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Mexico: lawlessness and repression inside Fortress North America

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If Fortress North America is the extension of the NAFTA security state, Mexico is the crumbling wall of the fortress.  A near failed state, Mexico is lawless, violent and repressive.  The Calderon government is waging a drug war and a class war to destroy the independent labour movement, while its NAFTA partners turn a blind eye to the democratic decay and rubble piling up inside the walls of the fortress.

 Last week in Mexico City people were wearing sweaters and overcoats to cope with the cold snap setting record lows.  The far greater chill is personal and collective security.  Almost everyone I met seemed preoccupied with the threat of random violent crime, or state persecution if you happen to be politically opposed to the Calderon government.

My international labour organization, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM) brought its North American affiliates to the Mexican capital to meet leaders of the independent labour movement and for a show of solidarity with the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME).  In October, 6,000 Mexican federal police and soldiers occupied the plants and officers of the Central Light and Power utility and expelled the workers at gun point.  They then abolished the utility, mass fired 44,000 workers and seized the funds of the union.    

The SME struggle is visible throughout downtown Mexico City, with banners and graffiti in support of SME along the main streets, and several SME protest camps are set up in front of key utility and government buildings.  In front of a Labour Ministry building, hundreds of SME activists are surrounded by a larger number of heavily armed federal police with shields and white helmets.  As we met SME representatives in our hotel, police moved violently against one of the camps, leaving it in shambles.  Observers close to the situation told us that they fear and expect brutal actions against the protesters in the coming weeks.

SME is one of only a handful of independent unions in Mexico.  The largest is the Miners and Metal Workers Union.-- Los Mineros -- and they also have been targeted by the Calderon administration.  The leader of the union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, has been in exile in Canada for 3 years, given assistance and protection by the United Steelworkers and its Canadian Director, Ken Neumann.  Federal authorities have refused to recognize Gomez and have frozen the union’s accounts.

Another leader of Los Mineros, Juan Linares, was arrested 13 months ago and remains in the Reclusorio Norte prison, in spite of several court decisions throwing out charges.  At first we are given permission to visit Linares in the prison, then denied.  Ultimately negotiations let Ken Neumann and CEP President Dave Coles inside for almost an hour.  They emerge to tell us that Linares is mentally strong, but the description of the prison is appalling.   Reclusorio Norte is a concentrated expression of the repression and lawlessness in Mexico today.  From sleeping space to toilet paper to food, everything is for sale and bribery.

The Canadian embassy in Mexico City is a fortress in its own right, with multiple layers of security separating the inner workings from the “factory” operation now required by the Harper government to process visa applications for Mexicans.  Ambassador Guillermo Rishchynski advises us to see Mexico in context -- a country that only recently emerged from one party rule, and with its government now openly challenged by violent and armed drug cartels.  He acknowledges our concerns over labour rights, but of course, there are two sides to the story. 

We were nonetheless assured that our concerns will be sent up the diplomatic chain, especially regarding the February meeting of NAFTA labour ministers in Mexico City when Rona Ambrose and US Labour Secretary Hilda Solis arrive.  Canada and the US cannot be silent about the repression of independent trade unions in our NAFTA partner, we say. 

Meetings with two of the remaining independent unions, the telephone workers and nuclear workers, underscore the conclusion of Mexican trade unionists that the Calderon government intends to smash independent trade unions that oppose his social and economic policies.  After the SME and Los Mineros they expect to be the next targets, together with the independent teachers’ union fighting back against privatization of education. 

We usually think of Mexico in terms of tourist resorts or perhaps maquilladora zones where factories and jobs have relocated.  These are the so called comparative advantages of the NAFTA model.  Think instead of Mexico in 2009: an estimated 15,000 drug war related deaths, 68,000 swine flu cases and over 800 deaths, and the launching of an unprecedented war on independent unions. 

For a readable but thorough explanation of the links between the narco war, the organized attacks on unions and the NAFTA model, I recommend this piece by Dan La Botz published by the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the bulletin Mexican Labour News and Analysis.

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