This was a little after 10 p.m. Saturday when a convoy of pickup trucks carrying balaclava-clad guys rolled up into a roadblock near Torex Gold’s mine in Mexico’s Guerrero state. As a part of a wildcat strike, workers at the Canadian-owned surgery had cut its water source and were barricading a dirt road leading to the wells.
The attackers opened fire with assault rifles and shotguns, miners told The Globe and Mail in interviews in the scene, chased the protesters to the surrounding scrubland and beat them up. After the shooting stopped, two men lay dead: Brothers Victor and Marcelino Sahuanitla Pena. Locals said the pair had worked delivering diesel to the mine and were manning the blockade that night.
What exactly led to the violence is an issue of dispute. The protesters blame their trade union, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico (CTM), which they accuse of being too near Torex and handling the business behind their backs. Some miners have been trying to leave the CTM to combine a more independent marriage, Los Mineros. State authorities, meanwhile, assert the carnage was really a struggle between two rival militias that had nothing to do with the attack.
Since the bloody episode unfolded in the rugged mountains near a village called Atzcala, negotiators from Canada, the USA and Mexico were gathered in a luxury resort 240 kilometres to the north in Mexico City, trying to hash out an overhaul of this North American free-trade agreement.
Canadian negotiators have required the pact’s labour standards be toughened, which makes it easier for Mexican workers to join unions of their choice and doing away with so-called “employer security contracts” — prices negotiated between unions and corporations without the participation of employees which are a frequent occurrence at CTM-represented offices in Mexico.
Whatever the truth of the Sahuanitla brothers’ deaths, the timing shone a spotlight on accusations that Canadian and American businesses are using the trade pact, along with lax Mexican labor standards, to exploit the citizens of the southern neighbour.
Standing at the blockade at dusk three days after the killings — the areas where the guys fell marked by a pylon and a vehicle tire, each adorned with candles — Torex employees and other locals rhymed off a list of complaints. They accused the company of underpaying them, thwarting their attempts to join an independent union, reneging on pledges to improve the neighborhood rather than compensating the village for much of the water that the mine was using.
“They promised work for everybody, the streets would be paved, that households would have adequate housing,” said Hedilberto Peralta Fabian, who identified himself as an area commissario, approximately equal to a city councillor. “Nothing.”
Toronto-based Torex Gold and the Guerrero attorney-general’s office claimed there was no link between the killings and the labour dispute. The business described the attack as an “illegal blockade” by 15 percent of workers who had closed down the operation since Nov. 3.
“We can only imagine how painful this process has been around for the families of those men, besides having their deaths utilized for political grandstanding,” Gabriela Sanchez, the business’s vice-president of investor relations, wrote in an email.
Ms. Sanchez said the men killed weren’t directly employed by the business, but that one ran a company that allowed equipment to a mine builder. She said Torex was paying the Mexican federal authorities for the use of water in the mine and isn’t in arrears. Ms. Sanchez said her firm is an “attractive regional employer,” whose cover is great by Mexican standards.
She said the company had built new homes for 170 households in the region, paved some streets, refurbished a gym and a school, and that over half of the mine’s workforce is composed of locals.
“Our salaries are above average for the mining industry in Mexico, our workers have great benefits and we’re heavily engaged in the economic growth and advancement of the communities we work with,” she wrote. “We listen to our communities and consider their requests for additional aid. Unfortunately, we’re not always able to deliver the extra infrastructure and services they request.”
The leader of this Guerrero branch of the CTM didn’t respond to a request for comment. Someone who answered the phone at the union’s Mexico City headquarters said nobody was able to reply The Globe’s questions.
Roberto Alvarez Heredia, a state government spokesman, said the Sahuanitlas were murdered in a struggle between two armed groups that acted as local police forces. “When both groups which were carrying firearms fulfilled, a dispute arose, which resulted in the murder of two individuals,” he wrote in a statement posted to Facebook.
Miners at the website, however, insisted that they were unarmed when the attack occurred. They rejected any suggestion that the violence was different from the dispute with Torex. When told that the company was saying the attack was unconnected to the attack, they broke into a chorus of “No.”
“We all know what happened,” Oscar Garrido Ontiveros said. “We don’t need to take it any more. Two people got killed and that is enough.”
Torex’s Atzcala-area projects, including one working mine and others under development, are the major industry in this rural area. Bulls wander down the country roads, which, like the stone in the surrounding mountains, are a champagne gold color, emitting a pale dust that coats the thick green underbrush.
Daniel Garrido said he did not even know he had been a part of CTM for a couple of decades, so divorced is the marriage from its members. “They are not doing anything for us. It is the opposite. If we bring in a different marriage, they wish to fire us. We’ve received a great deal of threats.”
Several protesters revealed The Globe their pay stubs, with internet pay ranging from 978 to 3,102 pesos a week — approximately $67 to $212. Local officials said the company is two years behind paying its water bill.
Kimberly Nolan Garcia, a labor expert at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, said the dispute at Torex Gold’s mine is common in Mexico. The CTM, which is near the country’s governing party, is accused of signing security arrangements with firms and intimidating members that wish to join rival unions.
“It is an issue in Mexico where a marriage is going to be assigned to a mill without consulting with the employees,” Prof. Nolan Garcia said in an interview. “These type of sweetheart deals are endemic to the Mexican labour-relations system.”
Ms. Sanchez, the Torex vice-president, supported her firm “engaged CTM” before hiring employees. But she pledged Torex would accept another union if the employees chose one.
The leader of Canada’s biggest private-sector marriage, Jerry Dias, said Canada won’t agree to a revamped NAFTA unless it contains stronger protections for workers’ rights. The Unifor president, who had been in Mexico City advising the Canadian negotiating team, visited the Torex site to deliver this message to the miners.
“We have proposed to remove the CTM in Mexico, remove protection arrangements and to have free marriages,” he told a crowd of employees at the website of the shooting, to shouts of “gracias!” and applause. “We are here in order to be certain your struggle is our struggle and we fight this together.”
Whether the proposals will come to whatever remains an open question. The mood this week in the Camino Real Polanco resort — where negotiators indulged in designer cocktails and wagyu beef — was decidedly downbeat as talks deadlocked over President Donald Trump’s attempts to bring in new protectionist measures to favour U.S. corporations over international competitors.
In Atazcala, the protesters said they were tired of waiting for things to get better.
“We are living like this,” one girl, who said she works as a cleaner for Torex, gestured toward a corrugated metal shack in the village. “Meanwhile, they get wealthy.”
Courtesy: The Globe And Mail