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Murder of Mexican Union Organizer Alarms Workers, Activists

David Ovalle

MONTERREY, Mexico - Santiago Cruz moved to this northern Mexico city to help organize Mexican farmworkers bound for the United States under a legal guest-worker program. His killers spared him no agony.

They bound his hands and feet with strips of T-shirt, strangled him using a beach towel adorned with a cartoon U.S. dollar bill and smashed his head through a wooden banister. 0504 04

The slaying last month remains unsolved, alarming human rights activists on both sides of the border. Police won't talk about their investigation, but Cruz's friends say they're certain he was killed because of his efforts to stop corruption in a little-known program that provides seasonal workers legally to U.S. farms.

Cruz worked for the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. The committee represents thousands of Mexicans who travel to the United States each year with H2A visas, which the United States grants to workers recruited abroad.

Two weeks before his death, Cruz had begun an education campaign in nearby villages aimed at stopping rogue recruiters from extorting illegal fees from farmworkers headed north.

"We were shaking up big forces," said Castulo Benavides, the union's Monterrey director.

Cruz was found murdered April 9 in his office. His possessions were undisturbed and now are packed into a lime-green suitcase with no immediate destination.

The scene was gruesome. Globs of crimson blood still dot the walls and floors.

Union supporters have blasted authorities in the state of Nuevo Leon for not solving the crime yet. The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has urged the state government to find the killers and protect union members.

The union has renamed its office - in a nondescript strip mall near the U.S. consulate - the Santiago Rafael Cruz Justice Center and has started a fund for his family.

The AFL-CIO has condemned the murder, as has the city council in Toledo, Ohio, where the farm labor committee is headquartered.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is trying to organize a congressional delegation to visit Monterrey and investigate Cruz's death and alleged corruption among recruiters of temporary agricultural workers.

A sense of dread lingers over the Monterrey office. On a recent weekday, three workers waited inside, en route to the border town of Nuevo Laredo, then a 30-plus-hour bus ride to the farms of North Carolina.

"Of course it's hard," said worker Gregorio Ponce, 27, who's been a legal seasonal worker in the United States for seven years. "My wife is here and so is my daughter. But you can't make any money here."

The committee represents some 6,000 seasonal farmworkers, many of whom travel each year under the temporary H2A agricultural visa to the tobacco, cucumber and sweet potato fields of North Carolina.

The workers are recruited by companies that, under contract from farms in the United States, screen them in Mexico, process their U.S. visas and transport them north. Some 50,000 workers are projected to travel to the United States this year under the H2A program.

Under U.S. law, the employers must pay the costs of paperwork and transportation, but farmworkers complain that some recruiters charge them for those expenses.

Three years ago, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee opened its office in Monterrey, where most H2A visas are processed through the U.S. consulate each year.

"From the time we got there, we weren't popular with the recruiters," said committee President Baldemar Velasquez, a Texas-born Mexican-American reared as a farmworker who's now based in Ohio.

Before Cruz's death, intruders had ransacked the office twice, Velasquez said.

Last year, a U.S. federal judge ruled that companies that belong to the North Carolina Growers Association must pay the roughly $300 in visa and transportation costs for each worker it hires. The farm labor committee said that the growers association's Mexico recruiter, Manpower of the Americas, had been cooperative in making sure that the fees were paid.

But other Mexican recruiters continue to shake down non-union guest workers, and the committee fields their complaints even though it doesn't formally represent them.

Not everyone, however, thinks the motive behind Cruz's death is as clear-cut.

Manpower of the Americas President Mike Bell said his company, the largest company in Mexico that processes guest workers bound for the United States, monitors its employees carefully to make sure none is demanding money from workers.

"There is no reason to think recruiters had anything to do with this homicide," Bell said.

The spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Todd Huizinga, said the consulate wouldn't comment on the murder or the investigation. "Recruitment is largely a private business matter," he said. "The U.S. government has limited oversight."

Cruz, who'd arrived in Monterrey about six weeks before his death, grew up in Oaxaca state in southern Mexico. He'd begun working with the committee in Ohio after entering the United States illegally.

"He was at marches. He was at rallies. He was on staff teaching people to defend themselves," Velasquez said. "The guy was honest and respectful and everyone who met him liked him."

About a year and a half ago, Cruz quit the committee and took a job at a tomato-canning plant to earn more money. While he was working there, U.S. immigration agents detained him and sent him back to Mexico. The committee offered him a job in its Monterrey office.

Cruz, looking for permanent housing, shared a small, bare room upstairs in the office with Benavides.

April 8 was Easter. Benavides was out of town, he said, vacationing with family. He spoke with Cruz about 4 p.m. by telephone.

Two hours later, some friends passed by and invited Cruz to the nearby Bar Antigua. He declined. Minutes later, another pal, Mario Lopez, 22, walked past the office, also going to the bar. He works at a priest-run guesthouse for migrant workers a half-block away. He invited Cruz to come along. Cruz declined, saying he was going to take a shower.

Two hours later, Lopez and his buddies walked past the office on their way home. The office was dark. "We thought it was weird. He always had the light on, either in the room or in the office," Lopez said.

The next morning about 8, Jose Dimas, a union friend who also runs a guesthouse for workers, stopped by.

The door was ajar. Dimas went in. Down a short hallway past the main office, he saw blood pooled at the bottom of the stairwell. He ran to the guesthouse to roust Lopez and another pal. Rushing back, they found Cruz facedown, his head wedged into the banister. His face was severely bruised.

Benavides said he was baffled. Cruz was so new to the city that he hadn't had time to make enemies. He worries that the killers were really looking for him. "We think they tortured him wanting to know where I was," he said.

Benavides no longer sleeps in the upstairs room.

© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.

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