On December 29, 2005, Martin Barrios Hernández, President of the Mexican Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley, was arrested by the intelligence division of the Puebla state police and transported from his home city of Tehuacan to the state capital of Puebla where he was held in state prison.
Barrios was accused of blackmail, based on a charge filed by Tehuacan maquila owner Lucio Gil Zarate. In Mexico, there is no possibility of posting bail when facing blackmail charges, and a guilty verdict would have resulted in a 2-10 year prison term.
The Maquila Solidarity Network immediately launched an international campaign to win his release from jail and protect him from further harassment and intimidation.
According to Barrios, the charge was completely groundless, since he was attending an assembly at a local church at the time and date he was alleged to have attempted to blackmail Mr. Gil.
Barrios' only contact with Mr. Gil's company was in carrying out his responsibilities as a human rights advocate in regards to the severance pay owed to 163 workers unjustly fired by Mr. Gil. Barrios and the Mexican Human and Labour Rights Commission had been providing advice and assistance to workers employed at the Calidad de Confexiones maquila, which is owned by Mr. Gil.
Barrios and supporters at Solidarity Center Mexico office. (Left to right) Sister Inti Barrios Hernández, father Martín Barrios, Barrios himself, Lynda Yanz from the Maquila Solidarity Network, Eduardo José Almeida from Red de Organismos No Gubernamentales Defensores de los Derechos Humanos Cuali Nemilistli, and Solidarity Center staffer Ben Cokelet. Photo credits : Solidarity Center
On January 12, 2006, Barrios was suddenly released from prison after being told by state authorities that Lucio Gil Zarate had agreed to "pardon" him. According to Barrios, his release was the result of the enormous local, national and international pressure that was brought to bear on the state authorities, not the good will of those authorities or his accuser.
Barrios was literally kicked out of jail after Maquila owner Gil Zarate was "compelled" by the Puebla government to "pardon" Barrios. Barrios refused to sign his release document, because accepting the "pardon" would have amounted to recognizing he was guilty of a crime he never committed. He was not allowed to contact his lawyer and was escorted outside by a dozen guards.
As he left the prison, Barrios was greeted by supporters who had been waiting for hours outside the prison for permission to visit him, including family members, colleagues from the Commission, former workers from the Calidad en Confecciones garment factory, whose owner had brought the charges against Barrios, and MSN coordinator Lynda Yanz.
At the time of Barrios' release, members of the Commission warned that maquila owners in Tehuacan were angry about the state government's decision to bow to public pressure and set Barrios free, and expressed their serious concerns for the safety of Barrios, his family and his co-workers.
On February 12, 2006, Barrios received separate, but identical warnings from two trusted sources. He was told that a local maquila owner has hired someone to kill him.
Marcos (delegado Zero) and Martin Barrios in Altepexi on Sunday February 12. Photo: José Castañares in La Jornada de Oriente, February 13
The warnings came on the same day that Zapatista leader subcomandante Marcos (now known as delegado Zero) delivered a speech at a rally in the nearby community of Altepexi, condemning the state governor and maquila owners for the arbitrary arrest and detention of Barrios, and for exploiting maquila workers. The warnings also came in the midst of a national scandal in which compelling evidence has been made public linking the Puebla state governor and a major blue jean manufacturer with a plot to arrest and rape another human rights advocate, Lydia Cacho.
On February 21, 2006, protective measures for Martin Barrios, the members of the Commission (CDHLVT) and some of Martin's family were granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR directed the Commission on the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaria de Gobernación) to take charge of their implementation.
On March 6, 2006, Members of the Commission attended a meeting with the Ministry of the Interior, at which the Mexican Human Rights Centre "Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez" and representatives of the Government of Puebla, the Federal Police and the Ministry of Foreign Relations were also present. At that meeting, the Commission requested that the safety of its members be insured not by state or municipal police bodies, but by the Federal Government directly.
The federal authorities agreed to provide staff of the Commission with mobile phones and a security camera to be installed in the entryway to Martin's house. It was also agreed that the Federal police would have a "continuous" presence outside their houses and would accompany them if they were to leave the Tehuacan area. According to the Commission however, in reality, the federal police presence was very limited.
On March 21, 2006, at MSN's request, six international brands – American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss, PvH, Polo Ralph Lauren and Warnaco – that buy apparel products from the State of Puebla urge the State Governor Mario Marin Torres to take proactive steps to ensure the physical safety of Martin Barrios and the members of the Commission.
Although Martin Barrios is now free, MSN and the organizations we have been working with on this case in Mexico and internationally continue to be concerned about his safety, as well as the safety of his family and co-workers at the Commission.