Under death threats, Mexican labor leader leaves country

Blanca Velasquez

Under death threats, a Mexican labor rights activist, Blanca Velasquez, left the country this month and suspended a two-year legal battle she has had with the government, according to the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center. The legal battle is over harassment and threats against workers in Puebla, Mexico.

In May, one of her colleagues at Mexico's Center for the Support of Workers (CAT), Jose Enrique Morales Montano, was kidnapped by four masked gunmen and subjected to 16 hours of torture before being released.

Other workers at CAT have received death threats, and the organization's email has been hacked. The violence and threats began in December, 2010, when Velasquez found the message, "No saben con quien metes," ("You don't know who you're messing with"), painted on her office wall.

CAT, founded by Velasquez herself in 2001, is an official partner with the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center. Velasquez, in her work at the center has focused on cases in Puebla involving sexual harassment of female workers and attempts to block workers from forming unions.

Velasquez, seeking to force the Mexican government to address the violence against workers who were standing up for their rights, worked with ProDESC, a non-profit group that focuses on economic, social and cultural rights.

The government scheduled a hearing on the case being made by both CAT and ProDESC, but scheduled the hearing in the evening.

The authorities turned down CAT's request that they guarantee safe passage to the evening hearing for Velasquez who, at the time, was under a barrage of death threats. Velasquez decided the risk was too great to make the trip and she suspended her legal fight.

The Mexican government ignored an order by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to provide those protective measures. The commission issued the order after having heard the complaints of the labor activists. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the regional body established by the Organization of American States to promote and protect human rights in the Western Hemisphere.

Earlier this year, Velasquez received awards from the Fund for Global Human Rights (the Oscar Romero Award) and from Peace Brigades International, a group that provides protective accompaniment to human rights defenders at risk as a result of their work.

Velasquez insists that the focus of her work is labor rights, not doing battle with either the multi-national corporations operating in Puebla or with the Mexican government. "We're not against the economy opening up to these companies," said Velasquez. "We just want to have a dialogue about the incentives used to bring these companies here, especially when the result is an atmosphere of intimidation and fear."

The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center has pointed out that union organizers in Mexico face numerous difficulties, among which are having to deal with so called "yellow" or "protection" unions. In these situations the company pays the worker's dues into the union as a form of protection for its own, rather than the worker's interests. The union then advocates on the company's behalf. Where these "unions" operate, the workers are often unaware that they have any representation whatsoever.

The AFL-CIO notes that, in addition to having to face threats, violence and the lack of representation afforded by the "yellow" unions, Mexican workers are on the front lines of a fight against global corporations determined to lower wages and on the front lines of a fight against labor laws in their own country that take away their rights.

Velasquez has told supporters at the Solidarity Center in the U.S. that she intends to return to Mexico and resume the fight as soon as possible. She says she must because workers have asked her the question: "If they have silenced you, what will they do to us?"

Photo: Blanca Velasquez. Maquila Solidarity Network

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