Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 348 | Julio 2010



Crime and No Punishment

The media highlight organized crime’s spiraling illegal activities every day. But they pay little attention to the spiral of state violence in crimes against grassroots movements and protests, which are equally cloaked in impunity.

Jorge Alonso

Mexico is in a deplorable state. The country is unraveling. Nobel Prize winner in economics Joseph Stiglitz calls the current situation an economic disaster. Government data from the first quarter of 2010 show that 23 million Mexicans are going hungry and 43.4 million have no access to health care, while according to World Bank data, half of the new poor caused by the economic crisis in Latin America are Mexican.

A report by the US Congressional Research Service concluded that the war on organized crime and drug trafficking unleashed by President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December 2006, has failed. In the words of Mexican politician Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, who in his long career has been a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), later founded what would become the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and now coordinates the Progressive Broad Front, that war has been a cover for the deaths of over 23,000 victims of avoidable violence.

Four serious events
explain a great deal

Now the Mexican government has opened up a new battlefront against workers and grassroots movements. It seems that the highly challenged Calderón wants to celebrate the bicentenary of Mexican independence by reversing the country’s social conquests, particularly the labor ones. Raúl Vera, one of the few Mexican bishops still on the side of the poor, has opposed attempts to reverse labor legislation. Demanding an end to efforts to legalize injustice, he argues that it is immoral to make laws that violate the dignity of workers for the sake of economic and commercial competitiveness in which the human side of things means nothing. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the government to respect human rights, while Amnesty International has revealed the reign of impunity and growing abuse of civilians by the army and police. It has also noted increasingly violent attacks against communities and social activists, pointing out that murder, disappearances and rape have not only increased but are being carried out in more serious forms, often simply because the victims demand their rights.

Four events are paradigmatic for understanding the style of the serious government attacks against basic grassroots rights: the siege against an independent union, the violent taking of the Cananea mine, the eviction of the Pasta de Conchos mine pithead, and the bloody repression by paramilitaries of peaceful convoys of vehicles supporting the autonomy of an indigenous community.

Against “light and force”
and against their union

In October 2009, police and military forces stormed the installations of the130-year-old Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC) electricity distribution company. The President issued a decree dissolving the once-Canadian and now decentralized public company and its union arguing that it had serious financial problems because government transfers to it had become unsustainable.

What he it failed to mention was the reason for the losses lay in decisions taken by the government itself. They limited the company’s generating capacity and forced it to acquire electricity from the Federal Electricity Company (CFE), which resold to LFC at a higher rate than it applied to the public.

In addition, the government wanted to deal a blow to the Mexican Electricians Union (SME), an independent company union that had been active in many grassroots protests against neoliberal policies. The union was an obstacle to privatization of the nationalized electricity industry and the handing over of the million-dollar fiber optic business and electricity networks to big national business.

Well organized and
seeking legal channels

Violating the transparency law, ostensibly for reasons of national security, the government classified the files on which it based the disappearance of the LFC and the CFE’s assumption of its electricity generating, supply and commercializing operations as confidential, meaning it will be a long time before they can be consulted. It was later revealed that months earlier, a businessman from Sonora, who was president of the Confederation of National Business Chambers and later headed up the Business Coordinating Council, had asked the government to do away with this state company, promising that the decision, while angering the over 40,000 workers it would throw out into the streets, would earn the applause of many more businesspeople.

To get the workers to accept their severance pay, the government offered an amount greater than stipulated by law and promised those who accepted that they would be rehired by the CFE. Over two-thirds agreed, but fewer than 400 of them were rehired. Thousands of those who refused to be paid off maintained the SME and sought legal channels to revoke the decree dissolving the company. Above all, they are arguing the legal figure of the “substitute employer”: whoever acquires a liquidated company takes on the obligations of the previous employer.

Parliamentary representatives from leftwing parties supported the idea of the Supreme Court reviewing the legal errors in the liquidation decree, even though its own rulings tend to be ideological and political. The group of democratic lawyers working with the disgruntled workers argued that the liquidation decree was itself illegal.

They silenced a hunger strike

In addition to the legal struggle, the union members have also staged marches, protests and hunger strikes. The first hunger strike, in late 2009, lasted 17 days and ended with the government announcing it would establish negotiations with the SME. No acceptable accords were forthcoming, however, and by the end of April a second hunger strike was initiated that has lasted over two months so far.

