A panel of federal judges in Mexico dropped all criminal charges against Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president and general secretary of the National Mine and Metal Workers Union (Los Mineros), freeing him to return to Mexico from Canada where he has lived in exile.
Gómez Urrutia, who was removed as president of the 250,000-member union by Mexican authorities and replaced with a company-backed rival, was repeatedly threatened and forced to leave Mexico in 2006. He also was charged with embezzling $55 million in union funds, an accusation struck down multiple times by the country’s courts. Following the August 28 decision, Gómez Urrutia said through Los Mineros that he plans to return to Mexico by the end of September.
Los Mineros said in a statement that “the next step will be to meet with the highest levels of government” so that Gómez Urrutia and Los Mineros can “contribute, in a framework of mutual respect, to the development of the industry and the defense of the rights of the workers and the well-being of their families.”
Days before he was removed as Los Mineros leader, an explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine trapped 65 mineworkers. Gómez Urrutia said the company and Mexican government only made minimal efforts to rescue the trapped men. The search for survivors was ended and the mine closed after five days, leaving the men entombed and their families waiting outside.
Prior to the explosion, Los Mineros had repeatedly cited dangerous working conditions and the smell of gas at Pasta de Conchos. After the company abandoned the men and sealed the mine, Gómez Urrutia publicly accused the mining company and the Ministry of Labor of “industrial homicide.” In response, the government filed criminal charges against Gómez Urrutia and other union leaders, froze the union’s bank accounts, assisted employers to set up company unions in Los Mineros-represented workplaces, declared the union’s strikes illegal and sent in troops to suppress them.
In 2011, Gómez Urrutia received the AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calling Gómez Urrutia a “truly courageous man who has shown us how difficult and how important it is to be an independent leader of a democratic union.” He also won the 2014 Arthur Svensson Prize granted to individuals or organizations working to promote trade union rights and/or strengthen trade union organizing around the world.
The AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers and IndustriAll were among union organizations worldwide backing Gómez Urrutia and providing an international platform to champion his innocence.
Gómez Urrutia described the struggle by Mexico’s mineworkers for safety and health protections, decent wages and improved working conditions in his 2013 book, Collapse of Dignity, The Story of A Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico. Collapse of Dignity details the February 2006 mine disaster and the subsequent attacks on him and Los Mineros. Most of the victims were temporary contractors with no training and insufficient oxygen supplies.
Some 5,000 Los Mineros members and their families rallied in memory of two workers slain while on strike. Credit: Lorraine Clewer
Mario Alberto Castillo and Hector Alvarez Gümez were among 500 members of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, known as Los Mineros, who had been on strike for 18 days when 800 police moved in to forcibly remove the strikers. Two men were shot dead and 41 injured, two of them seriously, during the break-up of the strike. No arrests were ever made for the murders.
Dressed in red shirts, some 5,000 Los Mineros members, along with their families, marched to a stone memorial erected in memory of the two men. They were joined by 100 Steelworkers from steel plants throughout District 7 in Indiana and Illinois, a delegation of 10 Unite the Union members from across the United Kingdom and four representatives from Peru representing the mine, metal, steel and energy sectors.
Union members from Peru’s mine, metal, steel and energy sectors joined the Los Mineros commemoration. Credit: Lorraine Clewer
Greeting the mineworkers from his exile in Canada, Los Mineros General Secretary Napoleón Gómez Urrutia noted that although the international community recognizes the legitimacy and leadership of Los Mineros, the Mexican government makes it impossible for him to return to Mexico. Mexico’s labor minister has said publicly that he does not recognize Gómez Urrutia‘s leadership of Los Mineros.
Participants in the memorial also condemned the ongoing repression of the Mexican government against Los Mineros and against all independent unions in Mexico, and called for concrete resolutions to violations of workers’ right to freedom of association in Mexico.
The company, Sicartsa, owned by Grupo Vallacero, was sold to ArcelorMittal after the strike. Los Mineros subsequently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with ArcelorMittal, which included a 42 percent salary increase.
The April 20, 2006, shooting deaths occurred two months after 65 mineworkers, Los Mineros members, were killed in the Pasta de Conchos mine explosion.
Also speaking at the gathering, Lorraine Clewer, Solidarity Center country program director in Mexico, said that the bullets that had killed Mario Alberto Castillo and Hector Alvarez Gomez did not achieve their aim.
“Los Mineros lives on, stronger than ever, and we are certain that soon the international labor movement will be celebrating Napoleon Gómez Urrutia’s triumphant return to Mexico.
More than seven years after an explosion at Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine killed 65 miners, 63 bodies remain buried in the mine, trapped there because the government and the company, Grupo Mexico, ended the search and closed the mine only five days after the mine collapse.
“We felt that the company and the government were more concerned about damage control than rescuing our colleagues,” said Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, general secretary of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, known as Los Mineros. Gómez Urrutia spoke at a press conference April 17 to discuss his new book, Collapse of Dignity, The Story of A Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico, which describes the February 2006 mine disaster and the subsequent attacks on him and Los Mineros. Most of the victims were temporary contractors with no training and insufficient oxygen supplies.
Gómez Urrutia, who had been removed as president of the 250,000-member union by the Mexican government and replaced with a company-backed rival just days before the mine disaster, was repeatedly threatened and ultimately forced into exile in Canada. He has battled ongoing attacks by the Mexican government, which repeatedly accused him of embezzling $55 million in union funds, a charge struck down multiple times by the country’s courts. Last week, Interpol notified Gómez Urrutia that the information used by Mexico to request a “red notice” against him “raised strong doubts concerning its compliance with Interpol’s rules.” Some 190 countries are members of Interpol, the international police organization, and a “red notice” is akin to an international arrest warrant.
Gómez Urrutia, an outspoken advocate for workers since his election as general secretary in 2002, said the book also offers a “vision of hope for the future.”
“This is a story which brought about stronger international solidarity,” he said. The United Steelworkers, which is helping promote the new book, partnered with Los Mineros in 2005 and in 2011, created a North American Solidarity Alliance to build common organizing and bargaining across North America. Worker rights activists have rallied worldwide in support of Los Mineros, as have organizations such as the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labor Organization. In 2011, the AFL-CIO gave Gómez Urrutia the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
Steelworkers have set a goal of selling 44,000 copies of Collapse of Dignity to bring nationwide attention to the ongoing worker struggles in Mexico. You can purchase individual or bulk copies at the website, www.collapseofdignity.com . Discounts apply to bulk orders of 50 copies or more.