September 27, 2012—Facing death threats for her work as a Mexican labor rights activist, Blanca Velásquez left the country earlier this month and suspended her two-year legal battle with the Mexican government over ongoing harassment and threats against workers in Puebla, Mexico.
In May, human rights defender José Enrique Morales Montaño, who worked with Velásquez at the Center of Support for Workers (CAT), was kidnapped by four masked men and physically tortured for 16 hours before being released. Other employees at CAT have received death threats, and the organization’s e-mail has been hacked in a cycle of harassment that began in December 2010. That month, Velasquez found a threatening message scrawled across her office wall: “No saben con quien metes” (“You don’t know who you’re messing with”).
Velasquez in 2001 founded CAT, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting human rights for Puebla workers. At CAT, a long-time Solidarity Center partner, Velasquez addressed sexual harassment against female employees and championed workers’ freedom to form unions.
Seeking to force Mexican authorities to address the threats, intimidation and violence against workers who stand up for their rights, Velásquez worked with ProDESC , a non-profit organization that focuses on economic, social and cultural rights. But after the Mexican government would not guarantee safe passage to travel to an evening hearing on the case, Velásquez decided the risk was too great to make the trip and suspended her legal fight. The Mexican government had been directed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to provide protective measures after CAT’s and ProDESC’s complaints had been heard by the IACHR, the regional body of the Organization of American States devoted to promoting and protecting human rights in the Western Hemisphere.
Earlier this year, Velasquez received prestigious awards from the Fund for Global Human Rights (the Oscar Romero Award) and from Peace Brigades International (an international human rights organization that provides protective accompaniment to human rights defenders at risk as a result of their work) for her tireless dedication to the promotion of worker rights.
Velásquez and ProDESC plan to continue their efforts to work cooperatively with the government and with the multinational companies in Puebla. “We’re not against the economy opening up to these companies, we just want to have a dialogue about the incentives used to bring those companies here, especially when the result is an atmosphere of intimidation and fear,” Velásquez said.
Two Solidarity Center reports highlight the difficulties Mexican union organizers face, especially with yellow or “protection” unions. In such a union, workers’ union dues are paid by the company to the union as a form of protection. The union then advocates on the company’s behalf rather than defending the workers’ interests. Often the workers are not even aware that they are being “represented.”
Mexican workers face numerous challenges, from protection unions to violence, from the global drive for lower wages to the new labor law threatening to whittle down more of their rights. Educating people on their rights, said Velásquez, is important—but so, too, is international attention and support for the enforcement of Mexican law, protection of the population and for worker’s ability to stand up for their dignity and rights.
Velásquez said many workers have asked her the same question: “If they have silenced you, what will they do to us?”
Velásquez refuses to be silenced: She says she hopes to resume her legal battle when threats subside