Extortion, threats, kidnapping: Workers the hidden casualty of Mexico’s violence
MCALLEN, TEXAS-It was after the 2006 disaster, when lethal methane seeped into the Pasta de Conchos coal mine, triggering a blast that crushed 65 workers, that Napoleon Gomez Urrutia’s son received a message.
The young student, according to his father, had just finished class at the University of Monterrey’s faculty of law. He walked into the parking lot and opened the envelope left on his windshield.
Inside was a bullet.
“My son was 18 or 19 years old,” said Gomez.
It was that macabre threat, on top of corruption charges (later dropped by Mexico’s supreme court) against the leader of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, that forced Gomez into exile in Vancouver. His crime: branding the Pasta de Conchos accident “industrial homicide” – a move he said incited the ire of government and business players alike.
“It gets to the point in which workers or union leaders are kidnapped or disappeared or tortured or even killed,” Gomez told the Star.
Life as an activist in Mexico has never been easy. As highlighted by the Star, those fighting for workers’ rights in the border region’s booming maquiladora, or duty-free, foreign-owned manufacturing industry, come up against deeply entrenched business interests protected by so-called ghost unions that serve not to support workers, but suppress them.
Add to that a new and critical challenge. In states like Tamaulipas, the country’s kidnapping capital, cartels seem to have a new target: unions, where expropriating workers’ dues serves as a new source of financing.
“We know some unions have been infiltrated,” said Julia Quiñonez, who runs an independent workers’ rights group, Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, supporting low-wage maquiladora workers in three Mexican states including Tamaulipas. The organization has been forced to shutter in two other states, Sonora and Chihuahua, due to violence there.
“It’s a vicious cycle of problem on top of problem,” she said of her work.
“Criminal groups have significantly advanced their goal of controlling unions and their workforces,” added a 2014 report by the Mexican Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, an independent NGO. “There are also signs of collusion between (Tamaulipas) petrol unions and cartel kingpins.”
Even here in bordering McAllen, Texas, it is easy to see why talk of cartel brutality often elicits uncomfortable silence. The cartels operating in Tamaulipas rely heavily on extortion and kidnapping as income. Between 2007 and 2014, Tamaulipas registered the highest number of disappearances in Mexico: more than 5,200, according to the country’s registry of missing and disappeared persons. In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 8,631 kidnappings in Tamaulipas.
Most maquiladora executives live in the sprawling, humid town of McAllen and travel daily into neighbouring Reynosa, Tamaulipas’ largest and most industrial city. On the Texas side, the crossing is lined with a quiet park where nobbly cacti nestle among cottonwood trees. On the Tamaulipas side, it is lined with halcones – informants, often children or Central American migrants, who relay information about passing vehicles to cartels.
One businessman who makes that commute every day to manage a U.S. factory in Reynosa said cartels have shied away from directly extorting foreign-owned plants – but unions are easier game.
“In my union, it’s one killed, one forced to resign. The other one they disappeared,” he told the Star. “This is unofficial, but yeah – they were looking for money, a kind of monthly fee or something.”
Last year, the wife of one union leader in Tamaulipas was kidnapped by cartel henchmen, according to Mexican media reports. The union leader, whom the Star is not naming because of the possibility of reprisal, crossed into McAllen to speak to the Star – but shifted uncomfortably when asked about cartels targeting his union.
“There was a small problem,” he said almost inaudibly, before his colleague hastily interjects. “It’s been fixed.”
“(Cartels) have become increasingly bigger and dangerous against companies and against workers,” said Gomez, who continues to lead the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers – considered one of Mexico’s most independent unions – in exile from Vancouver.
“They put pressure on the union to contract to members of the cartels, in some cases,” he said. “Sometimes they speak about percentages. For example, they say from the monthly dues you’re going to get, we want 20 per cent.”
“This is something we never accept. But we put at risk, sometimes, the local union leaders,” added Gomez, who has had to relocate several of his union’s leaders as a result of cartel threats.
Gomez also said the country’s long-standing problem with undemocratic unions – encouraged for decades by the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics for much of the country’s history – is a form of “disguised slavery” that exploits and undermines workers.
“There is a problem because some people don’t really fight for workers. It creates an imbalance when we demand lots of things and they ask for nothing,” said Juan Villafuerte Morales, secretary general of SJOIIM, a maquiladora union in one of Tamaulipas’ largest cities. He added that his negotiations have won some benefits for workers such as health clinics and recreational facilities. (His union’s promotional material also trumpets the union’s ability to “make your company successful in our region.”)
Fear, violence, and a long history of collusion among unions, companies and the government have combined to create an almost impossible environment for workers to improve their wages and working conditions, said University of New Brunswick professor Hepzibah Munoz Martinez, who grew up in Tamaulipas and researches violence and the maquiladora sector.
Mexico already has the lowest minimum wage in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a grouping of 34 democratic, relatively high-income countries. When adjusted for inflation, wages in Mexico have barely gone up since 1980, and over the past few years have actually been shrinking, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“You already had a situation where labour is controlled. But (in the past) you still had a situation where people could, in a way, speak up without fearing being killed,” said Martinez.
“Living in Matamoros, you couldn’t even say ‘Zetas,’ ” she recalled, referring to one of the state’s infamously vicious cartels. “Even inside homes, because people were afraid of their neighbours hearing. You had to say ‘the little bad guys’ – los malitos.”
Like much of Mexico’s border region, Tamaulipas relies heavily on foreign manufacturing outfits who take advantage of the country’s duty-free maquiladora program. The state is a growing hub for auto production in a country that is overtaking Canada as a car-making powerhouse: while Mexico’s increased output increased by more than five per cent last year, Canada’s dropped by almost the same amount. Overall, Canadian imports from Mexico were worth more than $31.1 billion last year.
“The stuff that you buy in Canada is produced in exploitative labour conditions on the border and in the context of increased violence,” Martinez said.
“The official position of the Canadian government in terms of foreign policy is to support human rights,” she added. “But if we keep sending mining companies or auto parts companies there that are taking advantage of the violence in Mexico to repress rights, labour rights or human rights, you can see the contradiction.”
Until at least four years ago, Canada provided funding for independent workers’ rights projects in Mexico (as well as a variety of other human rights related initiatives), according to Open Aid Data, a website dedicated to aid transparency. A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government now “does not maintain a significant international development assistance program in Mexico,” but did not answer the Star’s queries as to why.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the Canadian government should start by applying political pressure on Mexico, whose president will be in Ottawa in June, to protect workers’ rights and to eradicate corrupt ghost unions.
“I would argue that one of the first priorities to establish with the Mexican government is to provide for workers to have freedom of association in their country,” he told the Star.
“I know the Mexican president and the U.S. president will be visiting Canada later this year. I think it will be quite appropriate for the prime minister to be raising this issue to say, ‘Hey, when are we going to see some action on this particular file?’ “
“I keep saying to my colleagues that this is our moment,” Gomez added. “We have to start standing up and fighting for our rights.”
This story was made possible through a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation