Fear and Fair cannot coexist…

Last month’s horrific massacre of student human rights activists in Guerrero serves as an awful reminder of why there will be no “Fair Food Program” in the foreseeable future of Mexico’s tomato industry…

Mass graves.  Horribly disfigured corpses.  Police complicity in the ultraviolence of all-powerful drug gangs.

Since 2005, stories like these have played out across Mexico’s headlines day after day, month after month, year after year.  But the details of last month’s mass killing and disappearance of student activists in the southern state of Guerrero stood out above the ever-growing body count in Mexico’s drug and corruption wars.  From a report in Time Magazine:

The young father’s corpse was left on the street of the southern Mexican town of Iguala with his eyes gouged out and flesh ripped off almost to the skull—a technique typical of the cartel murders that have become too common in this country. But unlike many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, he was no gang member, police officer or journalist. The body belonged to a 19-year old trainee teacher who had been preparing to participate in a march to commemorate a notorious massacre of Mexican students by the military and police in 1968. Instead of making it to that demonstration, though, the young man found himself the victim of a what will be a new atrocity date on Mexico’s bloody calendar.

The murder, which occurred on the night of Sept. 26 or morning of Sept. 27, was part of a brutal attack on student teachers by corrupt police officers and drug cartel assassins that has provoked protests across the nation. During the violence, at least six students and passersby were killed and another 43 students disappeared, with many last seen being bundled into police cars. Soldiers and federal agents have taken over the city of Iguala and have arrested more than 30 officers and alleged gunmen from a cartel called the Guerreros Unidos or Warriors United. They have also discovered a series of mass graves: on Oct. 4, they found 28 charred bodies and on Thursday night they discovered another four pits where they are unearthing more corpses. Agents are conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies belong to the students.

Unlike the more than 120,000 deaths in Mexico’s drug wars since 2005 — which rarely inspired any kind of concerted or widespread protests — news of these latest murders sparked outrage across the country.  Carrying signs demanding an answer to the question “Who Governs Guerrero?,” tens of thousands of people blocked streets in cities across Mexico last week (right) in an extraordinary departure from the silent resignation that typically greets news of the latest grisly killings. 

Why?  Because, as the above report indicates, this time the victims weren’t the typical targets of the drug wars.  From The Daily Beast, “The Anatomy of a Mexican Student Massacre”:

The precise motives for the killings are difficult to determine, but the students come from a school that has been training rural teachers—and activists—for the better part of a century. Their commitment to helping small farmers and farm workers in the rugged, semi-feudal countryside often has put them at odds with the local powers that be.  And when you add to that the cozy relationship that exists today between some of those powers and narcotics traffickers, the situation is explosive.

A foretaste of last month’s massacre took place on May 30, 2013, after an activist group called Popular Unity of Iguala demanded that the city’s mayor, José Luis Albarca Velázquez, provide fertilizer to poor farmers in the area. Six of the group’s members were kidnapped, including its leader, Arturo Hernández Cardona, who was killed along with two others. One of the kidnapping victims, an activist named Nicolás Mendoza Vila, managed to escape and later made a statement to the authorities that he watched the mayor himself pull the trigger of the gun that killed Hernández Cardona. (emphasis added)

The victims of last month’s massacre were young human rights activists, their particular focus the rights of small farmers and farmworkers.  They dared to question the powers that control the area’s agricultural economy and for their efforts they were kidnapped and killed.  They were good, young people committed to justice — like the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement — who were willing to take on grave risks to demand fair treatment for the poor agricultural workers of Guerrero.  They stood no chance, however, against the police/narco anarchy of that embattled state.  Like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — the three young men who dared to take on the entrenched powers of rural Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 — their quest ended in a shallow grave.

And so Mexico’s small farmers and farmworkers continue their long, unrequited wait for justice.

No peace, no justice

The Fair Food Program that is having such remarkable success today addressing and eliminating longstanding human rights abuses in Florida’s fields wouldn’t have stood a chance in rural Florida back in the heyday of the Klan, either.   As the Pulitzer-prize winning history of Central Florida’s battle for fundamental civil and human rights, “Devil in the Grove,” makes painfully clear, farmworkers, and those who would stand up for their rights, lived in near constant terror in rural Florida in the 1950s and 1960s.  From the book’s cover:

In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis V. McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old Groveland girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail of four young blacks who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the citrus groves. By day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had rolled into town, burning the homes of blacks to the ground and chasing hundreds into the swamps, hell-bent on lynching the young men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.”