One relevant factor in this hunger strike was that while certain governing National Action Party (PAN) legislators requested visas to visit opposition hunger strikers in Cuba, they never visited their compatriots refusing food nearby, in Mexico City’s Zócalo Plaza. The major media covered the hunger strike in Cuba, but showed contempt for the SME one at home. The Cuban hunger strike got the island’s government to apply certain measures demanded by the strikers, while Mexico’s government has proved impervious to its own workers’ demands.

Blackouts no accident

The government to accused the SME members of sabotage to explain the many electrical problems in the center of the country caused by the disappearance of the LFC, but it offered no proof for that accusation. Finally, top officials had to recognize what the workers had repeated again and again: the problem was that the government had not maintained the electrical installations.

Repression and the threat of imprisonment have reared their heads on different occasions, and in late May, 600 police officers violently removed electrical workers protesting in Cuernavaca. Despite all the obstacles and attacks, however, the SME members have maintained their resistance.

Against the Cananea miners

In mid-April last year, a decision by the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board backed the powerful family-owned Grupo México company that owns the Cananea mine in the state of Sonora, one of the biggest copper producers, in its decision to lay off its workers. The workers had been on strike for a long time without the owners ever agreeing to sit down with them to try to hammer out an agreement. The strike had continued thanks to a court ruling that it could go on as long as the case brought to contest that decision was still open.

In February 2010, a collegiate court agreed that the working relationship between company and miners would terminate once the workers had been on strike for over 30 months. Prestigious labor lawyer Arturo Alcalde denounced this decision as a government maneuver in favor of the mine owners backed up by the judicial branch with no solid foundations. Alcalde called it a legally grotesque case and said he had never before seen such a clumsy maneuver to get rid of a union in all his 40 years working in the labor sector.

While the government institutions were succumbing to the real powers in Mexico, in this case the country’s third richest family, the workers agreed not to leave their workplace, to be on guard and defend it to the end. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (ALF-CIO) condemned the judicial ruling against the Cananea miners because it denied the right to strike in Mexico. Members of The Other Campaign agreed to act in solidarity with the miners and set off from various points of the country to form a solidarity cordon. The mineworkers denounced the Mexican State to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and a federal judge granted a provisional suspension of the previous ruling during appeal, making it impossible to evict them. The Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board declared the strike illegal three times, but these resolutions were reversed in the appeals court. Finally, the Supreme Court supported the mine owners, enabling them to terminate their labor relations with the miners.

A historical dark page
in anti-worker history

On the night of Sunday June 6, federal forces took control of the mine by force. The government declared that the action was carried out without any injuries, but other information gave the lie to these statements, revealing that there had been violent repression. Weapons and tear gas were used resulting in injuries to two miners, a shock force set fire to one building, blows were meted out and arrests were made. The company owners announced that the workers would be given severance pay and new people would be hired, and took actions to establish a union loyal to their own interests. The workers responded that the only thing they wanted was to work in accord with their collective contract and promised to retake the mine. Their first attempt to do so was met with further repression, with the police involving the nearby population in the skirmishes.

Grassroots organizations protested that the State had turned its repressive, police, military and paramilitary apparatus against the Cananea workers. Telephone and electrical workers and peasant organizations all condemned the taking of Cananea and warned they would up their protests. The president of United Steel Workers accused Mexico’s President of having set in motion a regime of terror against workers and called on the US Congress to stop giving funds to Mexican security forces that would be used to attack workers exercising their right to free association. The workers themselves argued that the action revealed the government’s complicit subordination to the owners of capital. Events had shown that the administration wasn’t interested in dialogue or negotiation, opting instead for violence hypocritically camouflaged in false legal arguments.

This violation will be consigned to the darkest pages of anti-worker and anti-union policy in Mexico. The government and capital destroyed the right to strike in a style worthy of the pre-Mexican revolution Porfiriato era.

Injured miners,
satisfied mine owners

The workers called the aggression unconstitutional. The government opted for repression even while a special commission of the Mexican House of Representatives was still pursuing a negotiated solution to the conflict in Cananea, and the country’s business sector declared its satisfaction with the workers’ defeat.

