As Mexican President Comes to D.C., Abuse of Mexican Labor Activist Susana Prieto Escalates, Casting Pall on New NAFTA

Prieto’s July 1 Prison Release Conditioned on 30-Month Internal Exile; End of Her Matamoros Labor Organizing; Not Leaving Mexico; and Relocation to Chihuahua Where Prosecutor Has Issued New Warrants for Her Arrest

The extreme conditions imposed in exchange for Mexican labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas’ July 1 release from jail after three weeks of imprisonment on trumped-up charges undermine the labor rights guaranteed by the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Prieto revealed the conditions imposed on her for the next two and a half years:

  • Banishment to the state of Chihuahua, meaning the end of her labor activism in Matamoros, which is in Tamaulipas;
  • A ban on visiting the Labor Court where independent unions would be certified;
  • A ban on leaving Mexico; and
  • Payment of “reparations” for emotional suffering by government officials who were present when workers protested outside the Labor Court.

Additionally, on July 4, Prieto announced that two arrest warrants had been issued for her by a prosecutor in Chihuahua, where her release order required her to relocate on July 5. “Confirmado. Tengo dos ordenes de aprehensión en Chihuahua. La cárcel que me impone ilegalmente la jueza de Tamaulipas,” she posted on Facebook. [Confirmed. I have two arrest warrants in Chihuahua. The prison that the judge of Tamaulipas illegally imposes on me.]

The legal process that resulted in her release – called a suspensión provisional del proceso [provisional suspension of the process] – has never been used in Mexico in the context of labor rights or human rights advocates. Its use in this context sets an extremely dangerous precedent for labor rights and human rights in Mexico. The process is akin to a plea bargain and in the past has been used to suspend criminal charges pending completion of probationary terms and payment of restitution.

Prieto, a key advocate for exploited workers in border maquiladora factories in Matamoros and Juárez, was held without bail for three weeks on trumped-up charges of “mutiny, threats and coercion” after trying to register an independent union to replace a corrupt “protection” union in Matamoros. Growing outrage about a jailed Mexican labor activist, bogged-down labor reforms and threats to Mexican workers pressured to return to factories plagued by COVID-19 was not the scenario the U.S., Mexican or Canadian governments imagined for July 1, the date the revised NAFTA went into effect.

Prieto became well-known in Mexico for helping maquiladora workers win higher wages in factories along the Texas border last year as part of a growing independent labor movement. Recently, she supported workers demanding COVID-19 safety measures after dozens of maquiladora workers died from workplace coronavirus exposure. Wildcat strikes and mass protests have grown throughout the border region as U.S. companies and officials push for plants to reopen without safety measures.

At June 17 hearings, members of Congress raised concerns about Prieto’s arrest with the U.S. Trade Representative, who confirmed he was closely following her case and found it a “bad indicator” of compliance with NAFTA’s revised labor standards. Prieto livestreamed her arrest as she tried to register the Independent Union of Industrial and Service Workers “Movimiento 20/32,” chosen by workers to replace a “protection” union.

Last week, Prieto’s daughter delivered a letter from U.S. unions and civil society groups to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission seeking help on Prieto’s release. U.S. fair trade activists delivered the letter to Mexican consulates nationwide on July 1. After decades of worker intimidation, Mexican manufacturing wages are now 40% lower than those in China.