Sweat Shop Fighter Jailed

Mexican defended workers making clothes for Canada, U.S.

By Sarah K. Cox 9 Jan 2006 |
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[Editor’s note: Martín Barrios Hernández was released by authorities who dropped charges on January 11 following pressure from labour groups and activists, according to a report from Reuters.]

The news came during the lull between Christmas and New Year's, on the eve of a long weekend, when media outlets and government officials were guaranteed to be virtually inoperative. Martín Barrios Hernández, president of a Mexican human rights commission, had been arrested December 29 and incarcerated in Puebla's state prison with no possibility of bail under Mexican law.

The charge? Barrios is accused of attempting to blackmail the owner of several factories that assemble clothing for export to Canada and the United States.

Coincidentally, Barrios had been pursuing legal channels to obtain severance pay for 163 employees recently fired from one of the factories, after demanding that working conditions comply with the law.

Young rights commissioner

I met Barrios six years ago, while on assignment in his hometown of Tehuacán in Puebla, a three-hour drive southeast of Mexico City. I was writing an article about free trade and the garment industry. Barrios stood out amongst dozens of people I interviewed; he was young, articulate, outspoken, and deeply committed to improving employment standards in scores of garment factories that have sprung up around Tehuacán since Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a free trade agreement in 1994.

Secluded behind high walls and guarded gates, the factories each hire up to 10,000 workers to sew brand name clothes on contract for companies like Levi's, Guess, the Gap and Tommy Hilfiger. So many of the clothes are made of denim, stonewashed with chemicals and feather-light abrasive rocks from the nearby Popocatépetl volcano, that Tehuacán has become known as Mexico's "denim capital".

Barrios, a Nahua Indian, was clearly a prominent figure to others as well; in 1999 his sharp mind and tenacity had already earned him, at the age of 27, his position as president of the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacán Valley. He wore his hair long, a bright knitted cap on his head and his heart on his sleeve. On one arm, he sported a tattoo of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs and the Toltecs.

"Human rights are being violated on a daily basis," Barrios told me. "There is political [physical] torture, everything…It's a question of investigating and denouncing."

Grind of the maquilas

Since then, Barrios has continued to document and denounce violations of Mexican law at Tehuacán's garment factories, known in Spanish as "maquilas". In 2003, he co-authored a report jointly published by the human rights commission and Canada's Maquila Solidarity Network. The report, "Blue Jeans, Blue Waters and Workers Rights", documents labour and human rights abuses in maquilas: salaries for some workers of far less than $1 an hour, child labour, long shifts, lack of legally-required overtime pay, unjust dismissals, and risks to workers and the environment posed by chemicals used to stonewash jeans.

Now, Barrios himself is the focal point of an unfolding human rights scandal. Although his imprisonment has received widespread press coverage in Mexico, and shows signs of becoming an election scandal, it has attracted surprisingly scant media attention outside the country.

Brand name garment companies that do business in Tehuacán, however, are monitoring the situation closely. Gap Inc.'s vice-president of Social Responsibility, Dan Henkle, has written to Puebla State Governor Mario Marín Torres, urging the governor "to take immediate action to investigate" the charges against Barrios, and his arrest and imprisonment, and to "take appropriate steps to ensure Mr. Barrios' safety."

"It is important that foreign buyers who do business in Puebla remain confident in the government's commitment to rule of law," Henkle explained in a January 4th letter to the governor. (Gap does not do business with the factory owner accusing Barrios of blackmail, but the company has contracts with other maquilas in the Tehuacán area.)

Blackmail charges

On January 4, Barrios appeared in a Puebla court flanked by police in riot gear. Judge Horacio Bravo Negrete ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with blackmail charges against Barrios laid by maquila owner Lucio Gil Zárate. The judge then declared himself unfit to hear the trial, for which a date has not been set.

Gil, according to Mexican newspaper articles, did not appear in court. The decision to continue the case was made after the defence presented a video of Barrios at a church meeting in the town of Ajálpan-on the same day, at the very same time, that he is accused of appearing at Gil's house to blackmail the factory owner for 150 million pesos.

In a public statement issued after the judge's decision, Amnesty International wrote that Barrios' "arrest and prosecution may be an attempt to prevent him from carrying out his legitimate human rights work."

One memorable evening during my stay in Tehuacán, Barrios took me to meet a Catholic priest who worked with the commission and worried about the impact of NAFTA on Mexico's indigenous peoples. Prior to free trade, Mexico's indigenous groups owned and farmed large tracts of land. Changes to land-ownership laws had encouraged the breakup of communal land into individual holdings, cheap U.S. bean and corn imports had made traditional farming less viable, and now one way to stave off hunger was to work in a maquila for the minimum wage of about $5 a day.


