Update: Susana Prieto was released from the Ciudad Victoria prison on July 1, although under harsh conditions imposed by the judge of the state of Tamaulipas. For the next 30 months, she cannot enter Tamaulipas and cannot continue her advocacy work for maquiladora workers in the state. She cannot leave her residence in Chihuahua state during the next 30 months, and cannot travel to the United States during this period, even though her five children reside in this country. In a video on her Facebook account, she said that she fears for her life and the lives of her attorneys in Tamaulipas. She said that she will file an appeal against the conditions of her release.
Throughout the month of May, as the coronavirus pandemic was peaking in Mexico, Susana Prieto, a top Mexican labor attorney who has been defending workers’ rights for over three decades, was making her voice heard.
During a series of public demonstrations in the state of Chihuahua, Prieto denounced the U.S. pressure on Mexico’s government to ease the lockdowns of the country’s manufacturing and assembly plants, or maquiladoras, saying that any attempts to reopen the plants were a direct threat to worker safety.
Apparently, these straightforward comments were too much of a threat, because on June 8, authorities in the state of Tamaulipas arrested Prieto in the city of Matamoros, and charged her with inciting riots, threats and coercion. She could face several years in prison if found guilty, according to the Tamaulipas penal code. “This is a message not just for the activists but for all the working class in Mexico,” says Prieto’s daughter, Fernanda Peña.
As serious as they seem to be, none of Prieto’s charges require mandatory pre-trial detention, as confirmed by a June 24 statement issued by Mexico’s labor ministry. The ministry also expressed hope that Prieto “can pursue her defense in freedom.” Still, the labor lawyer remains behind bars, on the pretext that she is a flight risk. That’s one of the reasons Peña considers her mother a “political prisoner.”
Prieto is used to reprisals, even severe ones, for her activism. Peña says that Prieto was almost killed and kidnapped in Chihuahua, and her husband, Peña’s father, was threatened with a gun. But until this month, Prieto had never been detained. Peña considers that her mother’s arrest in Matamoros is a consequence of the work she has done for more than 30 years along the U.S. border.
Apart from Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros, Prieto has advocated for workers in Mexicali, Saltillo and Monclova, among other cities along the border. Peña says that, though her mother started only as an attorney, she became increasingly involved in educating workers about their rights and how to protect them.
Prieto’s arrest came after a concerted effort by the Trump administration to get the Mexican government to loosen some of its lockdown restrictions in order to aid U.S. businesses. U.S. undersecretary of defense Ellen Lord said in an April 20 briefing that “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us” because the country’s lockdown was disrupting supply chains for the U.S. defense industry. She also reported that she had spoken with the U.S. ambassador in Mexico, Christopher Landau, and would write to the Mexican foreign minister to ask for help to reopen these supply chains. Landau himself also publicly pushed for the easing of business restrictions, tweeting, “There are risks everywhere, but we don’t all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident … The destruction of the economy is also a health threat.”
Observers have pointed to the U.S. pressure campaign as a possible factor in Prieto’s detention. More than 50 activists, academics and unions issued a statement condemning Prieto’s arrest as a reprisal for her struggle to defend maquiladoras workers’ rights in Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros.
Asked about this issue, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) said on a June 12 press conference that he did not believe the arrest was due to “a request from the U.S. government because they would not dare to do so,” and that the U.S.-Mexico relationship was based on mutual respect. He also stressed that the arrest was a local matter in which the federal government could only play a conciliatory role.
Peña says that she “cannot rule out any possibility” about the U.S. government’s possible involvement in her mother’s arrest, although she believes that the decision to arrest Prieto came from the Tamaulipas government.
Prieto, political prisoner
President López Obrador allowed maquiladoras to reopen on May 18, seven weeks after all non-essential economic activity was suspended in Mexico, despite growing Covid-19 infection rates. The decision was announced by Mexico’s Minister of Economy, Graciela Márquez, who said that the reopening would have to be “gradual, orderly and cautious.” But health experts professed widespread alarm, and there’s evidence that the reopenings caused a spike of deaths among workers infected with Covid-19 in cities like Tijuana, in the state of Baja California. Nationwide, daily Covid-19 infections rates have more than doubled, increasing from 2,414 on May 18 to 5,343 on June 21.)