The Mexican Human Rights Academy, the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center, Mexico’s Commission for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, the Mexican Human Rights and Democracy Institute, the Mexican Human Rights Defense League, the Ecclesial Observatory and many other grassroots organizations all demanded the government immediately establish negotiations to resolve the miners’ demands. On June 11, the Secretary of Government offered a negotiation meeting between the company owners and the miners. The workers accepted but the owners said the time for negotiating was past.

The miners have placed their hopes in international bodies and have therefore expanded the requested IACHR intervention to include the new grievances resulting from the illegal eviction, which violated constitutional and labor rights. The workers are fighting to defend the right to strike, keep their source of work, have their collective contract respected and not fall into the hands of a union manipulated by the owners.

Against the relatives
of the dead miners

The same day the family that owns Cananea mine took control of it, it also took over the pithead of the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Coahuila. This involved the forceful eviction of relatives of miners killed in an explosion there caused by security failures in February 2006, for which the owners are alleged to have been criminally responsible. The relatives had continued to demand the recovery of the bodies to give their dead a proper burial, but the company declared it would seal the mine, leaving the 63 bodies inside.

Raúl Vera, the bishop of Saltillo, charged that sealing the mine meant that Grupo México was intentionally concealing all the evidence those remains would reveal. He pointed out that many of the widows of the tragedy still had lawsuits pending against the company and hadn’t even been able to resolve the problem of their pensions. He stressed that by sealing the pithead the company would be committing an illegal act and deplored the fact that the government didn’t care that the relatives had spent 1, 582 days demanding both justice and the bodies of their dead. The lawsuit effectively pitted the dignity of the miners against the greed and voracity of the owners. Some relatives of the dead miners joined the SME hunger strike.

The same human rights organizations that defended the Cananea miners’ rights condemned the eviction of the Pasta de Conchos mine workers’ relatives. The Mexican House of Representatives’ special commission for mining conflicts demanded that the federal government order the immediate withdrawal of the public force deployed in the two mines. The Permanent Commission of the Congress of the Union sent a strong condemnation of the repressive actions against the miners to President Calderón, while independent commentators analyzed how maintaining a neoliberal policy, unconditional support for the rich, growing repression of the poor and workers were leading the government to further ignite the country.

Against an autonomous
municipality in Oaxaca

On another front, an autonomous indigenous municipality in the community of San Juan Copala had started organizing an autonomous municipality in early 2007. In an agreement reached by the neighborhoods and communities of the lower region of the Triqui indigenous people against the official municipality, which was controlled by the political bosses from a nearby town, the community’s inhabitants wanted to recover the municipality status taken from them in 1948 by the Oaxaca legislature. They oppose the sacking and exploitation and want to create the conditions for a decent life, but the Oaxaca state government has encouraged paramilitaries to harass the incipient municipality.

In April of this year, the autonomous municipality charged that it was surrounded by a well armed contingent that was cutting off its electricity, water and telephone lines and maintaining road blocks a few kilometers from the entrance. The inhabitants of San Juan Copala ran a real risk if they left their community to get water and food. The siege has been the initiative of a PRI group that, just to confuse matters, goes by the name of the Social Welfare Union of the Triqui Region (UBISORT).

Against a humanitarian convoy

In response to the calls for help, a peaceful international observation convoy was organized to take clothes and food to the community. The convoy included members of organizations from Mexico, Finland, Italy, Belgium and Germany. As it approached the autonomous municipality on April 27, armed men from UBISORT opened fire, killing two people—Beatriz Alberta Cariño of the Community Working Together Support Center (Cactus) and Tyri Antero Jaakkola, an international activist from Finland. Many convoy members fled into the forest and were there for days before they were rescued. The reaction of Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz smacked of the old Latin American dictators, as he only commented on the “strange participation of foreigners.” The group responsible for the killings called for the area’s militarization and declared cynically that the convoy was looking for martyrs to draw attention.

A paramilitary attack
foretold and unpunished

Grassroots and human rights defense organizations demanded an end to the repression and militarization of the country. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center held the Mexican State responsible for the attack by not complying with its obligation to safeguard the right to life through prevention and protective actions, and called for an exhaustive investigation. Amnesty International demanded that the Mexican authorities conduct an in-depth and impartial investigation of this attack on an international mission of human rights observers, while the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the ambush and the European Union called for those guilty to be punished.

