Former Mexico oil union boss, once jailed for murder, dies at 91

MEXICO CITY Mon Nov 11, 2013 4:03pm EST

Joaquin Hernandez Galicia talks to Reuters in Ciudad Madero September 30, 2013. REUTERS/Pablo Garibian

Joaquin Hernandez Galicia talks to Reuters in Ciudad Madero September 30, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Pablo Garibian

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, the once-powerful head of Mexico's oil workers' union whose arrest on charges of murder and illegal arms possession in 1989 created a political sensation, has died at the age of 91, his family said on Monday.

Hernandez died in hospital early on Monday morning after suffering from a series of complications, his son said.

Known as "La Quina," Hernandez was thrown in jail weeks after President Carlos Salinas took office in December 1988.

Although he was widely seen as corrupt, Hernandez was also brought down by Salinas's desire to put pressure on the oil workers' union as part of plans to liberalize state oil and gas monopoly Pemex.

"Given my father's age, 91, he had health complications," his son Joaquin Hernandez Correa told Reuters. "It was his colon, his kidneys weren't working properly. Then there was a respiratory infection and another complication from an edema."

His diminutive father did not receive a jury trial but was convicted and sentenced by a judge to more than 30 years in prison, but the term was later cut. The government then paroled him and he was released at the end of 1997.

The elder Hernandez was for years a pillar of labor support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. At his peak, he controlled 200,000 oil workers in Pemex and oversaw a huge patronage budget.

But his downfall came after he failed to back Salinas as the PRI's presidential candidate during the 1988 election. He was rumored to be giving support to Salinas's main rival, left-wing challenger Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Hernandez and his supporters said the charges he murdered a federal agent and possessed weapons were trumped up, and Amnesty International dubbed him a political prisoner for daring to oppose government privatization plans and publicly criticizing the president.

"I have never killed, nor will I ever kill," he told Reuters in an interview in late September at his home in the oil town of Ciudad Madero, on Mexico's Gulf coast, saying he was framed for the agent's murder.

The agent's body was found outside Hernandez's home.

"They dumped him here three days after he was killed. The corpse stank," he added, flanked by an oil painting depicting Hernandez naked with six arms, metal machine cogs stuck to his chest, tree trunks as legs and a corn cob placed strategically over his genitals.

But even allies in the union said Hernandez had at times overstepped the mark in eliminating rivals and funneling official and unofficial funds to his favorite political causes.

The death of Hernandez coincides with political events in Mexico that recall the days of his arrest nearly 25 years ago.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who brought the PRI back to power in 2012 after a 12-year hiatus, aims to liberalize the oil industry, and early this year he had the head of the main teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, arrested on corruption charges.

Opposition politicians have repeatedly accused the current Pemex union boss, Carlos Romero Deschamps, of corruption and called for him to be fired.

Hernandez says Romero Deschamps, his protege, had betrayed him and helped send him to jail.

"He has been my worst enemy," he said. "He was my chauffeur, nothing more."

(Reporting by Dave Graham, Simon Gardner and Pablo Garibian; Editing by Leslie Adler and Philip Barbara)

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