Mexican labor lawyer Susana Prieto taken into custody pending trial on riot charges

The ruling came as demonstrations continued in Matamoros and Mexico City demanding the release of Susana Prieto

Mexican labor lawyer Susana Prieto taken into custody pending trial on riot charges
Susana Prieto was arrested in Matamoros on June 8 - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 12/06/2020 12:47 Newsroom & Agencies Mexico City Sandra Tovar/EL UNIVERSAL & Newroom/AP Actualizada 13:17

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A judge has ordered a labor lawyer jailed pending trial on charges that prosecutors say stem from a protest this year and not from her leadership of strikes last year that won higher pay for workers at “maquiladora” assembly plants in the border city of Matamoros.

The ruling came as demonstrations continued Thursday in both Matamoros and Mexico City demanding the release of Susana Prieto, who faces charges that include inciting riot, threats, and coercion. Her case has drawn attention beyond Mexico, including a call for her release issued Wednesday by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Susana Prieto is a fierce advocate whose tireless advocacy on behalf of workers in Mexico’s maquiladoras has made her a thorn in the side of powerful companies and corrupt officials,” Trumka wrote. “Her arrest on trumped-up charges of ‘inciting riots’ is an outrage. The AFL-CIO calls for her immediate and unconditional release.”

Prosecutors insist the charges have nothing to do with a wave of successful strikes in early 2019 at 48 export-oriented maquiladoras in Matamoros, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The movement, which Prieto helped lead, won the low-paid workers 20% pay raises and $1,650 bonuses.

Tamaulipas state prosecutor Irving Barrios said Wednesday that the charges arose from a March protest by about 400 people that authorities allege used threats to try to intimidate a local labor board into revoking an existing union at a factory and installing a new one. Prosecutors claim Prieto was the instigator of the demonstration.

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Prieto is an independent labor adviser and has been highly critical of existing union leaderships in Matamoros.

Known for a direct, abrasive style, she taped her own detention Monday and posted it on social media. She contends officials in Tamaulipas and in the border state of Chihuahua are persecuting her because she hurt the economic interests of owners of the maquiladoras, whose production is geared to supplying the U.S. economy.

Prieto also recently campaigned in Chihuahua against policies at maquiladora plants in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, 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.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador unleashed the series of Matamoros strikes in late 2018 when he doubled Mexico’s daily minimum wage to MXN 176.20 along Mexico’s northern border with the United States.

To keep down wages that are often just a couple of dollars an hour, maquiladoras in Matamoros had long indexed pay increases to the minimum wage — a policy that backfired when López Obrador doubled it. His administration argued the indexing shouldn’t apply to contract wages.

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López Obrador’s government was uncomfortable with the strike movement but didn’t actively try to quash it. He had pledged to end government manipulation of unions and allow new, more representative labor movements in a nation where unions have long been corrupt, acquiescent, and manipulated by the authorities.

In addition to the charges she has been accused of in Tamaulipas, Susana Prieto is being investigated in other Mexican states, as announced in a news conference by the local prosecutor Irving Barrios Mojica, after it was announced the labor lawyer would be bound to trial.

Barrios Mojica said that one of the important elements for the Public Ministry to require the preventive custody of the accused is that the lawyer does not live in Tamaulipas and is being investigated in other states, in addition to having an address abroad, information that is necessary so that she does not leave the country.

“We have registered investigations outside Tamaulipas; however, due to their secrecy and that of the authorities carrying them out, it’s not up to us to provide that information; what I can say is that in Tamaulipas, we have at least three open files on past events where plaintiffs were manufacturing companies regarding crimes of threats and deprivation of liberty.”

The prosecutor added that the investigations include testimonies from several witnesses and medical opinions that prove physical violence and psychological opinions that establish the use of moral violence and tapings that allowed the Public Ministry to require the arrest of Susana Prieto.

He said that although the authority that issued the arrest warrant is affiliated to Matamoros and Prieto was transferred to Ciudad Victoria according to the National Code of Criminal Procedures to carry out the necessary actions to assure the security of judges, public officers, and police officers, as well as the accused herself, she was transferred since some people began to protest in a threatening way causing damages to an institutional vehicle.

“The judicial body deemed the arrest legal and determined to bind her over to trial for the mentioned crimes with a 45-days term for the complementary investigation and granting justified preventive custody during the time of the process. The defense did not extend the constitutional term to present evidence regarding the process.”

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