The plight of human rights campaigners in Mexico

September 27 2012: Labor Day in the United States this year was 3 September. The day also marked the flight across the border of one of Mexico’s leading labour rights activists, Blanca Velasquez, after a week-long series of events that have destabilized the condition of workers in her home state of Puebla, Mexico.

The day also marked the flight across the border of one of Mexico’s leading labour rights activists, Blanca Velasquez
Labor Day in the United States this year was 3 September. The day also marked the flight across the border of one of Mexico’s leading labour rights activists, Blanca Velasquez, after a week-long series of events that have destabilized the condition of workers in her home state of Puebla, Mexico. Just this year Blanca has received prestigious awards from the Fund for Global Human Rights (the Oscar Romero Award) and from Peace Brigades International (Mexico’s most important human rights defender) for her tireless dedication to the promotion of workers’ rights.

On Wednesday 29 August 2012, Blanca Velasquez and her attorney decided to suspend a two-year legal battle with the Mexican government to end impunity around ongoing harassment and threats against workers. The risks of travelling through the countryside to a night-time court hearing at 6:30 proved too high to continue the case. Intimidation and a lack of security measures required for the night time journey were cited by her lawyer as motivating factors behind the decision to suspend their legal campaign. Blanca’s court battle has been fought by ProDESC, a non-profit organization that focuses on economic, social, and cultural rights.

This setback comes just two weeks after the General Consul of Mexico in Chicago joined the Illinois Department of Human Rights to educate people about the right to be free from discrimination at work in the United States. The theme of this year’s effort is, “Promoting Labor Rights is Everyone’s Responsibility.” The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center agrees that both governments should work to guarantee workers’ fundamental human and labour rights in their respective countries, and urges the Mexican authorities to address the threats, intimidation and violence meted out against workers who stand up for their rights in Mexico, and the human and labor rights activists who risk their safety to educate them about their rights.

In Puebla, Mexico, however, that responsibility has fallen on Blanca’s shoulders. In 2001, Blanca founded El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador (CAT), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting human rights for workers in Puebla, Mexico. She focuses on sexual harassment against female employees and the right to freedom of association for all workers.

Puebla is a state in South-Central Mexico with 5.7 million people. Only 15 out of every 100 households have internet in Puebla. On average people leave school by 14. Under these circumstances, it is more difficult to communicate and educate people about their social, economic, and cultural rights.

“In this environment,” says an attorney from ProDesc, “human rights litigation is not just about winning legal battles, its also about education,” as winning legal battles does little good for the ProDesc team if people do not learn about their rights and the abuses around them.

Blanca came to her offices and found big green letters scrawled across the wall, “No saben con quien metes,” or “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
In December 2010, Blanca came to her offices and found big green letters scrawled across the wall, “No saben con quien metes,” or “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” CAT’s e-mail systems were hacked and employees received threats on their lives. Two years later, on 18 May 2012, Amnesty International released an urgent call for action to demand justice for her colleague, Jose Enrique Morales Montaño, who had been kidnapped and tortured for his work with CAT three days earlier, and guarantees for the safety of Blanca and Enrique and their loved ones, who had subsequently received death threats.

CAT and ProDesc have brought complaints before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and the Government of Mexico has received orders to provide protective measures. But these measures were not effective enough ensure a safe journey form Mexico City to Puebla to continue fighting their case.

“Getting a formal declaration from the Commission doesn’t automatically translate to more security,” Blanca’s lawyer said. “What it does generate is more visibility for the case.”

From Monday August 27 through Wednesday, ProDesc attempted to contact officials from the Federal Government to accompany them on the hour and half trip from Mexico City to Puebla, where the team had to present and testify to the accuracy of the facts in their case.

“With the threats we’ve received, and the incompetence of the government, we would’ve been too vulnerable out there on the road,” said Blanca.

The case demonstrates that a major stumbling block to human rights defenders continues to be procedural hurdles, a lack of effective enforcement measures for protective measures, and an environment of fear and impunity. By law, petitioners should have 48 hours to ratify their case before the competent judicial authority. ProDesc claims that it was given only 24 hours. ProDesc also claims it was only given the option of fighting their case in the very state where Blanca has received most of her threats. The government has not released a response.

“Law is fundamental, but only so far as it accompanies our work protecting one another on the way to the court, or protecting one another from our offices being raided,” added Blanca’s lawyer.

“There is this international image of Mexico as a failed state,” she continued, “but it doesn’t need to be true. Look at the successes of CAT in the face of corruption and threats. We’ve won a lot of ground but all of us, as citizens, need to make sure the government is protecting us so that Mexico doesn’t become the culture of fear it’s perceived to be.”

The University of Texas School of Law released an in-depth report last year, entitled Maximizing Justice, Minimizing Delay, whose recommendations included re-structuring how cases get certified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in order to decrease the amount of delay experienced by individual petitioners. On August 14th, 2012, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights took note of these delays and announced the first ever forum to strengthen the Inter-American system of human rights to be held on September 13-14th in Mexico City.

Reiterating the need for international attention and education, Blanca noted that many small groups of workers have asked her the same question, “If they have silenced you, what will they do to us?”

Blanca and ProDesc plan to continue to try to work cooperatively with the government and with the transnational companies in Puebla, adding “We’re not against the economy opening up to these companies, we just want to have a dialog about the incentives used to bring those companies here, especially when the result is an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

To understand the troubles that union organizers face in Mexico, the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center released two reports in 2003 and in 2008 on the labor sector in Mexico and the commonly known problem of “White Unions,” or “Protection Unions.”

“These unions,” says an advocate at the Solidarity Center, “operate on the shady boundaries of Mexico’s Federal Labor Law and are known to resort openly to illegal measures to protect their interests and those of the companies that pay them. In effect, worker’s “dues” are paid by the company to the union as a form of protection. The union then commits to advocate on the company’s behalf instead of to defending the workers’ interests.” Under Mexico’s labor laws, only one union can have the right to bargain collectively with a company, and if a company controls that union, it is difficult for anyone outside of management to have their voice heard.

The women are not deterred, however. They still laugh with one another and joke about how they feel aged, “¡Se hace una mas vieja!¨ or “Look how old you’ve gotten!” The joke elicits more laughs when the see each other’s faces via a bad, pixilated Skype connection. But their message is clear. Despite the procedural and substantive hurdles to their case, ProDESC and Blanca plan to resume their legal battle in the future when threats subside.

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