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Mexican labor secretary defends copper mine crackdown

Striking workers were removed by police, and the government says no injuries were reported. But miners say the ejection was violent and they are protesting what they call an attack on organized labor.

June 09, 2010|By Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City —

Mexico's labor secretary on Tuesday defended his government's decision to send federal police officers to remove striking workers from a historically symbolic copper mine in northern Mexico. But miners insisted that their ejection was violent and protested what they called a crackdown on organized labor.

About 50 workers plus families camped out at the Cananea mine were removed Sunday, ending a strike that had dragged on for three years. The government said no injuries were reported, but miners union officials said their members were met with tear gas and aggressive riot police.

"We started bringing the people back to the union hall to calm things down; there were miners, wives, kids," said Manny Armenta, a representative of United Steelworkers who was at Cananea in support of the miners. "Then the police started firing tear gas. People had to escape through windows and fire-escape doors. There was tear gas all over the place."

Cananea, an enormous open-pit copper mine, looms large in historical memory in Mexico because a miner strike there in 1906 eventually sparked the Mexican Revolution.

The recent strike pitted President Felipe Calderon's conservative administration against combative miner leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, who is living in Canada to avoid embezzlement charges he has said are fabricated against him.

The episode illustrates Calderon's willingness to go after some powerful unions while leaving untouched others whose finances are just as questionable but who have more political affinity.

Last year, Calderon's government liquidated and took over the operations of the energy utility Central Light & Power, disbanding the electrical workers union, Mexico's oldest labor group and one of its strongest. The electrical workers are still contesting the liquidation.

Labor Secretary Javier Lozano met with reporters Tuesday and contended that the Cananea strike involving about 1,100 workers was "immaterial" because labor arbitration boards and the Supreme Court in recent months had declared relations "terminated" between the miners union and Grupo Mexico, the company that operates the mine.

Thus, the strike was "nonexistent," Lozano said.

Grupo Mexico has said it has lost $1.5 billion in profits since the strike was called in July 2007. Cananea produces nearly half of Mexico's mined copper, and accounts for 12% of the country's mining activity overall. The mine's workers have lost $312 million in salaries.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the miners would be offered jobs after Cananea reopens, as early as six months from now. At least four miners were arrested and one 17-year-old wounded by a rubber-coated bullet during the police operation, Armenta said.

Hernandez is a staff writer in The Times' Mexico City Bureau. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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