David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Mexico City's War Over Privatization
by David Bacon

MEXICO CITY (4/25/96) - The federal prison for the eastern district of Mexico City is the free trade prison. Workers and the unionists who stand in the way of the economic reforms all wind up here.

The first arrival was La Quina - Joaquin Hernandez Galicia. He's been living in the prison hospital for six years, an involuntary guest of his former good friend, ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. When Salinas betrayed La Quina, it was as significant for Mexicans as Reagan's breaking the PATCO strike was for Americans. Just as La Quina had been a former political ally of Salinas, the leaders of PATCO had been the only union officials to endorse Reagan, before he put them in our own federal pen.

La Quina's arrest should have given Mexican unions a feeling of foreboding. His crime was looking for independence, after spending a lifetime as one of the most powerful men in the Mexican nomenclatura.

La Quina was the head of the oilworkers union, a position of enormous power in the national oil company, Pemex. But fearing that the government intended to privatize Mexico's largest enterprise, he gave under-the-table support to opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas 1988 campaign. His old enemies, the banned leftwing radicals, were even invited to return to speak in oilworkers' union meetings.

His fear was well-justified. In the six following years, all the petrochemical plants dependent on Pemex have been put on the auction block. All the income from the sale of oil now effectively belongs to Wall Street banks, where it pays for the loan President Clinton arranged in the dark days of the peso's devaluation a year ago.

And this year Pemex may finally be sold.

In those six years, La Quina's been a forcible guest in the prison infirmary of the Reclusorio del Oriente, the Prison of the East. During that time, others have joined him. The leader of the union at the Aeromexico Airline has been in the reclusorio almost as long, after his union refused to accept quietly the company's privatization, and the layoff of thousands of workers.

The head of one of the largest sections of the union for employees of the social security system, IMSS, also spent a few months there last year. She had denounced government plans to privatize the enormous federal pension and healthcare agency.

But the reclusiorio's most famous residents these days are the twelve leaders of the union for the drivers at Mexico City's huge busline, Route-100. A year ago they were brought into the bare earth compound of the reclusorio's intake section, and they've never left.

They live in a never-neverland. They're certainly not free - for a year they've been prison inmates. But the government is afraid to permit them to join the rest of the prison population, and live in one of the reclusorio's nine blue-painted dormitories.

SUTAUR leaders requested Dormitory Number 9 as a joke, the luxurious dorm reserved for high government officials caught with their hands in the till, where rooms rent for a thousand dollars a month. But they would have accepted, they say, a cell in any of the other barracks. But the prison administration believes they carry the germs of resistance and organization, and keeps them off by themselves.

In the compound where the leaders of the bus union, SUTAUR-100, live, a wide-open area extends between the building housing their cells, and the interior wall defining the rest of the prison. This yard used to be covered with grass and trees. But since the SUTAUR leaders have come to stay, the prison stopped watering the grass. Now a few hardy tufts of crabgrass survive in the wide expanse of dirt and dust. The trees have become a strange double-row of stumps about the height of a man, with their bottoms still painted white. The tops are gone. Prison authorities decided that after growing there for years, the palm fronds constituted a security risk, and cut them off.

Meetings of the union's executive board bring the leaders of each of SUTAUR's 30-odd sections into the prison as visitors. SUTAUR won the right to meet last summer. At first, the twelve leaders were being held practically incommmunicado, with no visiting rights at all. But thousands of union members packed the plaza and parking lot in front of the prison, and faced off with the Mexico City security police. Their determination and willingness to risk confrontation frightened prison authorities.

The prison's director is also the federal sub-secretary of government, who has responsibility for negotiating an end to the yearlong confrontation between the bus union and the city authorities. So negotiations with the government take place in prison as well.

"He calls me into his office, as though it was to discuss something about our status as prisoners," explains Ricardo Barco, the union's attorney and most prominent spokesperson. "But then he does what he's really there for, which is to communicate the government's latest offer to us. 'You better take it' he says, 'or things could get a lot worse.' The government's told us that other leaders could wind up here, for instance. That's what negotiating with them is like."

On March 25, thousands of fired bus drivers tried to back their leaders up in negotiations by holding an enormous rally in the city's main square, the Zocalo, after having been expelled by government security forces earlier in the month. But once again they were driven out, as the government took a sudden turn to forcibly end the country's largest, most controversial and longest-standing labor dispute.

Before their rally was cut short, over loudspeakers in a direct telephone linkup to the reclusorio, they heard Barco's voice echo from the walls of the plaza's ancient cathedral and national palace. He explained the current status of negotiations with city authorities. Then, in a wave of jeers and catcalls, drivers once again rejected the government's position.