One key element is that the paramilitaries had announced on radio that they would attack the convoy but the governor of Oaxaca did nothing to prevent it then failed to act to apprehend the murderers. Lawyer Francisco López Bárcenas, himself a Triqui, published an article stressing the viciousness with which defenseless people were attacked and denouncing the disinformation campaign mounted by the Oaxaca media.

Promoted by “the
bad government”

Several independent editorial writers in the Mexico City press underscored the disproportionate degree of aggression, previously announced as if circulating in territories dominated by paramilitaries adopted by the state government were prohibited. The impunity of the murderers was evident, as one of the main people accused of responsibility was state governor Ulises Ruiz, whose declarations violated the right to solidarity. One reporter from the magazine Contralínea was shot and wounded and its director accused the federal government of negligence.

President Calderón ran into a demonstration demanding justice for the attack on the convoy in a European forum he attended in early May. Magdalena Gómez, a specialist in indigenous law, charged that the government was using paramilitaries to cover up the repression, disguising it as intercommunity conflicts. Indigenous organizations insisted that such actions amounted to confrontation promoted by the “bad government,” a term coined by the Zapatista movement. But despite all the national and international condemnation, the state and national governments offered no consistent response.

Paramilitary groups
and a corrupt local government

On May 11, the autonomous municipality called on civilian organizations to organize a new observation convoy, which would bear the name of the activists murdered on the previous one. It argued that the community was living under extreme humanitarian conditions and urged national and international media committed to the truth to document the real situation of San Juan Copala. It claimed that the integrity and security of those on the new convoy were the responsibility of the Mexican State as a whole, as paramilitary groups and corrupt local governments cannot limit the rights established in the Constitution and in international treaties.

In mid-May, the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights asked the Spanish government to ensure that the case of the activists murdered in the Oaxaca ambush would be addressed during the Mexico-European Union Summit and to demand an urgent, transparent, rigorous and impartial investigation of events. It went on to state that the European Union should demand that Mexico bring those responsible for the attack before the courts, while a Finnsh Euro representative lamented the high levels of impunity in Mexico, where the lives of human rights defenders are at risk.

Crime and no punishment

A full three weeks after the ambush President Calderón finally expressed his commitment to clarify what had happened and punish those responsible but, even then, UBISORT continued imposing its will on the region. Once again it kidnapped a group of women and children from San Juan Copala with impunity. After holding them for many hours and threatening to kill them, the kidnappers stole the money they were carrying, which came from the Opportunities program. UBISORT also took the luxury of publicly threatening the new convoy.

Another event further ratcheted up the tension in the region. On May 20, an important leader promoting the autonomy of the municipality of San Juan Copala was murdered along with his wife. The representative of the municipality’s human rights commission asked that this murder not stop the peace and aid convoy, programmed for June 8. Some inhabitants of the autonomous municipality and PRD legislators held a protest outside the Oaxaca state government’s delegation in Mexico City, demanding that Governor Ruiz punish those responsible for the armed aggression and break up of the paramilitary group. One representative from the autonomous municipality blamed the over 100 deaths in the Triqui area on Governor Ruiz. The leader of the PRD parliamentary representatives said that it is absurd for the governor to claim that he can’t guarantee the supply of food and medicine to the municipality, but can get the ballot boxes to the polling stations for the July 4 state elections.

How many more crimes will it take?

Jurist Magdalena Gómez demanded that the siege of the autonomous municipality be broken and lamented that the obvious ungovernability and impunity in that region of Oaxaca was of little concern to the State. Beyond the official versions, the State was actually using the paramilitary groups to encourage and increase the so­called intra-community conflicts. The attempts of the ruling politicians to ensure impunity were a way of dodging compliance with the obligation of all States to guarantee the rule of law.

Gómez asked how many crimes would have to be committed before the State withdrew the paramilitaries, brought them to justice and demanded investigations to demonstrate both who had ordered the murder of one of the most outstanding promoters of municipal autonomy and who had executed the order. Activists from the Finnish Peace Union issued a complaint to the Mexican human rights agency for the San Juan Copala ambush.

