Mexico: workers killed in steel strike

A violent confrontation between 800 federal and state police agents and more than 500 striking steelworkers left two workers dead and dozens of workers and police agents injured on April 20 at the Siderurgica Lazaro Cardenas-Las Truchas, SA (Sicartsa) steel plant in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas in the Mexican state of Michoacan. The workers had been occupying the plant since April 2 as part of a wave of wildcat strikes against a Feb. 28 decision by the government of center-right president Vicente Fox Quesada to remove Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, general secretary of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMRM). The Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Council (JFCA) had declared the Sicartsa wildcat illegal.

Agents of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), backed by state judicial police and members of the state’s Special Operations Group (GOE), took the strikers by surprise April 20, storming the plant at about 7 AM through a back entrance. The police held the plant for about two hours, before the strikers counter-attacked, hurling rocks, molotov cocktails, steel rods and steel balls at police and using three backhoes as battering rams. Workers from the nearby Metal Steel plant and some 300 workers from the Viga Trefilados plant, located about 5 km away on Cayacal Island, walked off the job and joined the Sicartsa workers. Police agents responded with tear gas and gunfire–some reportedly from a helicopter.

After four hours the workers had regained control of the plant. Sicartsa worker Jose Luis Castillo Zuniga and Metal Steel union representative Hector Alvarez Gomez were killed in the fighting, and some 41 workers were injured and required hospitalization. PFP officials said on Apr. 23 that 28 police agents were injured, but denied earlier reports that one had died. One of the plant’s buildings was burned down, and 30 vehicles were destroyed, along with some heavy equipment. Sicartsa is Latin America’s largest producer of corrugated steel rods used in construction.

In the evening about 1,000 women, mostly relatives of the strikers, marched through Lazaro Cardenas to the plant to protest the police attacks.

Francisco Morelos Borja, leader of President Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) in Michoacan, insisted on April 21 that the government had had to act, since the strike was illegal. On April 22, Alejandro Gonzalez, attorney for Grupo Villacero, which owns the plant, said management was bringing charges of “terrorism” against the workers. But Jose Luis Soberanes Fernandez, president of the government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which sent 11 investigators to the scene after the confrontation, said on Apr. 21 that Fox should assume “serious responsibility” for the killings.

Michoacan public safety secretary Gabriel Mendoza Jimenez and state police chief Jaime Liera resigned on Apr. 21, the day after the confrontation. They had claimed that state police weren’t armed and that only federal agents had fired, but Felipe Manuel Maya Bucio, an official of the union local, produced videos that reportedly showed Liera giving an order to fire. The state is governed by the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and Gov. Lazaro Cardenas Batel clearly wanted to distance himself from the incident. (The port city is named for Cardenas’ grandfather, who was president of Mexico 1934-1940.)

As of April 22 the strikers and the federal government were holding negotiations. The strikers remained in control of the plant, with PFP and military units standing guard outside. (La Jornada, April 21, 22, 23; Notimex, April 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 23

See our last posts on Mexico and Mexican labor struggles.