After they took their vote, blue-uniformed riot police carrying plastic shields, and wearing helmets and face masks, moved into the enormous plaza. Security forces once again drove the workers and their supporters into the narrow streets leading out of the square, away from the city's center. Two days after the rally, the government announced that it hadn't received a satisfactory answer from the drivers' union, and placed full page ads in the city's newspapers telling workers to come pick up their severance pay.

Bus drivers are fighting the government's decision to privatize the Route-100 bus lines. Their challenge to the government is a focal point for popular discontent over a succession of privatizations carried out by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and past president Carlos Salinas. These include the Aeromexico airline, the telephone company, the petrochemical industry dependent on the state-run oil company, the Sicartsa steel mill, and the operation of the country's ports. Other privatization plans discussed by the government include the social security system, the country's railroad network, and even the operation of its world-famous archeological sites and parks. Although no government plan has been announced, many observers speculate that this year the government will privatize its huge oil company, Pemex, nationalized by the populist government of General Lazaro Cardenas in 1936.

Privatization of government-run enterprises is one element of the program of structural adjustment the Mexican government has undertaken as a condition for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Other conditions include elimination of restrictions on foreign investment, the reduction of government spending for education and social services, and the elimination of subsidies for basic foodstuffs such as milk and tortillas.

SUTAUR's battle over jobs has attracted substantial attention in the United States, especially among unions, because the North American Free Trade Agreement is a cornerstone of the government's economic program. SUTAUR is one of the few Mexican unions which officially opposed NAFTA.

Privatization has eliminated thousands of jobs in Mexico, and has usually led to lower wages for the remaining workforce. These job cuts come on top of the loss of over a million jobs elsewhere in the economy, a result of the crisis which has gripped the country since the devaluation of the peso in January, 1995. The government limited wage raises to 12 percent last year, while devaluation almost doubled the price of most groceries and basic services.

According to SUTAUR's founder, Gabino Camacho Barrera, interviewed in prison, the government's hostility to the union is due in large part to its fear of growing social unrest. "Our minimum wage is now 20 percent of what it was in 1970," he said. "Diseases like tuberculosis, which are connected to poverty and we thought were eradicated in Mexico, are coming back. There's never been a crisis like this, and the repression against us has been terrible."

The government has attempted to terminate Route-100's 12,000 employees, breaking the city's largest bus service up into ten smaller, private companies. Twelve of the union's leaders have been imprisoned, a judge who publicly refused to issue the order leading to their jailing was murdered, and protest has mushroomed among Mexican workers and independent unions over the government's privatization policies.

Jorge Cuellar, a SUTAUR leader not currently in jail, accused the government of trying to break their union because of its independence. "The government is afraid of us because our union is large, it's democratic, and because we've challenged its economic policies while many other unions have remained silent," he said.

The Route-100 bus system was a creation of the Mexico City government, a decision it is now trying to reverse.

In 1981, workers at a number of small private bus companies pulled their union out of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the federation closest to Mexico's ruling party. The following year, the city government, then headed by Mayor Carlos Hank Gonzalez, municipalized the small bus lines. Hank, a political ally of former president Carlos Salinas, has been linked to the drug trade by the Mexican press, and has large investments in Mexico's Mercedes Benz bus factory. The workers new independent union, SUTAUR-100, soon acquired a reputation for checking corruption among managers of the new bus system, and for pressuring the city to protect and extend bus service to the outlying areas of one of the world's largest, most spread-out cities.

SUTAUR-100 also acquired a reputation for political independence, and for a democratic structure controlled by rank-and-file members. Unlike most Mexican unions, it was not affiliated to the ruling Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, and opposed it politically. The government was infuriated when, during the Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994, the union helped to raise funds and public support for the rebels. Barco himself was appointed by the Zapatista National Liberation Army as a member of its legal commission.

On April 8 last year, at six in the morning, five of the union's top officials were suddenly arrested at their homes and charged with misusing funds. Luis Miguel Moreno Gomez, Mexico City's Transport and Highway Secretary, then announced that the Route-100 system was bankrupt. In a 10-minute hearing before the first district court, the government annulled the union's contract, and stripped it of its bargaining rights. The following day Barco was also arrested.

Two days afterwards, Moreno Gomez, a recent appointment as the bus system's administrator, was found shot. The government ruled he had committed suicide by shooting two bullets into his chest.

Over the following weeks, the system's 12,000 employees were expelled from the bus yards at gunpoint, and other workers brought in to drive the busses. Many of the workers driven from their jobs were owed back wages, and none were paid the severance pay required by Mexican law. On June 13, during a visit to the imprisoned union leaders, six other SUTAUR officials were also arrested.

