On April 9, the tied and beaten body of Santiago Rafael Cruz -- a leader of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee -- was found dead in the union's Mexico-based office in Monterrey. Few leads have turned up, but FLOC President Baldamar Velasquez is convinced Cruz's torture and murder were "a pure political attack" to intimidate workers. In a Facing South exclusive, Sandy Smith-Nonini reports on what's known about the case and the dangers faced by workers aiming to organize across borders.

MURDER IN NUEVO LEON

By Sandy Smith-Nonini

The April 9 torture and murder of a Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) employee in Mexico has all the marks of a political assassination, according to several labor leaders, politicians and human rights groups who are urging Mexican police to consider political motives in their investigation.

To date, police handling the case in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon have made no arrests and report few leads in the killing of Santiago Rafael Cruz, 29. A recently hired manager of FLOC's Monterrey office, Cruz's body was found in the office last Monday morning, tied hand and foot and badly beaten. Some wonder if the assassination is linked to FLOC's efforts to clean up corruption in recruitment of "guestworkers" for North Carolina tobacco farms under the federal H2A visa program.

"This is not looking like it was a crime of theft or a random act of violence, but rather a targeted attack on FLOC," said Michael Hale, a spokesperson in FLOC's headquarters in Toledo, Ohio.

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez called the killing "a pure political attack" intended as a "message to the union to back down. But we have no intention of going away. We are going to stay and fight for our rights."

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Union leaders cited a history of threats and harassment since FLOC began work in Mexico in 2005, after winning a contract the previous year to represent over 5,000 Mexican workers hired by the North Carolina Growers Association. The union won a lawsuit last year against the NCGA over excess fees charged to workers in Mexico.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) joined Velasquez in condemning the murder. Sweeney said the AFL-CIO would defend the rights of Mexican migrants to organize with FLOC, adding "We will not rest until justice is done in the case of Santiago Rafael Cruz."

Two Mexican human rights groups-Citizens in Support of Human Rights (known by its Spanish initials CADHAC) in Nuevo Leon and the Project for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (PRODESC) in Mexico City-also joined FLOC in calling for a full investigation. In addition, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is looking into Cruz's murder in response to a petition by FLOC and its supporters.

Despite signs of torture on Cruz's body and a history of harassment reported by union organizers, police appear to be treating the case as a common crime. One report in the San Antonio Express-News cited a police officer on the case who seemed to dismiss the killing, saying it had resulted from either "a fight between unions" or "an internal fight" in the union.

The FLOC office, located next to the U.S. Consulate in downtown Monterrey, had been broken into twice previously, according to Leticia Zavala, FLOC vice president. Both incidents occurred when FLOC was holding conferences in the United States, suggesting that the thieves were familiar with the union's activities. In previous thefts computers were taken, but the only items stolen during last week's break-in were an ID camera and Cruz's wallet, suggesting that robbery was not the primary motive, said Zavala, who directs FLOC's work in North Carolina.

In an interview last year, Brendan Greene, who previously worked for FLOC in North Carolina and Mexico, described multiple instances where Mexican police surrounded him in an intimidating way or detained him after he met with workers in agricultural areas where H2A recruiting stations are active.

He recounted that after the opening of the FLOC office, which offers assistance to guestworkers and educates them on their rights, Mexican business leaders in the maquila industry and spokesmen for government-affiliated unions ran articles in the local media accusing FLOC of trying to "destroy the labor peace" in Nuevo Leon." Greene fought a deportation order from the Mexican government during the 2005 growing season, which was eventually dropped.

In an ironic twist, Cruz himself was deported to Mexico from the United States only a few months before FLOC hired him to run the Monterrey office. He had previously worked with FLOC for four years in Ohio. Originally from Oaxaca, Cruz migrated to the United States after his family lost its farm due to financial problems that affected millions of Mexican small farmers in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The FLOC staff fondly remembered Cruz and described him as having a very upbeat personality. He was known as a devoted organizer who had helped found a FLOC associate membership group in Toledo-area immigrant communities,and he had become a born-again Christian before his return to Mexico last fall. Still looking for a place to live in Monterrey, Cruz was sleeping in a room upstairs from the union office on the night he was attacked.

FLOC drew national attention in recent years for its five- year boycott of the North Carolina-based Mount Olive Pickle Co., which ended in September 2004. NCGA was a party to the union agreement because it supplies the bulk of farmworkers for Mount Olive growers. The majority of the state's H2A workers labor on tobacco farms, many of which also grow cucumbers and other crops. NCGA is the largest broker for H2A workers in the country.

Greene, the former FLOC organizer, reported investigating complaints from workers last year who said they were overcharged hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars by private recruiters who contracted with the NCGA, when fees for processing H2A visa paperwork at that time should have cost less than $400.

"Close to Slavery," a recent report from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, also reported overcharging was common in guestworker programs, forcing poor workers to take out high-interest loans in order to get work visas.The report noted that in 2005 over 121,000 workers were recruited abroad for guestworker programs in the United States, accounting for a lucrative market in recruiting fees that is likely in the tens of millions of dollars.