Prieto asked a very simple question in response: “Is it safe?” She led several protests in Ciudad Juárez, the biggest city in Chihuahua and a center of the maquiladora industry, to denounce the human costs of reactivating non-essential sectors. “It is safe to say that the President of Mexico is a puppet of Mexican and foreign [businesses] that do not care about the lives of Mexican workers,” she said at one demonstration.
She also criticized the government for keeping several maquiladoras open because they allegedly manufactured essential products, even though these products were not destined for Mexico. (A large portion of maquiladoras are U.S.-owned, and they export practically all their components to the U.S.) At least two defense industry suppliers, Collins Aerospace and Gulfstream, located in Mexicali, in the state of Baja California, kept producing even during the mandated shutdown, according to a local legislator.
Activists concur that the interests of the defense industry and, in general, of the U.S.-owned maquiladoras, are being prioritized by the Mexican government over Mexicans workers’ lives.
“We see that the multinational companies kept moving forward, somehow pushing Mexico’s government to reactivate all of the country’s industries,” says Julia Quiñonez, coordinator of the Border Workers Committee (CFO), a nonprofit defending maquiladora workers’ rights since 1986.
Reopening manufacturing plants despite the health risks has not been the first time that President López Obrador’s government has bowed to Trump administration demands. Mexico has also virtually stopped migration from Central America and has implemented drug policies pushed by the U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
Maquiladoras are not just putting their workers’ health at risk. Several of them have taken advantage of the pandemic to lay-off personnel without providing proper severance pay, according to members of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a union traditionally aligned with the government’s interests, in Ciudad Juárez.
Quiñonez says that some maquiladoras are taking advantage of the pandemic to offer reduced severance pay to workers. After being furloughed for weeks, many workers have been forced to accept half of what they are entitled to because they are broke, she says.
Prieto was arrested for denouncing these kinds of systemic abuses, says Quiñonez, adding that her arrest was “politically motivated, of course.”
The State Department has designated the state of Tamaulipas as a “no travel zone” for U.S. citizens, noting that “federal and state security forces have limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state.” In Prieto’s case, however, authorities showed expediency rarely seen in the state, says Quiñonez.
Tamaulipas’s Attorney General, Irving Barrios Mojica, said in a press conference that Prieto was the only one arrested among the 400 protesters outside a labor arbitration tribunal. The state prosecutor alleged that Prieto had threatened the “physical” and “moral” safety of public servants.
Even though Barrios Mojica recognized that Prieto’s charges do not require mandatory pre-trial detention, she was sent to a prison in Ciudad Victoria because she was considered a “flight risk” since she also had residency in the United States.
For years, human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico have, as the human rights group Frontline Defenders puts it, been “subject to intimidation, legal harassment, arbitrary detention, threats, acts of physical aggression, enforced disappearances and killings as a result of their activities.” Advocates for maquiladora workers’ rights have endured threats and intimidation, according to Quiñonez, although Prieto seems to be the first labor attorney arbitrarily detained. With Prieto’s arrest, authorities “want to send a message, set a precedent, and wipe-out labor organizing” on the border, says Quiñonez.
Peña claims that her mother could hardly receive a fair trial in Tamaulipas, where the courts are controlled by Governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca.
Concerns about the judicial system of Tamaulipas are warranted given the state’s history of graft. Former governor Eugenio Hernández Flores has been charged with money laundering by the U.S. Department of Justice, and former governor Tomás Yarrington faces corruption charges in Mexico and the United States.
The solution to Prieto’s case has to be political, says Peña, so “we are trying to get a meeting with AMLO.” The idea is for President López Obrador to intervene on Prieto’s behalf. Otherwise, Peña fears, her mother could spend a long time in prison.
Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.