Napoleon Gomez Urrutia has been on the lam for some three years. And now that his government wants to put him on trial again, he doesn’t mind hiding indefinitely. Gomez is – or was, depending on how one looks at it – general secretary of Mexico’s National Union of Miners and Metalworkers, or “Los Mineros.” Now with roughly 280,000 members, it’s one of the nation’s largest and most powerful labor organizations. The Mexican government insists it’s also one of the most corrupt. That might not be saying much in light of the standards his accusers have set over the years, but they are convinced the Oxford-educated Gomez Urrutia is a crook all the same. The problem is that he’s been living in exile with his wife in Vancouver, British Columbia since 2006. And he’s not planning on leaving.
On December 30, the Mexican government formally submitted a request to Canadian officials for the extradition of Gomez. What’s at stake is a lot of money. Mexican officials three years ago reportedly forced Urrutia Gomez out of his position. The union leader, officials said, illegally diverted $55 million from the proceeds of sale intended for distribution to current and former workers by the country’s largest mining company, Grupo Mexico, following a 1990 deal to privatize two copper mines. The firing, which the government insists came at the behest of supporters of the union’s new leader, Elias Morales, triggered near mayhem. Union Corruption Update reported at the time that more than 20,000 rank-and-file members marched through downtown Mexico City protesting the decision. The union already had staged a two-day strike in support of Gomez, shutting down most of that nation’s coal, steel, copper, zinc and silver mines. In fact, workers at the huge copper pit in Cananea, Sonora continuously have been on strike since July 2007.
The pro-Gomez faction has enjoyed support from the National Workers Union, Mexico’s equivalent of our own AFL-CIO. In fact, the AFL-CIO itself got into the fray. Federation President John Sweeney in 2006 wrote a letter to then-Mexican President Vicente Fox protesting Gomez’s removal. But encouragement from organized labor wasn’t enough to keep him from taking flight to Canada. Mexican prosecutors twice put him on trial in absentia; each time they were unsuccessful. They’re not going to let the matter rest. This February 4, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office revealed that it had asked for Gomez Urrutia’s extradition five days earlier. Back in August 2008 a federal judge issued a warrant for his arrest following the refusal of state courts to do so.
Gomez, predictably, has his supporters up in Canada – that’s a major reason why he moved there in the first place. “I think he’s a hero,” says Steve Hunt, Western Canadian director of the United Steelworkers of America. “His only crime is standing up for the people he represents and the families and the communities that have been devastated by some of these events.” He asserted that his ally has every intention of fighting the extradition which, in Hunt’s words, was instigated by “an extreme right-wing government that really detests organized labor.” The Mexican government takes a different view. The labor leader stands accused of “fraud, criminal association and other offenses committed against the members of [Los Mineros],” reads a bulletin submitted to The Vancouver Province by Alberto Lozano, an official with the Mexican embassy in Ottawa. The government claims Gomez embezzled about $55 million (U.S. dollars) that Grupo Mexico paid into a trust fund in 2004. An audit by a Swiss accounting firm concluded the charge was “absolutely false.” The audit hasn’t impressed Mexican officials. That country’s Labor Secretariat continues to refuse to acknowledge Gomez Urrutia as the union’s leader.
In his absence, Gomez was re-elected general secretary in March 2008. But he’s not necessarily popular with everyone back home. Dissidents at Los Mineros claim that only members in good standing can become president. And about 6,000 union members have filed a class-action suit demanding he relinquish control over the trust fund. Two senior union officials, Juan Linares and Carlos Pavon, recently were arrested on charges relating to the missing funds. Pavon has denied the charges. Napoleon Gomez Urrutia might be an innocent man. But as long as he chooses to remain in Canada, his claim of innocence will have a hollow ring, even as the Mexican government remains anything but a model of incorruptibility. (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News, 2/5/09; Vancouver Province, 2/6/09).