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Farm Worker Union Leader Visits Mexico’s Most Well-Known Political Prisoner

In a move that went almost unnoticed by American media last week, the president of the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Baldemar Velásquez, stepped foot in a prison for the second time in four days, this time in southeastern Mexico on July 4. He had been arrested for civil disobedience at a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh, N.C. on July 1.  

Shadowed by several armed professional guards, Velásquez visited Mexico’s most well-known political prisoner, the indigenous teacher and social justice activist Alberto Patishtán Gómez, who’s been behind bars since 2000 at a Chiapas state prison for, among other charges, his alleged participation in a June 2000 ambush that claimed the lives of seven police officers and injured two others.

“The Alberto Patishtán case is a black stain on the government of Mexico,” the Texas-raised Velásquez declared to La Jornada, a left-leaning Mexico City daily, after visiting the imprisoned Tzotzil indigenous teacher in San Cristóbal de las Casas. “The system of justice is upside down. People have to prove they’re innocent, instead of the opposite,” alluding to the popular Mexican complaint that in Mexico’s courts one is guilty until proven innocent.

According to the Toledo-based newspaper The Blade, which so far is the only mainstream American print outlet to cover the story, one of the main reasons for Velásquez’s trip south was to begin working with and organizing jobless Chiapas residents alongside human rights attorneys in Mexico and U.S. government officials.

Cross-border organizing has been one of FLOC’s priorities since the successful Mt. Olive Pickles campaign of the late 1990s and early 2000s to organize North Carolina farmworkers and H-2A visa guest workers from Mexico.

To date, dozens of organizations around the world have called for Patishtán’s freedom, with Amnesty International stating that there were “serious flaws” during his trial, such as irregularities and contradictions in statements given by the witness who identified Patishtán as responsible for the aforementioned offenses. According to the Mexican political news Web site Sin Embargo, the witness’s testimony was taken into account while evidence indicating that Patishtán was elsewhere at the time of the ambush was discarded.

Even the current governor of Chiapas Manuel Velasco Coello, elected in July 2012, has called for Patishtán’s release.

At a June 19 event to mark the 13th anniversary of Patishtán’s imprisonment, held at Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts, the country’s preeminent fine arts center, a group of activists called on Mexico’s judicial branch of government to release the Chiapas native. Among those participating were the president of the besieged Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electrical Workers Union), a poet, a well-known Mexican TV and movie actress, and a historian.

If Mexico “wants to be regarded as a democratic country, something like this cannot happen again,” Velásquez declared to La Jornada. “We will continue to push for his release.”

The union leader, and member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, said he would spread the word about Patishtán’s case in the United States through FLOC’s networks, as well as bring it to the attention of Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

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