In Mexican Border Town, Prominent Independent Labor Lawyer Arrested
Labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas was arrested on Monday in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where she was attempting to aid factory workers to recover wages owed to them during a two-month coronavirus shutdown. Prieto came to prominence early last year for her central role in the wave of strikes that swept the export-oriented maquila factories in Matamoros demanding “20/32”: a 20 percent raise and an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600).
Prieto was arrested outside an Italian restaurant in Matamoros (across the border from Brownsville, Texas), where she had just eaten dinner with her husband and daughter. She filmed her arrest, asking the cops if they had a warrant. They said it was on the way. She waited patiently for it, filming. She joked about why they needed four squad cars to arrest her.
When the order arrived, she calmly read that she was charged with riot, threats, coercion and crimes committed against public servants. The charges were signed by a judge and were brought against her in part by the Matamoros Labor Board. She then calmly and politely refused handcuffs and got into the cop car to be taken away while still filming. Finally an officer asked her to turn it off. She did and posted the video for her 123,000 Facebook followers to see.
Within hours workers from the city’s numerous maquila factories, which assemble goods for exports to the U.S., hit the streets in indignant protest. As more and more arrived at the jail, the police moved Prieto to the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, nearly four hours away. On Tuesday maquila workers marched in both Ciudad Juarez (on the border with El Paso) and Matamoros, demanding Prieto’s release. More marches are being planned daily.
THE PANDEMIC AND THE MAQUILAS
On the morning of her arrest Prieto posted a video from outside the Fisher Dynamics plant in Matamoros. She counselled several dozen masked workers who complained that, despite the Mexican government’s requirement that workers be paid their full salaries during the two month COVID-19 shutdown, the company forced them to sign a document agreeing to accept 60 percent of their wages or be fired. Prieto told them not to sign anything more. She would help them recover the missing 40 percent. Fisher Dynamics is a Michigan-based manufacturer of auto seat parts.
Prieto has a popular YouTube channel where she has recorded dozens of videos giving advice to maquila workers about their rights. In a mid-May video, she condemned the rush to reopen the maquilas. She alleged that 90 percent of the export-oriented factories violated the order to close, forcing or bribing workers with 50 percent more pay to work throughout the shutdown. She said there were factories in Ciudad Juarez where workers were dropping dead with the virus. She called it genocide, accusing Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) of “industrial homicide” for bowing to pressure from Trump to reopen the maquilas despite a lack of testing supplies. She went on to blame the corrupt unions which dominate the maquila sector for agreeing to reopen.
Prieto was arrested on orders of the governor of the state of Tamaulipas, Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca and of Irving Barrios Mojica, the Public Prosecutor. They are from the conservative pro-business PAN party, political enemies of AMLO and his left-leaning Morena party. Since Prieto has little use for leaders of either party, it’s unclear whether AMLO will see any value in intervening. But her arrest is an embarrassment just before the new NAFTA is supposed to go into effect on July 1, in which Mexico has pledged to finally protect labor rights. What is clear is that Governor Garcia, like his predecessors for decades, is totally in bed with the foreign corporations that own most of the maquilas and with the corrupt or “charro” unions which routinely sell out the workers. To these interests, Prieto is a threat.
A REAL PROBLEM FOR MAQUILA BOSSES
So who is Susana Prieto Terrazas? She’s a labor lawyer who lives in El Paso, Texas, and practices labor law in Mexico. Her valiant years of defense of maquila workers in Ciudad Juarez, despite its low level of unionization, made her beloved by many workers there. Unlike most Mexican labor lawyers, she constantly gives free advice on both law and organizing.
In January 2019 Prieto showed up in Matamoros after newly installed President AMLO doubled the minimum wage for border towns to 176 pesos a day ($9.05 US). That was great, but Matamoros workers were already making that. She counselled, and she organized, helping thousands of workers at dozens of maquilas strike to demand a 20 percent wage increase and a bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600 US). Prieto was a firebrand, a leader, and a counselor, giving workers hope they could finally free themselves from the unions that sold them out repeatedly. Building off those strikes, she helped organize a new left-wing union called the National Independent Union of Industrial and Service Workers (SNITIS).
Susana Prieto is beloved by many Mexican maquila workers. However, she’s a real problem for the lords of the maquilas and their puppet politicians because she threatens the smooth transition to the post-COVID-19 human sacrifice on the altar of herd immunity.
The authorities have 48 hours to charge her or release her. At the Matamoros police station, a woman held a sign that said, “She fought for us when nobody else did. Now we fight for her.”
Sign a petition demanding Susana Prieto’s release here. #LibertadParaSusana.
Judy Ancel is a labor educator and president of the Kansas City-based Cross Border Network.