energy analyst and Pemex watcher, has compiled some of the “counter narratives” explaining the blast making the rounds in the energy industry. They range from plots by unnamed gangster bands, guerrilla groups, or disgruntled employees, to an inside job aimed at destroying incriminating documents held in the damaged buildings.

The Zetas have systematically targeted Pemex for years. In addition to collecting extortion, they steal gasoline, natural gas and liquid petroleum, among other products, and resell these products in Mexico and the United States, costing the company an estimated $1 billion per year. (See InSight Crime map below, which charts attacks on Pemex pipelines registered in 2010). When they don’t get their way, the Zetas have been known to kidnap workers.

There are also sticky legal issues swirling around the company connecting it to organized crime. One oil services firm, ADT Petroservicios, which allegedly laundered money for the Zetas, had millions in contracts with Pemex. The head of the company, Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa, was arrested in 2012 in Texas, and the company was subsequently blacklisted by the US Treasury Department.

“Some asked, is a drug cartel warning the new government to keep its distance?” Baker wrote in a report on the blast for his website.

If a deliberate attack – with C-4 explosives, as some suggest – the Pemex explosion’s real target likely was the Peña government, who like his recent predecessors hopes to reform Mexico’s crucial yet stumbling energy industries.

Despite government denials, many believe such reforms aim to re-privatize a petrochemical industry whose nationalization 75 years ago remains a source of patriotic pride.

But beyond energy issues, Peña and his allies hope to change the conversation about Mexico – for the past six years dominated by gangland violence – to one of economic progress, social peace and competent rule.

That “Mexico’s moment” narrative contends that the country’s 115 million people are ready to realize their destiny as one of the world’s leading economies and political powers. But the attempts to point to good news continues being overshadowed by both the criminal violence, which which has claimed 70,000 lives by one recent government estimate, and unresolved mysteries like the Pemex disaster. 

Peña’s presidency has returned to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — which critics argue conjured the culture of confabulation while ruling the country for most of the past century — to national power after a dozen year exile. But assassinations, attacks on public officials and security forces, threats on media outlets, and other manifestations of criminal violence seem to be on the rise, even if the government is not acknowledging them as often.

With Mexico’s dubious politics and general distrust of the PRI in particular — Peña was elected with only 38 percent of the vote — both the president and his party have a lot at stake in dealing with events like the Pemex blast.

“At this point, we are far from buying into any of the counter-narratives,” Baker wrote of the alternative theories of the explosion. “But Pemex and the government are on the defensive.”

View InSight Map: PEMEX in a larger map

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