And so began the chain of events that would bring Thurgood Marshall, the man known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” and the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the “Florida Terror” at a time when he was irreplaceable to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but the lawyer would not shrink from the fight–not after the Klan had murdered one of Marshall’s NAACP associates involved with the case and Marshall had endured continual threats that he would be next.

The book goes on to document, in astounding detail, the reign of terror that ruled rural Florida for decades before some semblance of peace and order was established in the 1970s.  Florida had the highest incidence of lynchings per capita of any southern state, including Mississippi and Alabama.  The President of Florida’s chapter of the NAACP, Harry T. Moore, and his wife were killed by a bomb planted beneath their home in Mims, Florida, on Christmas night, 1951.  Harry Moore investigated and fought to end lynchings in Florida, traveled the state in support of voting rights for Florida’s black citizens, and advocated for equal pay for black and white teachers.  His death marked the beginning a long nightmare of bombings across the state, with “so many bombings, or attempted bombings, that the northern press dubbed it ‘the Florida Terror’.”  

Of course, in rural Florida agriculture was king, and so the Klan’s reign of terror always served two purposes — to maintain white supremacy, and to suppress any hint of dissent in the state’s fields and groves:

Although Florida Klansmen continued to terrorize African Americans, they expanded their targets to include union organizers, particularly in the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. One of the most notorious Klan incidents in Florida history occurred in Tampa in 1937, when labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker was flogged, castrated, and tarred and feathered. Shoemaker eventually died from his injuries. Ironically, one of nine Klansmen indicted for the murder (although they were all freed) was Edward Spivey, from Orange County, who would later play a role in the 1978 re-investigation of Harry Moore’s murder.

In the Florida of the ’50s and ’60s, justice for farmworkers was still a distant dream.  At a minimum, faith in the rule of law is a necessary prerequisite for any human rights campaign like the Fair Food Program to succeed, and it would be decades before any such social peace was to be achieved in Florida.  For workers to play the role of front line defenders of their own rights that they do in the FFP, they have to know that they will not be fired or beaten — or worse — for complaining.  Likewise, investigators have to know that their lives are not in danger as they crisscross the state on backroads and in hidden fields in furtherance of a more modern, more humane agricultural labor system.  

Only in that context can the CIW’s oft-cited formula for social justice — Consciousness + Commitment = Change — stand a chance to work.

“I think, therefore they disappear me”

Compare the CIW’s formula with graffiti seen at one of last week’s marches in Mexico.

“I think, therefore they disappear me.”  Descartes updated for a surreal world of constant violence.

Critical consciousness is the beginning of a better life under the Fair Food Program.  In Mexico, it is the end.

Mexico is light years away from a Fair Food Program of its own.  If last month’s events make one thing clear, it is that seeking real social justice and the protection of farmworkers’ fundamental human rights can get you killed there.  And as long as that is the case, Mexican tomatoes and other crops will be harvested in an environment that provides no real transparency, no real protections for workers’ rights, and no chance of verifiable social responsibility.  

In light of this violently abusive environment, no grocery chain or restaurant company that buys tomatoes from Mexico can afford to turn a blind eye to that reality any longer.  That is not to say that they shouldn’t buy Mexican tomatoes, just that they shouldn’t make any pretense of social responsibility when they do so.  Increasingly, the choice to buy Mexican tomatoes is one consciously made to exalt price and variety over social accountability, because the Florida tomato industry, thanks to the Fair Food Program, is light years ahead of Mexico when it comes to transparency and the verifiable protection of the fundamental human rights of its workers.  

For the sake of Mexico’s workers, one can only hope that last month’s massacre sparks a social movement equal to that of the Civil Rights movement in this country that can challenge the rule of corruption and end the senseless violence of the decade-old drug wars.  But until then, Mexican farmworkers will remain powerless to address the abuse and exploitation they face in the fields, and Florida tomatoes will be the only truly fair product on the market.

Ultimately, it was the economic power of tourism that dragged Florida into the 20th century.  The competition for the country’s growing tourist dollars in the 1960s was enough that Florida could no longer abide the shame of “Florida Terror” headlines in northern papers.  Let’s hope that competition from the Fair Food Program likewise helps prod Mexico’s tomato industry to realize that the country’s violence and corruption is holding it back, and that real, sustainable economic growth can only come with peace, transparency, and lasting social justice.