Joaquin Hernandez Galicia: Oil workers' leader who became rich and powerful but fell foul of president he made the mistake of crossing

 

As union leader at Mexico's mighty state-run Pemex oil company for three decades, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, better-known by his nickname "La Quina" (a play on his Christian name), was one of Mexico's most powerful men, perhaps the epitome of the corruption-ridden, virtual one-party rule which his compatriots lived through for most of the 20th century.

He was one of what were known as "the dinosaurs" – those within the circle of power – and was something of a Godfather figure; those who crossed him had a tendency to disappear, or at least suffer a severe downturn in their well-being. Union workers' wives would go to him to ask him for loans or to have his men beat up their husbands if they stumbled out of bars. The Mexican daily Excelsior recently estimated his wealth at more than $3.3bn, including foreign bank accounts, property and ranches, a figure which must surely impress British or any other union leaders around. He replied that he was probably worth a mere $167m.

Given the importance of Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) to what would otherwise have been considered a Third World nation, La Quina was, at his peak, arguably the most powerful man in the country, including the presidents with whom he worked, all from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to which his and all Mexican unions are attached. Patronage and intimidation were the best-known double act in the PRI, the politicians, the unions, the police force, indeed almost all institutions.

That power worried one of those presidents, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He took office in December 1988 and in January 1989 ordered La Quina's arrest on charges including the killing of a federal agent by his bodyguards and illegal distribution of powerful weapons. As his bodyguards were more like a private army, Salinas had Mexican troops blow down the outside door of his home with a bazooka. Inside they found hundreds of automatic weapons – Soviet AKs, US MI6s and Nato G3s.

Salinas had been angered by La Quina's withdrawal of unconditional support for the PRI, and therefore of Salinas himself, during the 1988 election. The union boss's move, influencing the 200,000 Pemex oil workers and with a knock-on effect on other unions, almost cost Salinas victory. He won by a fraction over 50 per cent of the vote in an election that was widely seen by his opponents as fraudulent.

On election night, the vote-counting computer system – controlled by the ruling PRI under the system of the time – mysteriously collapsed while Salinas's left-wing opponent Cuahtémoc Cardendas, whose father, Lazaro Cardenas, had created Pemex as a state industry in 1934, was leading. By the time the computers came back up, Salinas was narrowly in the lead. To this day, "se cayó el sistema" [the system fell down] is a catchphrase used sarcastically by Mexicans whenever something simple goes wrong in their lives.

La Quina, who insisted the charges were trumped up, was sentenced to 35 years and spent more than eight in jail – Amnesty International misguidedly declared him a prisoner of conscience – before he was released in 1997. He was not involved, at least openly, in union affairs or politics thereafter.

He was born in 1922 in Tampico in the state of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico two years after the end of the decade-long revolution of Pancho Villa and the peasant leader Emiliano Zapata. He was of slight build, his features more strongly Mayan or Aztec than colonial Spanish or even mestizo, and the son of an oil worker at Pemex. By 1958 he was in charge of the mighty oil workers' union, an integral part of the PRI system which allowed opposition parties to exist in name to avoid being compared with dictatorship or communism.

With armed bodyguards, La Quina built a reputation for making people offers they could not refuse. In 1977 he was accused of ordering the killing of a local oil union leader, Heriberto Kehoe Vincent, who had been talking of breaking up the "mafia petrolera". Charges were dropped by a judiciary also PRI-controlled.

After La Quina's demise, Salinas and the PRI had their own problems: Salinas's successor Ernesto Zedillo accused him of ruining the country's economy, but not his own pocket. Ostracised, Salinas fled into exile in Ireland although he now returns to Mexico. His brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari, spent 10 years in prison for murder but was acquitted after appeals. He did lose his nest-egg – over $100m in Swiss bank accounts, which he had somehow assembled as a civil servant. Whether from fame or fear, neither Carlos nor Raul are seen strolling down the laterales of Mexico City without half a dozen armed bodyguards.

Mexico lindo [beautiful Mexico] has changed since the turn of the millennium. The PRI lost an election in 2000 for the first time in 75 years but cleaned up its act, was re-elected last year and is trying to establish its credentials as a party of democratic ideals. Its unions, however, long used to preferential treatment, remain a problem. "Pemex was a latrine of corruption before La Quina came in, but he turned it into a sewer of corruption," George W Grayson, a Mexico expert, said. "And it still is. La Quina's Croesus-like wealth and perceived political clout gave him the image as an 'untouchable.' Only President Carlos Salinas realised the cancer that he represented."

Phil Davison

Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, union leader: born Tampico, Mexico 12 August, 1922; married Carmen Correa de Juarez (three sons, one daughter); died Tampico 11 November 2013.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone