Crusading Mexican labor lawyer freed, banned from traveling
By MARK STEVENSON
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Crusading Mexican labor lawyer Susana Prieto has been released from jail, but said she has been banned from travelling to the border state of Tamaulipas where she led a historic 2019 battle for higher wages.
Prieto will be required to live in her registered address in the state of Chihuahua for the next 2 1/2 years, according to a Tamaulipas state judge’s order announced late Wednesday.
Prieto had faced charges that include inciting riot, threats and coercion stemming from a March protest by about 400 people that authorities allege used threats to try to intimidate a local labor board to revoke an existing union at a factory and install a new one.
In a video she posted after her release, Prieto called the ban unconstitutional, and said she had asked for police protection because she feared for her life.
“I cannot go back to Tamaulipas. They are violating my constitutional right to freedom of movement,” said Prieto, who vowed to fight the order, which imposed the conditions for dropping the charges.
Prosecutors insist the charges have nothing to do with a wave of successful strikes in 2018 and 2019 at 48 export-oriented maquiladoras in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The movement, which Prieto helped lead, won the low-paid workers 20% pay raises and $1,650 bonuses. Wages for workers at the plants are often just a couple of dollars an hour.
Tamaulipas state prosecutors said the judges at the labor board had felt threatened by the March demonstration, and part of the ruling that released Prieto requieres her to stay away from them. Prieto had been arrested June 8; she was released under form of “conciliation” in which she was ordered to pay about $3,000 in damages, stay away from the labor board and not travel outside Mexico.
Prieto called the charges trumped up, saying “I was illegally detained ... for crimes I did not commit.”
Noting that “rioting” — the term in Spanish can also mean “rebellion” — is a charge seldom brought or prosecuted in Mexico. “They accused me of a crime for which not one single person has been prosecuted in Tamaulipas since it became a state,” Prieto said.
She claimed she feared “the governor may kill me,” apparently a reference to Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco Cabeza de Vaca. However, Prieto has also had run-ins with the state government in Chihuahua, where she advised a movement among maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juarez to protest conditions that risked infecting workers with the novel coronavirus.
Her case has drawn attention beyond Mexico, including a call for her release in June by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
“Susana Prieto is a fierce advocate whose tireless advocacy on behalf of workers in Mexico’s maquiladoras has made her a thorn in the side of powerful companies and corrupt officials,” Trumka wrote. “Her arrest on trumped-up charges of ‘inciting riots’ is an outrage. The AFL-CIO calls for her immediate and unconditional release.”
Prieto was released on the same day the new U.S.-Mexico Canada free trade agreement went into effect.
The new trade pact, which replaces the old North American Free Trade Agreement, includes provisions intended to ensure that Mexican workers can freely organize and have democratic unions.
Since the old NAFTA took effect in 1994, Mexican wage rates had not improved, despite waves of plants that moved south of the border. Activists said Mexico's old-guard unions were in part to blame because they would often sign pro-company contracts before plants even opened.
Prieto has been a fierce critic of the old-guard unions, and as an independent labor lawyer, has often worked around them to effect change, holding fiery rallies in factory parking lots.
Known for a direct, abrasive style, Prieto contends officials in Tamaulipas and in the border state of Chihuahua are persecuting her because she hurt the economic interests of owners of the maquiladoras, whose production is geared to supplying the U.S. economy.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador unleashed the series of Matamoros strikes in late 2018 when he doubled Mexico’s daily minimum wage to 176.20 pesos (then about $9.30) along Mexico’s northern border with the United States.
To keep down wages, maquiladoras in Matamoros had long indexed pay increases to the minimum wage — a policy that backfired when López Obrador doubled it. His administration argued the indexing shouldn’t apply to contract wages.
López Obrador’s government was uncomfortable with the strike movement but didn’t actively try to quash it. He has pledged to end government manipulation of unions and allow new, more representative labor movements.
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