SUTAUR's leaders challenged the bankruptcy order, saying that Mexican law doesn't allow a public entity to declare itself bankrupt. The city, meanwhile, announced its intention to divide the system's fleet of busses, maintenance yards and other resources into ten new enterprises, which it plans to sell to private investors.

On June 18, Jesus Humberto Priego Chavez, a prosecutor investigating possible corruption in the bus system and its breakup, was shot and killed outside of his home. On June 22, federal judge Abraham Polo Uscanga, was also shot and killed. Uscanga had refused to issue arrest warrants for the union's leaders, despite an order by the court's president, saying there was little evidence supporting the charges against them. Uscanga then agreed to testify for the union at a hearing, scheduled for the week following his murder. He also took out a full page ad in a Mexico City newspaper, calling the jailings unconstitutional.

None of the murderers have been caught.

For the past year, SUTAUR has mounted a succession of marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and other protests over the government's actions. On several occasions, these protests have brought tens of thousands workers and residents of the city's poor neighborhoods into the streets in support of the union.

While keeping the SUTAUR leaders in prison, the government has met with them, and with other union officers outside of prison, to negotiate a settlement of the dispute. Cuellar called it "negotiations with a gun to our head," and said he was told that if the union failed to agree to government conditions, other arrests, including his own, might follow.

The government originally offered to give the union a concession to operate two of the ten companies it intends to create, along with 867 million pesos to cover back wages and severance pay. The city claims that the two companies would absorb 3000 workers, and that it would ensure the hiring of an additional 1500 in other transport jobs.

Jose Ignacio Jimenez Brito, subsecretary of government for the federal district, told the union that this was "the maximum offer the government is in a position to make." He warned the union that he would not allow negotiations "to put off indefinitely the licensing of [new] companies for urban transport."

Union leaders say that this is the same offer that the goverment has had on the table for almost a year. "How can we accept an agreement which would not benefit the vast majority of our members?" Cuellar asked. SUTAUR originally proposed that either the Route-100 bus system rehire the terminated workers, or that the city organize a new system which would do so. In recent days, however, the union indicated its willingness to accept the concession of five companies (half of the original system), the placement of the remaining drivers in other jobs, the lifting of the freeze on the union's funds, and the release of its leaders.

The week before the rally, the city indicated that it might consider granting the union a concession for three companies. After the March 25 rally, the union agreed to accept that offer. But by taking out the fullpage ads telling workers to come collect their severance as formulated by the government, it appeared the city had cut negotiations short and taken its last offer off the table.

Unions in several other countries, including the United States, have offered support to SUTAUR over the past year. A growing group of Latino union leaders in the AFL-CIO, including United Farm Workers vice-president Dolores Huerta and Texas electrical union leader Jaime Martinez, shepherded a resolution supporting SUTAUR through the federation's October convention in New York. In February, the San Francisco-based International Longshoremen's' and Warehousemen's' Union sent a delegation to Mexico, which delivered a check for $5000 during a visit to the union's leaders in prison.

Just prior to the March 25 rally, an international union delegation, including representatives of the ILWU, the web pressmen's union, and the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee delivered a letter from the San Francisco Labor Council to Pablo Casas, director of the city government's secretariat for the northern region. The letter urged the mayor to meet with the international delegation over the situation, and to release the imprisoned unionists.

While the bus drivers struggle with police over their right to assemble in the Zocalo, two labor lawyers supporting the drivers' union remain in an ambulance in front of the city council offices a few blocks away. One lawyer, Jorge Garcia, has gone without food for three weeks. The other, Ventura Galvan, has had his eyelids and ears sewn closed in protest of the government's refusal to reach agreement with the drivers. The ambulance, in which the two remain around the clock, was surrounded by security forces and prevented from leaving to join the March 25 rally.

As the conflict becomes more heated and bitter, attorney Ventura Galvan spends his days in the dark in the back of an ambulance on a busy Mexico City streetcorner. Thick black threads pull his eyelids together, across a rolled-up gauze bandage. His ears are closed in the same way. His action is directed at Mexico City mayor Oscar Espinoza Villareal. "The mayor doesn't want to listen to the bus drivers, or to see the results of his decision on their lives," he explained Earlier in March, he sewed his lips together to protest the mayor's unwillingness to talk directly to the union "except in the language of guns and repression."

On the ambulance's other bed lies Jorge Garcia, another attorney, who is fasting, he said, "because we tried all the legal ways, and the government is so intent on privatization that it's willing to violate the constitution and whatever laws they think necessary. We're both worried about what's going to happen to our country."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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