Disappeared Oil Workers in Mexico – Out of Sight, Out of Mind

(IPS) – Five workers and three pensioners from the Mexican state oil company PEMEX disappeared one year ago. A lawmaker suspects that they were detained by the army, but there are also signs that point to drug traffickers or the company’s own union.

Their families are desperate, because the Attorney-General’s Office has no conclusive leads so far.

"No one seems to care about this case, least of all the Attorney-General’s Office, if in fact it was soldiers who took them," Senator Rosario Ibarra, who chairs the Senate Human Rights Commission, told IPS.

In her view, the PEMEX workers and pensioners could have been detained on suspicion of links with the insurgent People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR).

Ibarra, the head of the Committee for the Defence of those Imprisoned, Persecuted, Disappeared and Exiled for Political Reasons, also known as the Eureka Committee, has fought for 30 years for the safe return of hundreds of victims of forced disappearance, most of whom went missing in the 1970s and 1980s. Among them is her son, who was suspected of being a guerrilla fighter.

The EPR mentioned two of the disappeared PEMEX workers in a communiqué in January, saying they were victims of a dirty war by the authorities against social activists. In July and September 2007, the EPR blew up several oil and gas pipelines belonging to the state oil company.

A source at the Attorney-General’s press office told IPS that several lines of investigation of the case are being followed, but they are kept under wraps for security reasons. However, the source confirmed that no arrest warrants have been requested. The eight persons who disappeared were taken away by armed men between May 16 and 20, 2007. All of them had been employed at the Cadereyta refinery, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León, which employs 2,000 people and processes 200,000 barrels a day of crude oil.

Cadereyta is a municipality of 1,000 square kilometres, with a population of 75,000, located in the centre of Nuevo León. The mayor, Edelmiro Cantú, belongs to the governing National Action Party (PAN).

But the explosions the EPR claims to have carried out took place in states a long way away from the refinery.

Among the eight missing people are Hilario Vega, a former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) congressman and general secretary of the Mexican Oil Workers’ Union at Cadereyta, and his brother David Vega, a commissioner for the same trade union.

David and four other workers left a union meeting on the night of May 16, 2007, but never arrived home. The next day, Hilario received a telephone call, ostensibly from his brother’s captors, and set out to look for him, following their instructions. He has not been seen since. The other missing people were abducted on May 20.

Despite the fact that local leaders of the oil workers’ union had disappeared, the union made no public comment. Nor did the first anniversary of their disappearance elicit any mention of them.

"We are desperate, and we are disappointed in the authorities, because we don’t have a single fact or clue about what happened to my brothers," Salomón Vega, who works at the Cadereyta refinery, told IPS.

"It’s been a year since their disappearance, and there has been no news at all. This is unheard of," said Vega by telephone from Nuevo León.

Senator Ibarra, of the small Labour Party, said "there is a silence and general lack of interest in these disappearances that is impossible to understand. I certainly can’t understand what is happening, unless it is that so many similar cases have occurred that no one cares any more."

Thousands of people were targeted by the harsh repression of opponents, especially suspected guerrillas, by the PRI governments that ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. At least 532 people were forcibly disappeared, according to human rights organisations.

There are unconfirmed reports that the missing PEMEX workers were opposed to proposals within the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón to open the state oil company to private investment.

According to Salomón Vega, his brothers did not have a definite position. "They were trade unionists and worked for the interests of the workers, that’s all," he said.

"I don’t know, but there might be information about that which the authorities don’t want to reveal.

"Our family has supported the PRI," and has never had connections with social activists or leftwing groups, he added.

Miguel Granados, a columnist for the newspaper Reforma, said the disappearance of the PEMEX workers and pensioners has been "followed by silence and lack of official and social concern about the fate of these people, who seem not to matter to anybody."

The idea that the missing persons were seized by the armed forces was put forward by newspapers in Nuevo León. However, nothing that would confirm this hypothesis has yet come to light.

Some 2,500 troops and 500 federal police have been deployed in Nuevo León since February 2007, carrying out operations against drug traffickers. In 2006 and 2007, 163 people were killed in the state in incidents involving drug mafias.

Since the government’s decision to involve the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking, military vehicles regularly patrol Cadereyta — a new experience for local residents.

The oil workers’ union has been closely linked to the PRI for over 60 years. Several of its leaders, like Hilario Vega, have been members of parliament for the PRI.

Hermén Macías, editor-in-chief of the Cadereyta weekly Lo Nuestro, told the newspaper El Universal that the Vega brothers were notorious for the networks of corruption they established in the refinery’s union.

Macías accused the Vegas brothers of attempting to murder him in 2004 for publishing articles exposing corruption in the union.

Eight of the five brothers and five sisters in the Vega family work at PEMEX, including the two who disappeared.

IPS tried to set up a formal interview with several union leaders at Cadereyta, but none responded. A refinery worker who requested anonymity accused the Vega brothers of being "totally corrupt."

"We don’t know what happened to them, but they had a long history of dubious activity that might have caught up with them. In the union they ran things exactly as they wanted, just as those who have taken over are doing now. It’s said they even had links with drug traffickers," the worker said.

On Apr. 28 a court in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, issued a warrant for the arrest of José Izaguirre, who replaced Hilario Vega as acting secretary general of the Cadereyta union, for allegedly selling jobs at the refinery.

According to justice system officials, Izaguirre has three alleged accomplices who are also union members. But they have not been arrested, because of pending legal action on their behalf. The same union leaders are accused of nepotism benefiting relatives of the directors of the Cadereyta refinery. Documents published by Reforma in January indicated that the union backed the hiring of children and nephews of refinery executives.