Father Anastasio Hidalgo lived in a cavernous church lit by flickering candles in the neighbouring village of Coxcatlán. The church, flanked by a graveyard and a heap of stone where one of its towers had collapsed in a recent earthquake, resembled an eerie gothic cathedral. We traveled there on a rickety public bus filled with visibly weary maquila workers heading home in the dark. Suddenly, fire flares and soldiers appeared on the road ahead. The bus lurched to a stop. Soldiers boarded, ostensibly to search for marijuana. "Intimidation," Barrios declared. He, alone among dozens of bus passengers, refused to let the armed soldiers open his backpack. "It's unconstitutional," he told the soldiers, glaring at them until they relented and allowed the bus to proceed.

Barrios' refusal to let the soldiers illegally search his backpack reflects a determination to pursue justice even at great personal risk. Where others back off, Barrios presses forward.

Where others are timid, Barrios is bold. From San Miguel prison on December 31, he issued a sweeping two-page statement declaring that he is falsely accused of blackmailing Gil and demanding to know why he was taken to Puebla if the alleged crime occurred in Tehuacán. Barrios also points out that he was told nothing of the charges against him until he was picked up by police in an unmarked car 13 days after charges were filed.

Bob Jeffcott, spokesperson for the Maquila Solidarity Network, believes Barrios has been targeted because Tehuacán factory owners are being pressured by brand name clothing companies to improve working conditions. At the same time, the global quota system that assigned shares of the world's apparel and textile industry to individual countries has been abolished.

"They're really fearful that production is going to leave Mexico and go to China, so they see exposés on working conditions as being a threat to the survival of the industry," says Jeffcott. "What they're not appreciating, is the possibility that they could begin to promote Mexico under labour standards compliance and that some of the brands would like to be working with them on proven practices."

Stonewash toxins

While in Tehuacán, I spoke with 15 and 16-year-olds leaving unmarked factories after shifts, and talked to workers suffering headaches and other chronic health problems from exposure to chemicals used to stonewash jeans. Some improvements have recently been made at larger factories catering to big, brand names, according to Jeffcott. Yet, labour and human rights violations persist at many maquilas, he says, and many workers do not earn enough money to send their children to school.

In the Tehuacán neighbourhood of Observatorio, where maquila workers live in dirt floor houses patched with cardboard and plastic sheeting, I arrived unannounced at the home of Rosa Rodriguez, because she, like everyone else in her neighbourhood, had no phone. Nor did any of the homes have running water. A water truck came to the neighbourhood once a week before dawn and residents leaped out of bed to fill receptacles with enough water to last for seven days.

Rodriguez (who did not want her real name used for fear of reprisal) was better off than most of her neighbours, because her six-person family lived in two rooms instead of one. Her dream was to keep her four kids in school. On weekdays, Rodriguez worked in a maquila cinching wastebands; on weekends she took in laundry and sold perfume. Her husband worked full-time as a security guard. Together, they earned so little they didn't know if they could afford the next round of mandatory public school uniforms and school books for their children.

Report: Mexico tortures

These days, we are inclined to think of Mexico as a holiday destination and peer on the international stage. Yet, human rights groups and international organizations point to ongoing systemic human rights violations in our close trading partner and underscore that insufficient action has been taken to improve the situation.

"Structural flaws in the criminal justice system remained a key source of human rights violations and impunity," wrote Amnesty International about Mexico in its 2004 annual report. The United Nations Committee against Torture, after a five-year investigation, concluded that Mexican police "commonly use torture and resort to it systematically as another method of criminal investigation."

In another case recently highlighted by Amnesty, independent journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro was arrested December 16 at her home in Cancun-the same day that charges against Barrios were quietly laid. Cacho, who is also president of a women's assistance centre that highlights abuses suffered by Mexican women and children, was transported 1,500 kilometers to the city of Puebla and detained for 30 hours on charges of defamation.

The charges stem from a book Cacho authored last year alleging the involvement of important Mexican businessmen in a child pornography ring. Amnesty reports that Cacho was released on bail of US $10,000, and could face up to four years in prison.

Defamation is a criminal offence in Mexico, where Amnesty says it is sometimes used "to silence and intimidate journalists reporting on matters of public interest". The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called for defamation to be a civil offense, but Mexico has not taken steps to adopt the commission's recommendation.

Barrios fears for life

Two years ago, almost to the day that he was arrested, Barrios was severely beaten outside his home by unknown assailants. Human rights organizations sounded the alarm and Jeffcott credits the ensuing international concern with helping to protect Barrios up until now.

Barrios, in addition to heading the human rights commission, is also an advisor to Mexico's federal electoral commission. He has been told he will be transferred to a prison in Tehuacán to await a trial date. Barrios, who spent his first night in jail sharing a cell with 14 people, told the court that he fears for his life in prison.

If convicted, Barrios could face a prison sentence of two to 10 years.

Sarah Cox is a journalist and researcher based in Victoria. Her last story for The Tyee was "Wal-Mart's 'Good Works'". For information on letter writing campaigns to support Barrios, see  [Tyee]

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