Farm Labour Organiser killed in Mexico

Here’s something from the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, covering the intimidation and violence suffered by farmworkers (and their union organisers) in Mexico and the US.

Santiago Rafael Cruz, Labor Oranizer For U.S. Union, Killed In Mexico

By Dan La Botz

Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) based in Toledo, Ohio, was murdered in Monterrey, Mexico on April 9. Cruz was found bound and beaten to death in the union offices; there had been no forced entry and there was no robbery. Baldemar Velasquez, president of FLOC, believes that he may have been murdered because the union had disturbed the operations of corrupt individuals involved in labor contracting operations in Mexico.

Cruz, originally from Oaxaca, had gone to the United States in search of work to help support his family in Mexico. He became involved as a volunteer with FLOC working on immigrant rights issues. “We recognized his talent,” said Velasquez, “and hired him to work for the union.” Cruz worked both in Ohio and in North Carolina organizing agricultural workers for four years.

Earlier this year Cruz found himself in need of more money to help his family and took a factory job. During an immigration raid he was arrested and detained for some time and then deported to Mexico. Back in Mexico he learned that FLOC was looking for someone to work in its office in Monterrey, and the union hired him for the job. Still short on money to rent an apartment, Cruz was staying in the union office at the time he was attacked and killed. Who Would Want Cruz Killed?

Who would want Cruz killed? To answer that question we have to understand the labor contracting system in Mexico. Labor contractors usually funnel as many as 70,000 workers into the H2A Visa program which permits them to work legally for agricultural employers in the United States. To get these jobs, which pay more than ten times what they could make in agriculture in Mexico, workers often have to pay the contractors and to bribe various other middlemen. While workers should have paid no more than $360 in fees, some contractor agents called runners or enganchistas charged workers as much as $12,000, according to Velasquez. The racketeers in Mexico were making thousand of dollars, perhaps millions by over-charging workers.

Then on September 16, 2004, after a five-year organizing campaign and boycott, FLOC won a contact for 8,000 H2A workers employed on 1,050 farms across North Carolina and working in a variety of crops. Under the contract, employers had to pay for the workers’ visas and transportation, saving the workers two million last year alone, according to the union.

To support its members and to educate them about their rights before they arrived in the United States, as well as to protect them from exploitation by labor contractors, FLOC established an office in Monterrey.
Rather than paying large sums in bribes for H2A jobs, now workers would simply fill out forms to be dispatched.

FLOC’s Monterrey union office quickly came into conflict with the corrupt contractors and their agents who had been providing workers to the growers in North Carolina and in many other states from Georgia to New York. FLOC’s presence in Mexico meant that the racketeers were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in exorbitant fees and bribes. Soon after the FLOC office was opened in Monterrey it was broken into and equipment and files were destroyed.

While the Mexican police have yet to arrest or charge any suspects, the labor contractors had a motive and may well have been responsible. “It was a purely political attack,” said FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez. “We think the motivation was that the union contract was adversely affecting the labor contractors, the recruiters.

“FLOC’s agreement eliminated the extortion of illegal fees from workers by criminal elements. They have been unhappy with the union taking away their gold mine. We disrupted not only the recruiters working for growers in North Carolina, but all the recruiters who recruit workers for all the other states: from Florida and Georgia, through South Carolina and Virginia, all the way up to Pennsylvania and New York. That is because our precedent applied to all of those recruiters.” Why in Monterrey?

While the murder of labor activists was common in the late 1960s and 1970s, few have been murdered in recent years. Usually employers or government-controlled unions will fire union activists, and sometimes they beat them up, but few are murdered. The recent killing of 20 union and community activists in Oaxaca over the last six months arises from an unusual labor, community and political conflict. It is not typical of the recent experience.

However, Nuevo Leon, the state of which Monterrey is the capital, is almost another country. One of Mexico’s most industrialized states, all of its industries — brewing, glass, steel — were for decades owned by the Garza-Sada clan which strenuously opposed the organization of the workers in its factories. When Mexican labor unions organized into the powerful Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) in the 1930s, Monterrey successfully fought off the union challenge.
Later the CTM became a state-controlled and largely corrupt confederation, and in the late 1960s a rank-and-file insurgency swept the unions, but once again Monterrey remained virtually immune. In fact, the state of Nuevo Leon has its own its own labor unions, often called sindicatos blancos (white unions), company unions completely dominated by the state’s most powerful corporations.

The establishment of a FLOC office in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon represented not only a direct challenge to corrupt labor contractors, but also an implicit challenge to the Monterrey elite who have for years controlled the political and economic life of the city and had excluded genuine labor unions. While it is unlikely that anyone in the corporate elite would dirty his hands in a killing, and while they may not have had any direct role in the murder, the capitalists of Monterrey, the bastion of company unionism in Mexico, have created a climate that makes unions unwelcome and organizers pariahs. Murder and Impunity in Mexico

Lamentably, Santiago Rafael Cruz’s death represents just another murder among many in Mexico. Over the last decade, hundreds of women have been ritually murdered in Ciudad Juarez, and to date the murders remains unexplained. During this year alone 600 people have been killed in the struggle between rival drug cartels in Mexico, and most of those murders remain unsolved as well. Most recently, local and state police and the Federal Preventive Police have been used to crush social movements by steel workers at the SICARTSA plant in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, at the town of Atenco, Mexico, and in Oaxaca. Approximately 25 people have been killed, several women raped, and many tortured and beaten in those operations. No police have been convicted and imprisoned.

In all of these cases — the women, the drug cartel wars, and the repression of social movements — many believe that the police are implicated in and possibly responsible for many of these killings. While that has not been proven, what is known is that in Mexico murderers and other criminals enjoy impunity, a situation that suggests the collusion of the police and the justice system. Mexican human rights organizations and international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as U.S.
State Department reports have called upon the Mexican government to reform its justice and police systems.

The Nuevo Leon state police have suggested that they think Cruz’s murder was the result of a “struggle between unions.” This is not impossible. Mexico’s corrupt and violent union officials, the charros as they are called, have been known to kill their rivals.
But those who know Mexico also recognize that this is the political line of Monterrey’s establishment always anxious to discredit the unions by suggesting that all unions are only rival mafias.

Santiago Rafael Cruz, FLOC’s man in Monterrey, may well have fallen afoul of all of these: the labor contractors, Monterrey’s anti-union environment, and Mexico’s faulty criminal justice system. FLOC wants justice and rightly so, but it will be a battle.