Another humanitarian
convoy harassed

Members of The Other Campaign condemned the attack by the State as part of its policy of repressing the social movements and the municipal autonomy of San Juan Copala. They denounced the indolence with which the State responded to the attack on the international solidarity convoy and the murder of the Triqui leader and his wife, blaming the government of President Calderón and Governor Ulises Ruiz for these crimes. It was clear to them that the intention was to wipe out the efforts aimed at autonomy. And they held President Calderón and Governor Ruiz responsible for any aggression or intimidation against the new convoy.

The convoy of June 8 was prepared with great care. By June 2, the members still hadn’t received responses to the letters they had sent the Secretary of Government and National Defense and the governor of Oaxaca asking them to order actions to guarantee the participants’ lives, freedom and security. Euro representatives and German parliamentary representatives also asked Mexico’s executive branch to ensure the participants’ security.

One response from the local government indicated that UBISORT had redoubled its blockade of the road to the autonomous municipality. PRD legislators from the Mexican House of Representatives denounced the Ruiz state government for refusing to provide minimum guarantees of security to the convoy, in which PRD representatives would be traveling. The National Human Rights Commission announced that one of its observers would be in the convoy.

“We all know who’s
directing the criminals”

Two days before the convoy set off from Mexico City, a spokesperson from the autonomous municipality released a public communiqué stressing that June 8 would go down in the history of indigenous communities for the disinterested solidarity displayed, which is the maximum expression of love.

The people of the autonomous municipality of Copala thanked the convoy organizers for the respect and interest they showed in the people’s autonomy. “We all know that the new threats appearing in the media launched by the leader of a band of criminals that operates in the Triqui region obey the criminal order of the powerful person who is governing our state so badly,” they said.

The community of San Juan Copala again demanded that the state and federal governments assume their responsibility to guarantee the free transit and security of the new convoy, which was carrying 35 tons of provisions and consisted of 300 people from various civic organizations, human rights centers, churches, solidarity groups, political organizations, unions and media.

A government that
protects murderers

When the convoy was within eight kilometers of the autonomous municipality, it finally gave up on its attempts to proceed any further as it was up against UBISORT’s barricades and armed groups firing shots to intimidate the convoy members. The declared that it was shameful that a group of political bosses could impose their own conditions outside the law, violating the legal order. The autonomous municipality’s spokesperson announced that he would ask the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to intervene to ensure that the convoy’s provisions reached their destination. The autonomous municipality denounced the federal and state governments’ complicity with the group of criminals holding their municipality under siege. It was clear that the state government had orchestrated a governmental ring of protection for UBISORT to stop the convoy entering Copala. In other words, the government of Ulises Ruiz had protected the paramilitary cordon with another consisting of state police and officials who instead of guaranteeing security and free movement had gone out of their way to protect the murderers. For its part, the federal police, under the ultimate responsibility of President Calderón, was also there to dissuade the convoy from proceeding, rather than to detain the aggressors.

Militarization and paramilitarization

Once again, Amnesty International and grassroots organizations condemned the climate of violence against the autonomous municipality. Activists from The Other Campaign manifested their annoyance that members of the political class had tried to orchestrate the convoy in favor of their electoral campaigns, and reiterated their solidarity with the autonomous municipality project.

The Other Campaign summed up the situation by stating that “a state policy of repression, of terror, reigns in Mexico towards social movements that fight and resist, that question and oppose the advance of the capitalist policies. That repression extends to the majority of the population which, in the framework of the structural crisis, is suffering from dispossession, misery, exploitation and marginalization.

“The militarization and paramilitarization are part of that state policy. The State attacks the efforts of the working class, indigenous peoples, students, the exploited and oppressed of the countryside, city and sea that are fighting to defend their rights, the earth, the territory and their right to organize autonomously in order to make their own decisions.”

Represion and resistence

These four acts of official repression are by no means the only ones. There are many more. But despite the growing repression, there are also many instances of resistance in which the workers will increasingly convince themselves of the need to free themselves from the shackles of the old corporativism to find their own autonomous expressions and thus not remain exposed to negotiations among different elites.

Each day in every corner of the country those on top strive to intensify their exploiting and subjecting project. But in many places, those below are attempting ways of living on the margins of capital and the State. Only a great convergence of real solidarity will turn all of those expressions into a critical mass.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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