Dropped charges in Mexico blast disappoint Ottawa

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs says it is disappointed that charges have been dropped against people alleged to have been involved in an explosion at a Mexican resort that killed five Canadians in November 2010.

Mexican judge explains decision

The judge who dismissed charges in the case of a deadly explosion at a Mexican hotel says the case should be handled as a civil lawsuit. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press )

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs says it is disappointed that charges have been dropped against people alleged to have been involved in an explosion at a Mexican resort that killed five Canadians in November 2010. 

The department issued a statement Friday after CBC News reported that a Mexican judge had dismissed criminal charges against five contractors and employees.

"Since the tragedy, the government of Canada has provided consular support to the victims’ families and has pressed Mexican authorities to ensure a timely and transparent investigation. We are disappointed that the Mexican judicial system has not proceeded with charges against the individuals responsible for this incident," spokesman Alain Cacchione said.

An explosion tore through a small lobby of the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun, on Nov. 14, 2010. Five Canadian tourists and two Mexican workers died, and another 17 people, including eight Canadians, were hurt.

Prosecutors said the gas line, apparently meant to fuel a pool heating unit, was not properly installed or maintained. They claimed a leak from the line may have been set off by a spark from an electric switch or plug.

Judge Nicolas Pinzon said he denied the arrest request earlier this week because prosecutors filed charges against company directors or representatives rather than the specific workers who installed the lines, so the case should be handled as a civil lawsuit.

"You can file civil proceedings against a company …but in criminal cases, you have to go after the person who directly performed the act," Pinzon told The Associated Press. "The catch was that the prosecutors filed charges against the companies."

The office of Quintana Roo state Attorney General Gaspar Garcia noted that the charges were filed under his predecessor, Francisco Alor, who left office in April and had been criticized for failing to win convictions in previous cases.

The five Canadians killed were Malcolm Johnson of Prince George, B.C.; Chris Charmont and his nine-year-old son, John, of Drumheller, Alta.; Darlene Ferguson, 51, of Edmonton; and Elgin Barron of Guelph, Ont.

Ferguson's brother, Barry Hoffman, declined to comment at length on the development. He would say only that his family was "not surprised by the outcome."

Pinzon said the victims' relatives could file civil suits against those named in the criminal complaint, including representatives of the hotel's operator, maintenance company and contractors.

The judge said large damage awards would be available in civil cases because moral and collateral damages can be claimed in those suits, while criminal cases rely largely on Mexican labour rates, which sets basic compensation in wrongful deaths cases at the equivalent of about $3,700 US.

"This doesn't mean that this is going to go unpunished, I want to make that clear," Pinzon said. "This only means it will proceed by the correct route … a civil proceeding."

Pinzon said prosecutors specifically charged that key tests on the gas pipe were performed incorrectly.

"They argued that the pipe had a leak and that airtightness tests were not correctly carried out," Pinzon said. But because executives, and not the workers, were charged, "we cannot say 'you, because of your fault, you caused all these consequences."'

He raised the possibility that it would have been hard to prove no matter who was charged.

"The problem here is that because these are hidden installations, a buried pipe, to a certain extent no one knows whether it is going to explode or not," he said.

Terra Charmont, an Alberta woman who lost her husband and son in the explosion, said Thursday it was a blow to hear that the charges have been dismissed.

"There hasn't been any justice served … it was just very disappointing," she said.

With files from The Associated Press