Mexico Ends Mine Standoff

Laurence Iliff
Tuesday, June 8, 2010


MEXICO CITY—President Felipe Calderón struck a blow against what his administration sees as intransigent labor unions by sending in federal police to evict miners from the Cananea copper complex in northern Mexico after a nearly three-year standoff.

Mexico's Interior Ministry said Monday that federal police evicted striking workers from the mine in Sonora state, nearly three years after miners seized it in a labor dispute.

The ministry said police entered the complex, owned by mining and railroad concern Grupo Mexico, on Sunday afternoon with no resistance. Grupo Mexico said it had begun assessing the damage done to the installations and equipment with an eye toward the mine's rehabilitation and reconstruction.

A fire that broke out in an abandoned warehouse outside the mine was quickly brought under control, the ministry said. There were no injuries as a result of the fire, whose cause is under investigation.

The National Mining and Metal Workers union called the police action illegal and asked organized labor to mount a series of protests. The union also said there were three people injured by gunfire as police evicted miners.

Recent threats by the union to blow up the mine only seem to have strengthened Mr. Calderón's resolve to take back Cananea, which had become of powerful symbol of the standoff between traditional unions and powerful companies backed by a pro-business government.

The union "holds the government of Felipe Calderón responsible for the violence and bloodshed that could come in the future and demands that this government turn back this illegal military invasion of the Cananea mine," the union said Monday.

Mr. Calderón faced similar demands from the Mexican Electricians Union after he ordered the surprise shuttering of state-owned electricity company Luz y Fuerza del Centro late last year. The union was an open opponent of government energy overhauls.

Mr. Calderón was the guest of honor at a recent assembly of the chamber of mines, rubbing shoulders with executives from Grupo Mexico who badly wanted the Cananea operations restored.

Cananea may remain a thorn in Mr. Calderón's side if protesters prevent a restart. But the return of copper production there may also mark another historical moment for the Sonora town that helped spark the Mexican Revolution.

A strike there in 1906 was broken up with bloodshed and is considered a precursor both to the revolution and the union movement, which continues in the telephone company and teachers organizations, but is waning elsewhere.

For most of the past century, Mexican unions were an integral part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled from 1929 to 2000. Labor strife was virtually unheard of, and union dissidence quickly snuffed out.

When the PRI lost power to the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, in 2000, a number of PRI-affiliated unions challenged what they saw as a pro-business government.

The mining union says it has been singled out by the government because it obtains better terms for mining workers, than other mining unions or if miners go it alone.

Union secretary-general Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, who inherited that position from his father, has spent the past four years in Canada, battling efforts by Mexican authorities to have him extradited on charges of misappropriating $55 million in union funds.

After the union lost its final appeal on the Cananea seizure, which began as a strike, union official Javier Zuñiga said workers had placed explosives there and were ready to blow up the mine rather than return it to Grupo Mexico.

The union later backed off the threat, saying it was open to negotiations. But by then, Mr. Calderón decided the government had waited long enough.

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