MEXICO CITY - Border state authorities have arrested a crusading labour lawyer who led a wave of 2019 walkouts for higher wages at border assembly plants known as maquiladoras.
Detectives arrested Susana Prieto Monday in the border city Matamoros on charges that included inciting riot, threats and coercion. Prieto taped her own detention and posted it on social media, saying she had been expecting the arrest.
Prieto claims that officials in the border states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, where she was arrested, are persecuting her because she affected the economic interests of maquiladora operators.
“I knew that sooner or later the governor was going to do this,” Prieto said. “You could see this coming.”
State prosecutors said Prieto is accused of threatening members of a local labour board to get them to sign off on wage increases. She is also accused of having prevented staff from entering or leaving maquiladora plants during the walkouts in 2019 and of having used coercion on maquiladora owners to get them to yield to wage increases.
It is unclear whether Prieto's status as an independent labour adviser — she holds no union post — may have made her a target of charges. At least some of the tactics described are used routinely in strikes and other protests in Mexico.
Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, was the city where Prieto led a wave of successful strikes in early 2019 at 48 export-oriented maquiladoras that won workers 20 per cent pay increases and $1,650 bonuses. It is governed by the conservative opposition National Action Party
Video posted on her Facebook page showed a large crowd of people gathered outside prosecutors' offices in Matamoros on Monday chanting slogans for her release, shouting .“We are with Susana!” and “Free Susana!”
Prieto also recently campaigned against policies at maquiladora plants in Ciudad Juarez that she claimed put workers at risk of catching the new coronavirus. She filmed and appeared to advise walkouts at some Ciudad Juarez plants that refused to shut down and send workers home with full pay, which Mexican labour law allows.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador unleashed the series of wage demands in late 2018, when he doubled the daily minimum wage to 176.20 pesos (then about $9.30) along Mexico’s northern border. To keep wages low, maquiladoras in Matamoros — which often pay workers just a couple of dollars per hour — had long indexed wage increases to the minimum wage; That policy that backfired when López Obrador doubled it.
López Obrador’s government was uncomfortable with the movement, but didn’t actively try to quash it at the time. That was in part because he had pledged to end government manipulation of unions and allow new, more representative labour movements in a nation where unions have long been corrupt, acquiescent and manipulated by the government.
López Obrador has pledged to stay out of internal union affairs and has been loath to arrest old-guard union leaders.
Asked in May about López Obrador’s decision, amid U.S. pressure, to reopen many plants despite the coronavirus pandemic, she said it showed the government was yielding to pressure from multinationals.
“Is it safe?” Prieto asked. “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.”
After the crowds gathered at prosecutors' offices Monday in Matamoros, prosecutors transfered Prieto south to the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, where she was to have an initial court hearing Tuesday. Some scattered protests continued in Matamoros Tuesday.