Libertad Para Susana: Remarks at a Press Conference in El Paso, June 20, 2020

Photograph of Dr. Kathy Staudt with permission of Luis Hernández.

By Kathleen (Kathy) Staudt, PhD.

I am here to speak with you about lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas who has worked tirelessly for the rights of workers and the improvement of their meager wages at the hundreds of foreign-owned factories—maquiladoras—in Mexico’s northern borderlands, specifically in Cd. Juárez and in Matamoros. Susana is a political prisoner, and we are here today to tell you about a letter to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights and the state human rights commission in Tamaulipas.  Under the name Libertad para Susana, a network of borderlanders developed a letter in English and Spanish (the translation for which we thank Beatriz Vera).  An impressive list of organizations and individuals have co-signed this letter.

Permit me to take a few minutes FIRST, to outline Susana’s courageous actions and, SECOND, to highlight the importance of Mexico’s human rights commissions.

FIRST, on Susana’s actions….

Photograph of Dr. Kathy Staudt with permission of Luis Hernández.

Right now, Susana’s life is in peril, as she sits in a Matamoros jail during the Covid 19 pandemic on trumped-up inflammatory charges such as mutinous and riotous behavior.  In reality, she worked actively with labor leaders to create an independent union of industrial and service workers. 

The rights to freely organize supposedly exist in Mexico and in the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement of 2020, the successor to NAFTA–sometimes called NAFTA 2.0.  Susana’s imprisonment will be a test of whether the USMCA really has teeth!  Some of you may know me and my research as a professor (ahora, profesora jubilada) who has spoken and written about free trade agreements that grant far more power to global corporations than to working people who produce value… for profits, Wall Street dividends, and lower consumer prices.  We in the network called Libertad para Susana are here to call for shared prosperity, for fairer trade with dignity and respect for working people who earn decent wages. Most immediately, we call for her liberation from that Mexican jail!

In Mexico, most unions are tied to the political establishment, and rarely work to improve wages and benefits.  In Tamaulipas and Cd. Juárez, local conciliation and arbitration special boards have long tried to control which union organizations can speak for workers.  Susana and her labor leader colleagues sought a 20% increase in wages coupled with a larger Christmas bonus, called the Aguinaldo

After the pandemic hit, Susana pushed for safe conditions in the maquiladoras where management took unsafe shortcuts in protecting workers and maintaining social distance between them.  People here may remember mid-April protests in Cd. Juárez focused on workers’ health during covid 19.  I have seen pictures that workers took inside the plants of flimsy plastic separating workers and of workers standing close together in lines to have their temperatures taken.  Yes, temperature-taking was good, but healthy distance between people is necessary in such lines.  I have seen pictures of workers who died from the Corona Virus, leaving loving family members behind and now living in economically vulnerable situations.

Obviously, Susana’s work for safe conditions and for higher wages represented a thorn in the side of global capital and profit-making.  Workers’ lives and health cannot be sacrificed for foreign capital!

Workers in North America have RIGHTS to organize and to seek higher wages. 

Second, the Mexican Commission on Human Rights…)

María Fernanda Peña Prieto, gave an impassionated plea for people not to forget her mother Susana Prieto Terrazas. Photograph with permission of Luis Hernández.

The National Commission on Human Rights in Mexico is a respected, evidence-based institution, born in 1990 to bring attention to violations and injustice to Mexican authorities and international opinion.  The national commission, accredited with the United Nations, is joined by state commissions, including states in northern Mexico, such as Tamaulipas. 

In past expert testimony for asylum cases, I have seen and read national and state human rights commission reports brought forth as evidence in cases of corrupt and dangerous police commanders.  One case I remember vividly was from a southern state in Mexico with numerous and violent police violations, a denial of asylum in El Paso’s Immigration court—no surprise there—but then a granting of asylum for her in a different immigration court elsewhere in the United States.

The current head of the national commission since 2019 is Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. An activist whose son Jesús was arrested by the police in 1975, then disappeared by the police, she ran for president twice in the 1980s and then became a Senator in 2006-2012.  

Ibarra’s slogan is a famous one:  “They were taken alive; we want them alive.”

Let us remember her words for Susana Prieto!  We want her alive, not stuck in a Matamoros jail.  Free Susana!  Libertad para Susana!

María Fernanda Peña Prieto. Photograph with permission of Luis Hernández.